Public Service message: Aargh! edition

Listen, if you have children who are in school, would you kindly teach them effective memorization techniques now so that they have those skills available when they are in college?

I mean brute-force, no-frills, straight-up rote memorization.

Quit worrying about critical thinking so much and teach children how to effectively and quickly memorize a decent number of facts. Also, they need to be able to tell whether they know something or don’t know something.

If they can put memorized facts into a framework of broader knowledge, great.

They can think critically about information only if they have the information in their heads so that it’s available to think about.

This Public Service Message brought to you by a good number of General Bio students who apparently just cannot sit down and memorize the basics of the steps of mitosis and meiosis, or the three basic things mitosis is for vs the one thing meiosis is for.

I really thought this test would be better.

One student who is trying hard to improve her scores is effectively doing so. Whatever she’s doing, it’s working. But other students who are definitely trying to improve their scores aren’t succeeding. Why not? Because they can’t memorize a small amount of basic material. This is most likely either because they just have no clue how to memorize stuff (even though I have explained multiple techniques that will generally work) or because they can’t tell whether they can recall information out of their own head versus recognize or understand it when someone else explains it (even though I have explained that this is a common problem and how to avoid that problem).

Another possible problem is sheer reading comprehension. Maybe some students can’t answer questions because they don’t understand the question when they read it. A lot of students are answering “What are the functions of mitosis?” by telling me something about mitosis that is true, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the functions of this process.

A third reason, of course, is total refusal to read the textbook OR go carefully over the powerpoints OR ask me questions outside of class.

The students who ARE asking me questions outside of class are tending to do better, which is not astonishing. The two students who got As on the most recent test also stayed after class yesterday when I said I was staying in the classroom to answer questions for anyone who cared to stay and work on genetics assignments at that time — a time that I know their schedules are clear because the class didn’t officially end as early as I ended it.

Regardless of the various reasons — I know one girl’s dad has cancer — he is my age, btw — anyway, regardless, this is very frustrating for me. I can’t imagine the students are very happy about it either. If they had learned effective memorization techniques AND that sometimes you are going to have to sit down and spend an hour memorizing stuff you don’t care about, I’m pretty sure most of the students who are struggling would be doing better.

Next up: I handed out a genetics checkpoint — not a quiz, but a thing taken like a quiz, worth participation points and extra credit. I want to see right now whether any of the most basic stuff about genetics is sticking. I mean, the first question just asks: identify the following two-letter genotypes as homozygous, heterozygous, or nonsense. I would really like everyone to get this sort of thing right because if they don’t get this very basic stuff, they won’t be following anything right now.

Update: The student who emailed me to tell me she didn’t understand anything about genetics pretty much doesn’t. Most students are doing better, but some have not figured out that each gamete must have ONE allele of EACH type, which is absolutely key.

One student said that an AB genotype could be nonsense OR codominance, while an ab genotype was definitely nonsense. I wrote many happy little comments next to that perfect answer, which I did not expect anyone to give me.

Please Feel Free to Share:


24 thoughts on “Public Service message: Aargh! edition”

  1. You might be aiming a little high. Many kids (and adults!) can’t even make change. However, I guess if you are teaching college classes, you have the right to expect a little more than that.

  2. Alison, do NOT get me started on the total inability of grade schools to teach basic arithmetic. How to totally cripple the ability of students to go into one zillion careers: this.

  3. In my first Biology class in college, I was faced with this question:
    T|F: If your parents didn’t have children, you won’t either.

    Apparently, some people had problems with that.

    My O. Chem professor actively encouraged the scattershot approach to answering a question. So long as there was something in the response that was remotely related to the question, he’d give the student credit, even if they didn’t actually answer the question itself. So perhaps your students had someone like him before you?

  4. I have no advice, just 100% commiseration. I teach Intro to Japanese at the undergrad level and the number of students who cannot memorize vocab or the japanese writing system is both surprising and frustrating. So even if they can grasp the grammar, they can’t use it in a sentence or write it down because they haven’t (can’t? Aren’t willing to?) memorized the basic building blocks of WORDS and LETTERS. I would love to do more creative and challenging things with my students—things I remember doing at their level—but it’s almost impossible when they have to constantly refer back to the textbook for basic facts. Then they do poorly on the tests because they can’t write the correct answer in Japanese.

