How To Memorize Without Drilling
Is drill the best way to learn something? Absolutely not, says cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who draws a useful distinction between drilling and memorizing:
“‘Drilling’ connotes repetition for the purpose of automaticity, using the technique of thoughtless repetition.
‘Memorization’ connotes the goal of something ending up in long-term memory with ready access. . . but the word does not imply anything about the technique one uses to achieve that goal.
Students might drill in an effort to learn the multiplication table, but I hope they would not. It’s hard to think many school-related tasks that would be well-served by drill. Perhaps a very basic motor skill, like a particular run when playing the guitar? Again, this would be repetition without thought.
Much more common would be memorization: activities undertaken in the desire to commit something to memory so that it is readily accessed. This would include deep processing (i.e., thinking about meaning), generating cues for oneself, etc. A student who wants to memorize a poem, for example, could try to do so by drill, but it’s a terrible way to learn something. Much better to think about the meaning of whatever it is you’re trying to remember, and tie it to things you already know.” Read more of Dan’s blog post here.
I especially like Dan’s point that drill is “repetition without thought”—but that it’s actually the thought, the deep processing, that helps us remember things!
But, Dan—if you’re out there and want to comment on this—multiplication tables might be one of the only things that I would think would be suited to drill—because there’s no deeper meaning to think about, and not much other knowledge to tie it to. Rather, the goal is simply to achieve automaticity, as you put it: to get to the point where the answer pops into your head without effort. Would Dan, or anyone else out there, care to comment?