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How to Study Smarter: Memorization vs. Understanding

Written by Alison Ross

Photo by on Unsplash

How to study better

When it comes to ‘how to study’, I always flash back to elementary school and having to memorize all the times tables. “Nine times three is twenty-seven. Nine times four is thirty-six…”

I also had to memorize lists of spelling words. I also had to memorize facts about the pioneer days (did anyone else have a Grade 3 teacher who showed them Little House on the Prarie episodes?).

When I went to middle school in Grade 6, learning changed. It was no longer just about memorization. The focus shifted to critical thinking. We didn’t just memorize math formulas, we applied them to word problems. We didn’t just memorize dates in history, we discussed why the events mattered. There was a clear focus on learning how to think and learning how to learn.

Look around the world and you’ll see how different countries approach this topic. For example, China empahsizes memorization, linguistics, and standardized testing as a route to understanding. Conversely, Finland focuses on small classes with broad guidelines so teachers can focus on individually guiding each child and showing them how to learn, not how to take a test.

In my experience, Canada, which apparently has the fifth best higher education system in the world, seems somewhere in between China and Finland. You need to combine memorization and understanding to succeed.

Here are some tips for how to study better that helped me combine memorization and understanding to prepare for tests.

1. Go to your professor’s office hours.

how to study with professor

If you’re struggling to understand course content, it helps if you can have a constructive discussion with your professor. And don’t be nervous around your professor. Most professors are eager to help if you seek them out.

2. When it comes to formulas, remember them right away.

how to study memorization

If your math prof teaches you a formula, memorize it ASAP. If you wait until the day before the day before the test to memorize it, you won’t be able to practice it enough to truly understand it, let alone master it.

Spend time working on math every day. It will help you become familiar with the concepts, definitions, and theorems. Math requires practice, practice, practice.

3. Refer to past tests.

how to study past tests

Most universities have a resource where students can look at the past tests for many courses. Professors don’t always reuse past tests, but past tests give you examples of multiple choice and long answer questions. Simply repeating a fact in your head over and over (please tell me I’m not the only one who does this) doesn’t exactly simulate how you’ll need to apply that fact in an exam. Past test questions are a great way to practice before the exam.

4. Remember names, not dates.

I took a few English and history electives at uni, so I often had to learn the names of historical figures and literary characters to prepare for tests. My notes were also full of dates. No, I wasn’t getting asked on dates (I wish), I was writing down the dates of historical events and years of publication.

But when the test came along, I was almost never asked for dates. Sure, I had to know the decade or era when shit went down, but I rarely had to know the day, month and year when shit when down.

Even though dates didn’t matter when I was writing tests, names did. I would lose big marks if I thought Truman Capote wrote A Streetcar Named Desire or King Harry the Tenth separated England from the Catholic Church. It’s important to show that you can recall the specifics of course content.

5. Remember why you’re at college/university in the first place.

It’s no secret that post-secondary is expensive as shit. The average student debt in Canada in 2017 was $22,084. You want to make use of your money while at college/university. Don’t just regurgitate information and forget it as soon as the test is over. Spend time thinking critically about what you’re learning and how you can apply it to your career.

READ MORE: My Notes are Better Than Yours: The Student Guide to Expert Note-Taking

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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.