Posted by KK on Feb 15, 2016

Knowledge, practice and NOT talent makes perfect! It is also true that no one is born with a talent to ride a bike. We all have to learn to do something. It’s how we nurture such acquired knowledge that defines our performance, not talent. We can all agree that an ideal learning environment should prioritise subject knowledge and understanding among its learners before anything else. It is, therefore, expected that once this is achieved, and a practice regime adhered to, learners would be able to recall what they have learnt and practiced without the need to resort to any memorising strategies. Daniel Willingham is right to point out that to retrieve memory one needs to have memorised quality cues about the topic. But I hope this won’t be wrongly taken as a proposition to encourage students to memorise what they have learnt, but to use it only as a tool to retrieve topical facts that were presumably, fully understood in earlier studies. But despite the said cues, to retrieve memory of what one is supposed to have fully understood can be quite difficult, especially where the learner has not been practicing what he learnt and understood sometime back. So I am in agreement with Mathew Syed that anyone can become better, and therefore prevent loss of memory, with constant practice. Personally, learning a concept and understanding fully why such a concept exists and operates as it does, and being able to practice and use it as frequently as possible, is the only way that guarantees knowledge retention. The moment one needs to memorise something, be it just cues, means that the subject was not fully understood. Unless such knowledge is needed for exam purposes only, then be assured that without constant practice one would find it difficult to recall facts at a later stage. Constant practice and setting harder challenges for yourself enhances one’s understanding and improves the brain capacity, therefore no need to memorise anything. So, why should we encourage students to memorise anything, as proposed by Daniel Willingham, when the main objective of learning is accumulating knowledge of the subject matter, and not only passing exams?

When Dan Willingham states that repeated studying does not guarantee understanding by giving an example of a coin, he seems to confuse studying with seeing or looking at something. Studying means devoting one’s time and attention to gain knowledge of an academic subject, which is what students do. So comparing studying with looking at a coin is a bit out of place. If it was a necessity for everyone to study what’s on the £1 coin, then I bet everyone would do it. One thing we have to remember is that the brain is an adaptable organ, as per Mathew Syed, and that its capacity grows proportionately with the amount of practice and effort one does and puts in to perfect his trade. That should be the message to our students.

It is well and good to teach students the best strategies to retrieve and retain what they have learnt, but emphasis should be on encouraging them to practice and devote as much time on studying what they have learnt. Doing what they have learnt would enhance their knowledge retention in the long run unlike depending too much on mnemonics, acronyms, acrostics, music and rhymes etc.


  1. Laura
    16 February 2016

    I think you make some really interesting points here KK. I wonder how much time would really need to be devoted by students for them to really gain the capacity to remember all that is sufficient with deep levels on understanding. Thinking on how many hours practice professional sportspeople put into their careers each week can we expect students to be doing this for each subject? Who knows…

  2. pepsmccrea
    19 February 2016

    Good to see you grappling with the issues raised in the video and article. I’m not 100% sure what your key points are here. Next thinkpiece, have a go at outlining your key messages clearly as well as building arguments around them

  3. Dom
    21 February 2016

    KK, I think you posed an interesting question near the end of your post: why should we encourage students to memorize anything, since the main object of learning is accumulating knowledge of the subject?
    However, I believe some memorizing is necessary in school to get fluency in solving problems. I thought about your question while I was doing some homework for PUFM and I imagined what would happen, for instance, if every time I need to divide a fraction by another one, I had to go back to the root of the matter. I was quite happy to know that all I needed to do was to multiply the first fraction by the reciprocal of the second one.
    I can still see your point about the importance of practicing and setting harder challenges, but sometimes we ask too much to our students. Learning can be quite demanding.

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