The Best Ways to Learn: Memorization vs. Comprehension
You’re in college to learn, but the number of learning styles out there are close to the amount of programs you can study and learn from. Two of the more commonly talked about learning styles are memorization and comprehension. You can probably–just by a glance–tell how they differ. You might also think that comprehension is the better of the two. I don’t like the word better in this case, though, and I prefer to just say that the two are different.
Comprehension and memorization both have their merits and downfalls as well. This post will explain the sides to both methods and help you figure out the best way to learn. You’ll likely find that you can, and need, to use both in order to be successful.
What is Memorization?
First things first, let’s define it: With the simplest of definitions, memorization is to commit to memory or to know by heart. Sounds pretty good right? It is a wonderful method and there are times that you will find yourself using it in your college course span. Here are a just few examples:
- Vocabulary Words – Otherwise known as boldface words that you automatically skip to when reading a passage or chapter. You know those words and recognize them as relevant because you assume they are important enough to be on a future test or brought up in class.
- Definitions – Similar to vocabulary words, and often combined with them, you memorize definitions. You rarely do anything else with them but know them, and often by heart. How many can you recite right now word for word from the book? I’m betting there are at least a handful in your head at this very moment.
- Processes, Tables, Images – Those fancy things in textbooks that we skip to right after reading what is bold-faced are also things we memorize. Things like the water cycle and geological time scale are often put on tests in a fill-in-the-blank format.
What is Comprehension?
Memorization doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s actually relatively easy to use, as much of it is done without us knowing it, and is certainly less cognitive work than comprehension is.
To keep up the pattern, the simple definition of comprehension is to understand something. It goes beyond knowing and reciting to actual understanding. It is usually seen as a superior level of learning, but we’ll talk about how it may not always be necessary soon. First, here are a few examples of what we learn via comprehension:
- Generic Processes – When there isn’t a fancy graph or table, and just a general process explained in a text, you have to focus more on learning so you can understand it and make your own visual example to memorize.
How Vocabulary Words are Used – You can memorize the definitions, but when you need examples of how they function in the real world, you need comprehension.
Anything on an Essay Exam – Almost any essay question will draw from your comprehension or understanding of the material in question–not what you just memorized from quickly scanning the book a few minutes earlier.
You know the general ways you use each method in every class, but you can take each a step further and use either method all the time for a class based on how much you want to learn and take out of the class. It all depends on how useful the class is and what you want to know what you are learning.
To go a step further, you could also let yourself forget the material you’re learning after you are tested over it. Why do you think students are always asking if a final exam will be cumulative? They want to know if they need to remember what they just learned or not.
In a perfect world, we’d all remember everything we learn in the classes we pay so much to take. But our brains only have so much room for long term memories. Speaking of which…
As you can already see, memory (and even comprehension) comes in stages. You can know it for a short period of time, or forever, if you decide it is important enough. As a journalism major, I’m committing what I learn in my reporting class this semester to long-term memory because I know I will need it all throughout my career and even in future classes in the next two years.
But I’m not remembering long term what is being taught in foundational classes. This because most of it is common sense and will likely not be useful to me in my life.
This is where memory and comprehension both become hardcore cognitive functions and require some serious mental effort. If you aren’t constantly reviewing and using it, you will forget it. Of those who took a foreign language (like Spanish) in high school, only a fraction of you likely remember any of it by your second or third year out of those classes. That’s because you aren’t using it actively and you’ve lost that knowledge.
To wrap it all up, comprehension is taking what you have already memorized and developing a better understanding of that concept. If you can teach it to someone else, you have comprehended it.
Try it out by teaching your roommate.