The Common Core’s Focus on Understanding VS Memorization

Common Core's Focus on Understanding VS Memorization

There has been a definite shift in education as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks teachers, parents, and most importantly, students, to focus more on understanding, or critical thinking. This may be one of the most challenging hurdles for many students to overcome as they make the transition from the old standards of learning. With the old standards, rote memorization, or memorization and repetition of facts, figures, tables, and such, in order to recall topics was a common method for learning. Now, however, teachers must use active learning techniques, such as role-playing, peer teaching, debate, and group projects, in teaching their students, which help with meaning and understanding.

understanding vs memorization


Memorization is the skill of consciously trying to remember facts and information. It can be used for a variety of information, but it is not useful in all situations for young learners. For example, students who learn basic addition facts by memorization may be limited by the number of facts they can retain. With understanding, a student is asked not to reproduce facts and knowledge. But to form relationships between those facts and knowledge, to explain those relationships, and to analyze. For example, a student who has learned basic addition facts will be able to see patterns.

Key Shifts in Learning

Some of the CCSS’s key points include major shifts from the previous standards. These shifts will help students gain greater or deeper understanding of the topics they see each year. Along with opportunities to think outside of the box, students will:

  • Have a better focus on a smaller number of topics because fewer topics means they will be able delve into topics, rather than to just touch the surface.

  Students will no longer see a repetition of topics from year to year, but rather a better scaffold of topics from year to year that will introduce greater complexity and profundity. For example, in 3rd grade, the CCSS calls for students to learn measurements in time, liquid volume, and mass; however, in 4th grade, students focus on relative sizes in measurements and the use of the four operations to solve word problems with time, liquid volume, mass, money, and distance. This scaffolding ensures that not only will students continue to use the knowledge of the previous year, but will build on that knowledge with precision and deeper understanding.

  • Instead of learning topics at earlier and earlier grades, students will work on understanding topics, not from rote memorization, but from true understanding of the concept, as well as applying that knowledge to different situations.

  This model of learning, as described by the CCSS, requires students to understanding of concepts rather than the ability to memorize procedure. For example, although students could memorize “tricks” for solving math problems, in order to be more successful, students will need to prove understanding of concepts by applying the topic to new situations and practicing with understanding.

  • Because students must be knowledgeable of a variety of topics, they will need to read widely and thoroughly, including outside the bounds of their interests.

  Many students will find that the variety in their reading will expand as they are exposed to more informational texts, or more fictional texts. In order to prove understanding of comprehension, students will need to show, write, and speak about evidence from the texts from which they have read.

Uses for Memorization

This is not to say that rote memorization does not have its place in education. After all, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, the system by which human thinking, learning, and understanding is classified, students must have facts and data in order to evaluate or infer about other information. Some information which students often memorize includes:

  • Alphabet
  • Sight Words
  • Times Tables
  • Counting Numbers
  • Chemistry Tables
  • Basic Formulas
  • Phonics

  This means that even with the shifts in learning and a focus on understanding with the CCSS, rote memorization is important. As students develop knowledge of basic facts, data, and information, they use these details to provide supporting details to evidence based questions. In a simpler context, rote memorization can be the basis of a basic social life for both the young and the old, so students should not neglect the skill. For example, the ability to memorize the names, birth dates, and other details about a friend goes hand-in-hand with being a good friend, a fundamental part of society. Alternatively, using mnemonic devices, or memorization tricks, to memorize important dates, capitals and states, or other geographic features may help students successfully and quickly pass quizzes or tests.

           While the CCSS  has definitely leaned towards understanding and critical thinking, there are still places in the guidelines where memorization has a place. Memorization is, of course, not the catch-all of education and learning, but it can be handy tool for simple and unadorned lists. For complex theories, methods, and concepts, students should and will delve deep into the subject and be rewarded for their diligence.

 Author: Nicole Acevedo, Teacher Manager at MathWizard, Inc.

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