Monday, September 21, 2009

The art of memorization

Memorization gets a bad rap in education circles, but it remains a fact of life for students and adults in many settings: anatomy and other subjects in pre-medical or medical school; "black-letter" legal rules and terminology in law school; dates and locations in undergraduate history survey courses; the names and dates of artworks in art history courses; and vocabulary and grammatical structures in the study of world languages.

In the professional world, there is an acute need to remember names and faces: all of your networking will come to naught if you can't remember anyone's name. And if you are a K-12 teacher, you are expected to learn something like 150 new names within the first week or two of each school year.

It is helpful to approach memorization tasks as challenges requiring a clever solution rather than as pure drudgery.

As a new preservice teacher, I have worked hard to memorize every student's name in my first few encounters with my mentor teacher's classes. The kids noticed my effort, and several complimented me on it - I am convinced that it has helped me build their trust and allowed me to project an image of competence despite my lack of experience. I used several tricks: immediately addressing each student by name, using the seating chart as a crutch when necessary; memorizing names in pairs or rows according to where students sit; repeating the names as often as possible; and frequently testing myself, never allowing myself to glance past students I don't know or get away with not knowing a student's name.

I am also currently taking a survey course in early American history to fulfill a certification requirement. I will be tested later today on my knowledge of the first sixteen Presidents and their years of service:

George Washington (1789-1797); John Adams (1797-1801); Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809); James Madison (1809-1817); James Monroe (1817-1825); John Quincy Adams (1825-1829); Andrew Jackson (1829-1837); Martin Van Buren (1837-1841); William H. Harrison (1841); John Tyler (1841-1845); James K. Polk (1845-1849); Zachary Taylor (1849-1850); Millard Fillmore (1850-1853); Franklin Pierce (1853-1857); James Buchanan (1857-1861); Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865).

One's first instinct when looking at a list like this is to despair - or to fall back on that favorite excuse of students everywhere, demanding to know why one needs to learn this. I saw the list and immediately envisioned myself writing the names and dates over and over again, making flash cards, and in general wasting my time on a very frustrating activity.

But then I thought it through again and devised a strategy that enabled me to memorize the list in less than two hours:

1. Break up the task. I find it especially helpful to break it up "vertically" rather than "horizontally" - rather than memorize three Presidents at a time, memorize all of the Presidents' last names and first initials in order before even looking at the dates.

2. Memorize the last names in pairs and chunks: I had trouble with the second half of this list, so I first solidified my understanding of the first half, then remembered "Tyler-Polk-Taylor" before moving on to "Fillmore-Pierce-Buchanan-Lincoln." I then wrote the list - last names only - out from memory a few times, then waited a day and did it again. The first names are easy and can be picked up gradually as you move through the activity.

3. Having the last names and first initials down pat, I looked at the dreaded dates for the first time. Before banging my head against these, I paused to notice a few things:

-The range of dates is 1789 (NOT 1776), President Washington's inauguration, to 1865, the assassination of President Lincoln.

-Because of the safeguards for Presidential succession built into the Constitution, there has never, ever been a time in the history of the United States since 1789 that we have not had a President. Therefore, you only need to memorize the first date of every pair. The second date of each pair - i.e., the last year of each presidency - is identical to the first year of the next presidency.

-A single presidential term lasts four years; two complete terms last eight years. Are there any Presidents in the list who served less than a single term? There are only three: Harrison (1841), Taylor (1849-1850), and Fillmore (1850-1853). I memorized the length of each of these three short presidencies first.

-Only five of the 16 Presidents on this list served two full terms, so I memorized these five: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.

And that is all the information you need to memorize to complete the list! The list begins with Washington in 1789 - he served two terms, so you add eight years to get (1789-1797) - and so on.

It's a lot more fun and sensible than flash cards.