A student’s best ally – memory or intelligence?

Anuradha C

It’s a typical hot day in March-April. The classrooms are teeming with anxious students and prowling invigilators. The question papers are to be distributed any moment now. Students just have enough time to either chew their nails or send out a quick prayer one last time. The dreaded question paper bundle arrives, and the distribution starts.

It is crunch time now. What do you think the student relies on most at this stage, in order to sail through the ordeal? Memory recall, conceptual understanding or knowing by experience? Let’s park that thought for the time being and delve into the conundrum of human learning.

The learning process in a human life starts right at birth and never ends as long as we are alive. Early attempts to ride a bicycle is a learning. On the other hand, memorizing multiplication tables is also learning. There is a third dimension as well, of conceptual understanding. As a student, I was greatly baffled by the difference between a lunar eclipse and a new moon occurring every fortnight. After all both are phenomena that occur when the paths of the sun, moon and earth interfere. And in both cases, a part or whole of the moon is invisible to us on earth. But when I understood the difference, that Eureka moment was a lovely feeling!

Learning simply implies acquisition of knowledge. All the three examples above illustrate the phenomenon of human learning, but through completely different methods. Let’s see how educational psychologists define and differentiate among them.

#1 Rote learning – Rote learning is defined as the memorization of information based on repetition. Though somewhat maligned as an ‘inferior’ learning process that doesn’t promote intelligence, rote learning is an indispensable form of learning. Most fundamental concepts and first principles in any subject of study are learnt by rote. Consider the BODMAS rule for mathematical expressions or parts of speech in English grammar. If you don’t mug them up, how else would you learn them?

When we talk of rote learning, we see there is no mention of ‘understanding’ in it. What you memorize you can recall, but cannot comprehend or apply to similar situations. When applied as the principal mode of learning, it does not trigger higher level thought or critical thinking. As a result, we land up producing a battery of educated but unemployable graduates.

#2 Conceptual learning – Conceptual learning is a process by which a student learns how to organize information and facts into broad ideas. From these ideas, students build the knowledge and cognitive processes needed for successful problem solving. One might deduce specific solutions from general facts (deductive learning) or one might discover the underlying basic principle from situational facts (inductive learning). The operative key words in this learning method are comprehension, organization and application of knowledge.

Comprehension is the key strength as well as bottleneck of this method. If you understand the concept, then recalling and applying that knowledge is easy. However, if you are unable to understand, then this form of learning reaches a roadblock. Students often hit this roadblock. Whether it is because of poor, uninspired teaching at school or lack of interest in learning from the student, the result could be zero learning.

#3 Experiential learning – This is a process of unconscious knowledge gathering. As a consequence of performing a task, the learning of ‘how to perform the task’ is acquired as an after-thought. Formal education is limited to the literate human race. But how does the animal kingdom learn? Does a rural illiterate Indian woman who plays the effective midwife and delivers babies in the barest household environs even care about how to spell the word ‘Gynaecology’? No, she just learns and acts by trial and error; she doesn’t bother to categorize her learning as formal knowledge.

There are several life skills that fall under this category. Cooking, swimming, driving are all best learnt by experience. No amount of memorization or understanding can prepare you to handle a real life situation. Repeated practice is the only learning here.

From an educationist’s perspective, the choice of learning process has direct implications on the important questions of ‘how to teach’ and ‘how to evaluate’. It is important to first recognize one undisputable fact. None of the learning methods described above are complete by themselves. And in most cases, they are not even replaceable by another. So, effective teaching has to encompass all the three methods in the right proportions at the right time. There are some circumstantial factors that often influence which learning method is to be chosen.

The age of the learner is one such critical factor. Young children under the age of 11 are said to have super absorbent memory, although their analytical skills are yet under developed. So that’s the best age to feed in information through rote learning. Enabling children to learn as many languages as possible in these formative years is a good idea as they can memorize the syntax and semantic rules easily.

In fact in ancient India, the entire Sanskrit language vocabulary, syntax and the Vedic hymns were fed into young minds through memorization. Only in the later years, the students would learn the meaning of what they already know by heart. It’s probably our traditional strength, no wonder even today Indians are known to be the best rote learners across the academic world!

The situation where the learning is to be applied is another factor. Now let’s get back to the situation that we started off with – of the hapless student in the middle of the exam hall. In an ideal world we could argue that if one’s concepts were clear, there is no need to memorize answers. But the reality inside an exam hall is quite different. Most students rely on short term memory recall for answering questions that they have looked up just on the last day of preparation. That’s because the teachers often take a short cut too, by asking questions with fixed format answers straight from the textbooks.

However, when probing questions that challenge the understanding of the student are asked, the student is forced to think, analyze and translate their thoughts down into words of their own. This is the real test of intelligence. The final frontier is of course conducting practical examinations where students perform and demonstrate their knowledge as tangible results.

So the short answer to the question of a student’s best ally is this. A good student is one who memorizes the basic facts, understands the concepts implied by these facts and finally applies that understanding to solve real problems. You’d better make friends with all the three, buddy!

The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at anuradhac@gmail.com.

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