Coming from a student of organic chemistry, the title phrase used to incense me. It wasn’t just that I knew brute-force memorization to be an inferior strategy for learning (a fact I never hesitated to impart on self-proclaimed memorizers). I felt that these students displayed a profound disrespect for the content of the course by subjecting it to the intellectual equivalent of throwing a can against a wall until it busts open. All I’m asking you to do is pick up and study a can opener. So many students of organic chemistry are just shown open cans over and over again and expected to master how a can opener works, I would tell myself. They should consider themselves lucky that I show them the can opener at all.
The selfish bitterness in that attitude is painful in retrospect. I found myself taking a different tack when I was approached by a student after class recently. In this class I had presented the equivalent of the mechanistic can opener: ten elementary steps of polar organic reaction mechanisms shown in one fell swoop as the foundation of all two-electron organic reactivity.
So essentially I should memorize these ten elementary steps?
Breathe. I found myself avoiding my usual anti-memorization crusade: “no, you shouldn’t memorize anything in this course…” Instead, I informed her that the alternative was memorizing reaction mechanisms individually as the course progresses, which will be far more arduous than learning the ten elementary steps now. I told her that these were the key to reaching a higher plane of abstract mechanistic thinking. Against my own expectations of myself, I affirmed memorization.
I think, on some level, I accepted that this student had worked her butt off to even get to my classroom. If memorization (as she called it) was essential to that work, who am I to judge how she learns the essential concepts of the course? Memorize away, my friend. I’m guessing that if you memorize this foundational framework now, you’ll thank me later anyway. On the other hand, if success in the course doesn’t follow, that will be a much more powerful deterrent to memorization than my saying “no, don’t memorize” in an impromptu meeting after class.
Students who connect painful, challenging, or even deliberate learning with “memorization” used to grate on my nerves beyond belief. I couldn’t shake the question of how much my course structure versus those students’ intellectual backgrounds promoted memorization. What was I doing wrong that kept students from wanting to learn rather than memorize what I’m teaching? Now, I don’t worry so much. Students have diverse backgrounds. Not all of them will become chemists, or even want to, or even could want to after experiencing “perfect” teaching. My goal shouldn’t be pumping out a bunch of mini-chemists—that’s impossible! Instead, my goal should be to meet all students where they are intellectually, trying where I can to push the boundaries of their knowledge, skill, and especially curiosity.