    I also think that COVID has made things a lot worse. A lot of the students also lack basic life skills like managing their schedule or taking care of their health, which inevitably affects their learning (to be fair, maybe college students have always been bad at that).

  5. Evelyn, I’ll give a point or two of credit for true but irrelevant answers, so I agree that it’s better to put down something than nothing. But it’s definitely better to be able to read the question and answer the question that is being asked!

    My policy this semester is that, for essay-type answers, a correct answer gets full credit, but an amazingly great answer gets more than full credit. Lots of individual students have picked up extra points by providing a particularly complete answer that went beyond what I’d really hoped for OR, in design-your-own-experiment questions, for showing evidence of real thought even in a direction I hadn’t meant at all.

    Also, I’m tempted to ask that specific question just to see what they all make of it.

  6. Marie, I agree that Covid has probably had an effect. The Gen Chem instructor tells me that students were just refusing to turn in any work at all last semester (and they were all going to flunk). I’m glad to say that most of my students are in fact turning in work. I’m assigning LOTS of small things to be done outside of class to help the students, both by making them pause to think about something or to offer a chance for extra points in a non-test situation, or both. The majority of students are turning those in, and it’s really helping some of them.

    But I don’t remember seeing so many students, including students who seem pretty motivated, be so unable to memorize quite small amounts of material. That was maybe 15 years ago, so lots of stuff other than Covid is probably playing a role.

  7. When we were homeschooling, we were part of a classical education co-op that taught straight-up memorization for the lower grades, and didn’t get into explaining and expanding upon facts until the middle and upper grades. It was frustrating at times, because both of my kids got so bored by the rote memorization, and I’m not sure I would whole-heartedly recommend it as a teaching method across the board, but I have to say I’m thankful for it now, because they are both able to memorize facts given to them in school now, and they still remember a lot of random stuff from those younger years thanks to the memorization. (The co-op also used music to aid in memorization, which means ALL of us have a tendency to break into the timeline song, or Latin conjugation songs, or the eight parts of speech song, at the drop of a hat.)

  8. I’ve also been observing a deterioration in reading or watching comprehension, when I look for discussions of books or movies I’m interested in. There are far more “I don’t get it” complaints for things that I think are comprehensible. Some of it I try to put down to me being a life long SFF reader, so being used to reading material dumping me in at the deep end. But there’s so much, and so many people turn up with the same questions. It’s discouraging.

    I learned memorization pretty young, I don’t remember how, except a certain amount of repetition. Could you point to methods, or summarize them at some point? I’m curious.

  9. That’s kind of hard-core, Louise. I don’t think I’d recommend NOTHING but rote memorization at any grade.

  10. Speaking of critical thinking in mathematics… It turns out that first grade is not a good time to learn the number line. My immediate reaction: “where is negative zero?” And I just did not get it til a year or two later, despite the best efforts of my parents–both with degrees in math.

  11. Unfortunately, the educated teach their children and don’t leave education to the schools, and the uneducated don’t know to, perpetuating our two tier system that is only worsening with time, and that covid only accelerated. Even if our elementary schools do a poor job of teaching math, lots of parents I know (and we did this too) sent their kids to kumon. There’s no way to fix this. I admire your teaching ability, Rachel!

  12. Pete Mack, I may be remembering this wrong, but I seem to remember having trouble with limits for something of the same reason. Approaching zero from two directions, or something like that, did not really make sense to me.

    Alison, I’d homeschool if I had kids, no question. I’d move heaven and earth to make it happen. I just do not trust schools to teach arithmetic or reading. Too often, the first moment the child gets behind turns out to be the kiss of death for that child’s forward progress. I agree completely that this is causing serious systemic problems, as you indicate.

  13. Different cultures, different takes on school learning.
    Though some memorisation as well as some reasoning ability is necessary for everyone, a lot of people are better at one or the other, and the same kind of learning does not benefit everyone equally.

    I was fairly good at learning languages at school (except Greek), but could not memorize lists of words however hard I tried. My brain needs some context to recognise them, so I could learn them by putting them into sentences, but that was not how the tests were done.
    After many bad grades for simple word-list tests of stuff that I really knew but couldn’t reproduce in that testing format, my mum (herself a teacher of French) talked to my French teacher and I was allowed to do a lot of extra work, reading 50 pages of a French book the teacher assigned for each installment of the word-list, and then having to translate any random word she pointed to in those pages, and given an extra vocabulary-test grade for that, which cancelled out the bad grades from the word-list vocabulary tests. As I always did well on all the other big tests, reading comprehension, fluency etcetera, that allowed me to get a good enough grade overal.

