View from the Classroom: Beyond the Rote

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

A few years ago, a first-year student in my Constitutional Law class, about five weeks into the semester, asked me this surprising pair of questions: “What are we supposed to be learning here?  I mean: What are we supposed to memorize?”

The questions grated me at the time.  After all, like many law professors, I didn’t expect my students to memorize anything.  I had higher aspirations: I wanted them to internalize the material—to understand our constitutional values at a deeper level, to study the evolving constitutional theory, and to appreciate the complex social and political forces that tug and pull on our Constitution, this way and that, until we reshape it.  These were ambitious goals, indeed; maybe they were too ambitious.  But for me, it wasn’t about rote memorization; it was about understanding.

The questions thus irritated and distressed me.  But I wasn’t disappointed in the student; I was disappointed in the academy.  How could we, in education, have taught this student that learning meant mere memorizing?

In truth, we do this a thousand different ways, at every stage of formal education.  For example, we teach our primary schoolers to memorize facts—math facts, history facts, social science facts—and then we administer standardized tests to check their memorization.  We teach our college students through increasingly large-class lectures in many disciplines, prioritizing memorization over the critical thinking skills that develop more naturally in small-class discussions.  We then test students in many disciplines using instruments that reward memorization—instruments like the multiple-choice exam.  In law school, we (and our commercial partners) inundate our first-year students with supplemental materials specifically designed to aid memorization, especially in first-year classes.  (And we correctly advise our law students that they’ll need to memorize on the back-end, too, for the bar exam.)  With all this baggage, it’s no wonder that my law student wanted something to memorize.

And maybe that’s not all bad.  Students need to memorize some material—that’s just the best way to learn it.  (For example, think about the basic elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, and damages.  There’s much to understand about negligence, but we can get the basic elements through memorization.)  More, memorization gives us all a sense of accomplishment and certainty; it helps us feel good about learning something determinate, something we can get our arms around.  And memorization often follows a deeper understanding: internalizing material usually means that we also end up memorizing something, even if we’re not trying.

But our formal education system too often gets this backwards.  It too often sees successful memorization as a good proxy for understanding.  It’s even convinced some of our students of this.

But we know this is wrong.  Good memorization alone is not a good indicator of deeper understanding.  And it is certainly not a good indicator of critical thinking.  We in legal education have our work cut out for us if we want to undo these assumptions and teach beyond the rote.

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