The Truth About Memorization

Most teachers won’t spend time on this.

Yesterday I heard a science tutor tell a student, “Biology is mostly memorization.” Was she wrong? Well, not exactly, but…

Every time you shoot a free throw, a set of neurons are firing off in your brain. They follow a unique pattern that is only used for a free throw. Every time you do this, the neurons develop stronger connections between each other. A layer of material called myelin is formed around the neurons, creating a “path” for the current to follow in the future.

If you shoot a hundred free throws, that path gets reinforced a hundred times. After a thousand free throws, you’ll have built a solid neurological pathway. Your aim is better, your moves more precise. You’ll barely even have to think about what you’re doing.

This is true about studying science, too. But it's not the whole truth.

If you drilled your biology vocabulary every day, and that’s all you did, you would be able to memorize their meaning. Drills will help you pack a lot of facts into your long term memory. But you’ll also get bored really fast.

Luckily, you don’t have to use endless drilling to memorize. Professionals don’t need to drill. Here’s why.

Schema and the work environment

Suppose you were trying to learn the structures and functions of organelles in a specialized cell found in the kidney of a dingo. This would be a daunting task for someone who wasn’t already familiar with a eukaryotic cell.

But you already know how plasma membranes function. You know something about each of the main organelles. This new knowledge is just a variation on a familiar theme. You just have to learn a few specific new details.

In your brain, this familiar theme is a system for classifying the new information. This system is called “schema,” and as your knowledge grows your schema becomes more detailed and efficient.

Professionals have schema baked into their minds, and they have another secret as well: They work with their knowledge practically every day.

The secret to really learning and owning your knowledge is to use it

An electrical engineer  doesn’t have to memorize Maxwell’s equations. She’s using them. A doctor of sports medicine doesn’t need to spend time studying the names and locations of all the muscle groups. They’re a part of his daily routine. Important facts become second nature.

To get to that professional level, you need to deliberately build schema. The key to really learning and owning your knowledge is to use it. Here are some ways to get started:

When you’re eating, think about where the food came from. Are you eating a producer or a consumer? Are you a primary or secondary consumer? What proteins, lipids, and other macronutrients are in your food? How will your body break them down and use them?

Mentally follow your burger from the cow to the mitochondria to the Krebs cycle. How many links in that long chain do you really know?

When you’re riding a bike or playing soccer, think about the different forces at work: Gravity, friction, the impulse from your legs, etc. Apply all your scientific knowledge to daily activities.

It takes time to build schema, but once it's in place, you'll increase your learning speed by an order of magnitude.

You should still break out those note cards and drill. This will give you an advantage.

But if you're preparing for something big, like an AP exam, future science classes, a guaranteed 'A' or a career in science, you need to build schema.

Most students won’t do it.

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