What Should Students Memorize and What Should They Google?


© Marion Fayolle


In this New York Times article, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia) pushes back on the notion that because students can find pretty much any piece of information online, there’s no point in having them memorize stuff. Google is certainly good at finding information, says Willingham, but the human brain is superior in four ways. For starters, it can quickly determine context and decide if a particular word is the right one for the situation at hand. For example, a student might Google meticulous, find that it means “very careful,” and write, I was meticulous about not falling off the cliff. Context and background knowledge supply what an Internet search cannot.

Second, in many situation our brains are faster than Google. Retrieving a memorized piece of information – for example, 4 x 9 – is much quicker than opening a browser and accessing the times table. In addition, when students go to the Internet for information, they can lose the thread of solving a problem. That’s why the National Mathematics Advisory Panel advocates “quick and effortless recall of facts” as essential to math proficiency. Speedy recall is also vital to reading comprehension. We read best when we know at least 95 percent of the words in a text. “Pausing to find a word definition is disruptive,” says Willingham. “Online, the mere presence of hyperlinks compromises reading comprehension because the decision of whether or not to click disrupts the flow of understanding.”

Third, our brains are adept at functioning with partial information – for example, we have the idea of someone who owes money but not the word (debtor). We store the meaning, spelling, and sound or words in separate areas, which is why it’s possible to recall one without the others. “Good readers have reliable, speedy connections among the brain representations of spelling, sound, and meaning,” says Willingham. “Speed matters because it allows other important work – for example, puzzling out the meaning of phrases – to proceed.”

Finally, the brain has a built-in self-improvement function. Every time we retrieve something from memory or use a skill, the connection becomes more robust and the information or skill is easier to access next time. That’s why quizzing yourself is the best way to study for a test, and why using GPS will not help you remember your way around an unfamiliar city if at a later date you have to navigate without GPS.

For these reasons, says Willingham, “It’s a grave mistake to think Google can replace your memory. It can, however, complement it, if we keep in mind what each does best.” The Internet is clearly superior when we need to quickly find arcane or not-

worth-remembering information. A rule of thumb: we should commit to memory the facts that we will often need to access quickly – the sounds of letters, core vocabulary, important science, health, and history facts, times tables, the quadratic equation – while taking advantage of the Internet to find random stuff, widen our knowledge and skills, and continuously broaden our memory bank.

“You Still Need Your Brain” by Daniel Willingham in The New York Times, May 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/opinion/sunday/you-still-need-your-brain.html