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Memorization Creates Context for Greater Learning

In An Unexpected Blessing of Memorization, I talked about my own experience with the incredible, mind-awakening context that committing Scripture to memory can bring. In this article, I'd like to dig in to how parents and caring mentors can leverage that same power in their own classrooms. Memorization brings both context for comprehension as well as motivation to students.

Years ago, we had a small program on Wednesday nights for the kids of parents that attended Bible studies at our church. I was talking to the group about sin. One little girl, who was perhaps four at the time, piped up and exclaimed,"Sin leads to death!" I was dumbfounded by the clarity and appropriateness of this response from someone so young. We had been using Bible Quest materials in Sunday School, and in her repertoire was Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." My efforts with that little girl and many others of her age focused primarily on simply the memorization of God's Word, but she also obviously had a clear understanding of what the Scripture was saying.

Thinking more deeply about this experience helped me to realize that the development of someone's collection of memorized knowledge, sometimes called schema, produced more than simply the ability to regurgitate information; it helped to form actual comprehension. The memorization of the words as simple information gave the student the ability to engage with the discussion intelligently. Without that foundation, she might have understood the concept, but would not have been able to articulate it in the same way. There are large bodies of work regarding schema, and you can get a deeper sense of schema theory here. The short-form version that is relevant to our discussion is this: memorized knowledge makes both memorization and engagement with similar content easier.

I would actually go a step farther and say that memorizing content can actually help to combat boredom. Too much information too quickly can actually overload our brains. Think of a time when you've struggled to pay attention to long, droning presentations, and your eyes glazed over and your ability to pay attention died a slow, painful death. The speaker was presenting too much material with no context for you as the listener. You understood what was being said, but it required too much mental energy to absorb all the information since you had no deep foundation of knowledge on the topic to fuel your interest. If children are subjected to the same situation, behavioral issues result. On the other hand, when an audience has a basic, memorized knowledge of the material being discussed, they are much more likely to be engaged and interested in what the speaker is saying.

Imagine for a moment a student that comes in to a classical classroom that has no knowledge (or schema) of the early kings of Israel in the Bible. If the teacher talks about Saul and Solomon and Jonathan and David, the student may struggle to comprehend the material or even pay attention. Now, instead, imagine that the lesson starts with the students learning an easily-remembered song in an active and fun way that also gives them basic information about the the same subject matter. I developed this song that can be set to the tune of Gilligan's Isle that gives some foundational information about the kings of the early United Kingdom in Israel, and lists them in order:

Now Saul was Israel's first king,

Then Ishbosheth, his son.

Then David, who killed Goliath,

He had five stones, shot one.

Solomon the Wisest

Built the temple while he was king.

Rehoboam was spoiled.

He did a foolish thing.

As a New Testament example, here's a poem I developed (nerd alert: it's in iambic trimeter!) to help kids remember the additional two apostles that were added after Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection:

Golgatha, place of skull.

Betrayer, Judas fall.

Matthias apostle.

Pentecost Spirit call.

Saul, chastened, become Paul.

The Gospel spreads to all.

Now, after singing the song and having fun with it together, do you think that the new student would be better able to listen to some instruction about the kings of the United Kingdom? Of course! Not only would they have some familiarity with the names, but they might actually generate some questions of their own. When the teacher talks about Saul's son Jonathan, the student might wonder, "What about Ishbosheth? Shouldn't Jonathan be the next king?" Then, when the teacher mentions Jonathan's death, that particular question reaches resolution in the student's mind, but a new question might arise. This continual asking and answering of questions represents real thinking and engagement by a student in the lesson - a process that would have been impossible if the student didn't have the memorized information that the little song provided for them.

Further instruction is not only easier, it's actually more enjoyable for the student, resulting in a motivational boost. So much for the idea that memorization creates dull and boring classrooms! I advocate reading Biblical narratives after memorizing content from the Equip Phase because of this phenomenon. But motivational benefit doesn't end with the act of memorization in the Equip Phase - it actually can help to supercharge dialectic discussion during the Empower Phase.

Teenagers often suggest that they would like to be involved in deep discussion, and I have a theory that dialectic discussion releases dopamine, making a classroom experience intense and thus memorable. However, many teenagers lack much in terms of life experience or memorized repertoire. This often means that they share their thoughts and feelings with one another in an attempt to make connections. Emotional sharing satisfies the desire for dopamine, but imagine the power of the conversations teenagers could have if they invested in the effort necessary to memorize material that they then discuss! A robust conversation between people that have solid information to bring to the table is both fascinating and satisfying for the participants.

While memorization should not be seen as an end unto itself in education, it is foundational to creating context for understanding. As an added benefit, it helps to increase the enjoyment of learning and allows for truly satisfying follow-up discussions! Because of the modern rejection of memorization as an important part of the educational process, these benefits are rarely seen in modern classrooms. But, if we foster a foundation of memorization, we can develop a tremendous context to help our students maximize their learning.

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