    In the Netherlands, there are 3-5 types of High school, for kids from almost 12 years old, leading to different kinds of schooling and career choices.
    In the last year of primary school kids mostly take a national test, and the teacher gives their advice, as to which of the three main schooling lines seems to suit the child best.
    Kids can move up or down a step during their highschool years (mostly after the first year, or sometimes after ending one level they’ll go on to the last 2 years of the next higher one) if they show more aptitude or less will to learn than expected, and many high schools have first year classes that combine kids from 2 different levels to give them more mobility options.

    The VMBO/MAVO school lasts 4 years and prepares kids for vocational colleges (MBO, 3 years) or a combination of apprenticeship training and learning, and those schools are much more focused on memorization.
    This is supposed to be the easiest level, for kids who are not that good at schoolwork, are better at working with their hands, or prefer a more active job to an office job in their future. Though I’m sure with my trouble with memorization I’d have had a much harder time with this learning style than with the supposedly much more difficult VWO, which just fit the way my brain works a lot better.
    The HAVO school lasts 5 years and prepares kids for college (HBO, 4 years) or vocational college. It’s the intermediate step.
    The VWO school lasts 6 years and prepares kids for university (4-6 years) or college; it can be further divided into Gymnasium (includes Latin and/or Greek) and Atheneum (either no classical languages, or only Latin if there is no Gymnasium within a reasonable travel distance). This school has a very limited focus on memorizing, much more on reading comprehension, making connections, developing insight and reasoning abilities.

    Sometimes I wonder how well or badly I would have done in a school system that is not set up to accomodate these different learning styles but sends all kids to the same highschool, and suspect I would not have done very well at all. It would probably been very frustrating for both me and my teachers, (as my French teacher definitely felt, and as you feel with some of your students), that I kept on failing at stuff I had studied on really hard and that I knew when I had to use it in a practical way, e.g. in reading comprehension rather than word-list tests.

  14. Responding to Evelyn M. Hall’s story
    “In my first Biology class in college, I was faced with this question:
    T|F: If your parents didn’t have children, you won’t either.

    Apparently, some people had problems with that.”

    My first thought was: if my parents didn’t have children, I wouldn’t exist. But then my thoughts go in two directions:
    1) if I don’t exist I can’t have kids – simple answer, the supposition is true.
    2) But… the question really supposes that I exist, as it is clearly directed at me, as an existing person who can answer a question, and it relates the parents in question to this person. So that has to be taken into account.
    If I exist, but my parents didn’t have children, the simplest way to reconcile that is by supposing that my parents are my adoptive parents. I.e. the people I consider my parents, who raised me, didn’t have biological children, though my biological parents did have me. (More exotic scenarios with a test-tube embryo and host-mother or replicator could also work but aren’t necessary).
    The fact that my adoptive parents didn’t have kids is irrelevant for whether I will have kids or not, so the supposition is false.

    The Mavo-type literal thinking kids tend to go for answer 1, the Vwo-type thinking kids who tend to see connections and implications, and read between the lines for subtext, might well go for answer 2, unless their experience has taught them that the teacher expects the first simple answer. If they have to explain their answer, this reasoning will surface; but if it’s just a yes or no tickbox the kids who don’t think in the way that the teacher expects will get marked down.

    Both answers need the kid to accept a (likely) counterfactual regarding the core of themselves for the duration of answering the question, either that they don’t exist or that they were adopted. For very literal-thinking kids, who haven’t learned to play what-if and speculation games and grown up immersing themselves in fiction, that is hard to do. In a younger kid, maybe one with a touch of autism, that too could be a source for the problems with answering that question, though by college age, even a kid on the Autism spectrum has probably learned to do so.

  15. As a part-time piano teacher, I can attest that memorization is key to learning anything well, but you have to give students context for what they’re memorizing or they won’t bother. I teach the circle of fifths, five finger exercises, and scales at the outset, no matter what their lesson books say. Those who can memorize those will learn the rest of music theory much faster, and see patterns in written music that those who don’t bother never will.
    Memorization is an important skill that has been ignored over the last few decades, sadly, because it’s not glamorous or exciting. It is, however, foundational to learning things well.

