A letter to the teachers of English: 55The weaknesses of memory [Archives:2004/762/Education]

August 9 2004

Dr..M.N.K.Bose ([email protected])
Associate Professor of English,
Faculty of Arts, Ibb.

Dear Fellow teachers,
If I ask a hundred teachers 'which is better to develop in your learners, memory or understanding?', I am sure, ninety of them will say 'understanding' (this is what my students and student teachers say, at least). But what most of them do in the classroom while teaching orin the examinations while testing is to develop memory. This has been the practice for ages; knowingly or unknowingly, most of the questions we ask our students enable them to sharpen their memory rather than understanding.
One of the obvious reasons why we ask 'memory questions' more often in our classes and examinations is that they are easier to frame than the other questions; they require less time and less effort to prepare. As one of my colleagues once pointed out, they can be prepared while a teacher is on his way to the college sitting on the college bus on the day of the examination. But how good are they as a means of achieving the objectives of teaching and learning?
I am not against 'memory questions' at all; I am aware of the benefits of developing good memory in our students and the role played by these questions in this process. On the other hand, I am definitely against 'memory questions only'. There is a place for memory questions, for instance, to test the facts, definitions, values and generalizations. These questions should be limited to a small number in our examinations and questions requiring other kinds of thinking such as translation, interpretation and evaluation questions should find a place in our examinations, if we want to do justice to our learners and to achieve the objectives of teaching and learning.
Memory questions can be reduced as the students go up in their educational ladder; they can be avoided, if possible, at the college level. The adult learners will find them boring and uninteresting, if they really compare them with the other kinds of questions, which will be more challenging to their intellect. The problem is that some of us, who are careless, do not expose them to the other kinds of questions at all and so they tend to favour these questions.
Psychologists point out the following three weaknesses of memory. First of all, the inevitably rapid rate of forgetting. Numerous studies show that memorization of facts and generalizations has limited longevity. In a study conducted in America, it was found that high-school students, in a test given immediately after they read a four-page pamphlet, retained an average of 54.6 percent, but one hundred days later they remembered only 23.4 percent. A similar study showed that college students retained an average of 62 percent from a lecture in immediate recall but only 24 percent after eight weeks. Secondly, memorized knowledge does not necessarily represent a high level of understanding. This is evident in the fact that most of our students who get very good marks on memory-based tests fail miserably when they face interviews or similar situations. Thirdly, the more attention on memory, the less attention on other intellectual processes learned through practice in classes. A student best learns to deduct the answers to questions only through practice in deducing in the classroom.
We, the teachers are the only source of help for our learners and if we desert them by our carelessness, they are left with no one to help them. Let's think for a while and do the best to our learners.
Yours fraternally,