  16. When I was in grad school, my favorite bit of feedback I got in a student’s eval of me as a teacher was “she’s nice, but sometimes she wants us to know stuff, and I wish she would just tell us the answer.”

    Re: home vs public schools, we live in a good school district, but it’s still fall and I’ve had to discuss my issues with the lesson plans with my second grader several times. Most recently, they watched Inside Out with a substitute teacher, and afterwards did an exercise where they brainstormed different emotions (reasonable start), then sorted them into “positive” and “negative”, which totally misses the whole point of that movie (the importance of seemingly “bad” emotions like sadness).

  17. I would have been pretty aggravated as a student if faced with that T/F on children, and likely would have refused to answer it. If it was a written test, I might have written in the margin that it was a non-sensical question as the assumed predicates in the first and second parts are contradictory (first part – assume your parents did not have children; second part – assume you exist anyway). In my opinion this is a variation on the “have you stopped beating your wife?” type questions

  18. Hanneke, and Allan, I’m a firm believer in intelligent, coherent answers getting full credit. The question about parents having children is entertaining to me. If students think, What the heck? And then answer it in any coherent way, arguing in a way that makes sense for T or for F, then that’s great. Saying firmly that the question is nonsensical because of any coherent argument would be fine.

    Hanneke, I doubt very much that if you needed to memorize the six things that happen during Prophrase I of meiosis, that you couldn’t. But this is why I have both essay and MC questions — in case I’m wrong. I do have one student who does FAR better essays than multiple choice. The labs provide some hands-on stuff, but so far I have NEVER seen a student do great at lab stuff while blowing the lecture tests. I’m not saying that can’t happen. I’m sure it can. I’m saying that the lecture tests are really not that hard.

    You might really prefer this genetics section, though. It’s filled with “And now try it yourself!” problems with relatively low memorization.

  19. Elaine, I missed your comment at first, so:

    Make a master copy that has key terms to one side, sorted out by subject, one subject per page. Note that practically everything falls into one of the four following categories: term/definition or list/items/details/ or person/what they did or process/flowchart. The left side of each of those sets is a “key term.” All the details go on the right side. This is like T-Notes except with three spaces for list/items/details.

    Put absolutely everything in plain English, your own words, paraphrasing as you go and never writing down anything you don’t understand.

    Now make three to five blanks that have the lefthand key terms but are otherwise blank. Fill out everything else. If the page stays blank, you don’t know anything, but that’s fine. Refer to the master copy as necessary. Throw the first blank away after it’s filled out. Do that again. Do that again. By the third time, you should have almost everything in your head, and you should be able to tell because the blanks fill up with words that mean the right things. There’s no need to memorize exact phrasing (usually). Sorting everything out so it’s one topic per page prevents the material from falling into a Trivial Pursuit game of jumbled details that have no framework.

    Paraphrasing into plain English means you only have to figure it out once AND that you must have understood it (or understood something). Repetition with writing gets material in your head much faster than reciting. Focusing on writing something true rather than exact-word definitions means you can recognize whatever the instructor says because you haven’t memorized only exact words, but what things mean.

    Taking notes in outline form and then using the above to memorize is the quickest and most reliable way I know of to memorize lots of stuff. Except:

    For anything that involves pictures and labels, such as memorizing all the bits of the femur in the nurse’s anatomy class, you need multiple unlabeled pictures, which you repeatedly label and throw away.

  20. Rachel–
    You are coreect.

    By propositional logic either answer is true. (If 1 = 2 then the moon is made of blue cheese is TRUE.) Formally, F => T. It’s really not a question suitable for a biology test. Plus of course: what if you’re adopted?

  21. Thanks, Rachel.
    I rarely write, using repetition instead. When I do write for memorization it has to be handwriting, not typing. Typing can go through the fingers without stopping at the brain to be noticed, so to speak.

  22. I teach English and Spanish as foreign languages and so many students can’t memorize vocabulary or have no basic reading comprehension skills even in our mother tongue.

    Also there’s this trope in fantasy novels that the heroes never finish their education and this often makes them more creative than the educated/qualified ones who are stifled by their learning and don’t really have original ideas…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top