Memorization VS Understanding: Benefits & How To Find A Balance

Memorization VS Understanding: 10 Things To Know About Each

Every day, we get to either memorize stuff like addresses, names, and phone numbers or learn new things like how to use a new application or how to raise a fish farm. While some require memorizing, others don’t.

Maybe you are a high school teacher looking forward to teaching your students a few laws in chemistry or a preschool teacher wondering how best to get pupils to know their multiplication table, or a high school student preparing for examinations, or maybe just anyone who is wondering what methods work best. 😀 

Here’s the thing. Although different, memorization and comprehension are coherent. Think of them as two sides of the same coin.

They are unique for specific purposes and in most cases, work hand in hand.

Both memorization and comprehension have their place. Hence, it’s important to know their usability and specific usage. There are some courses that test you more on memorization than comprehension (but that doesn’t mean comprehension is not required), while some courses test you more on comprehension.

Anatomy requires more memorization. For example, understanding the brachial plexus (the group of nerves that innervate your arm, forearm and hand) is not enough but you are also required to memorize these nerves and their functions.

Physiology requires more comprehension. Understanding the hemodynamics of the cardiovascular system is more crucial than just memorizing terms. Hence, the best approach is to find a balance between these two.

Here are 10 unique things to know that would help you understand each better.

1. Comprehension is long term Memory Retention

Comprehension involves a deep understanding of information. This is not just for the purpose of recalling facts but for understanding and connecting those facts to make meaningful insights and cognitive decisions.

With comprehension, the information you learn stays long term because you have used that information, connected, bought the idea and even conceptualized it.

It, therefore, sticks to memory. So, when next you are studying it’s definitely a better option to give take all you learn one at a time till you understand it.

Memorization is short term memory retention

When you forget something easily, it’s probably because the data was stored in your short-term memory — also known as “working memory”. For instance, if I have to dial a bank code to make a transaction on my phone, I’ll need to memorize that number.

However, there’s a high chance that I will forget that number as soon as I am done with the transaction. This is one thing about memorizing.

A piece of memorized information, if not understood and linked to a permanent structure, will be gone before you know it.

2. Application of each differs

Memorization VS Understanding: Benefits & How To Find A Balance

One day while I was reading, I came across an interesting story about a man who memorized the names of over 1000 men in his army?

Each time he had a parade around the team, he’d shake each soldier’s hand and call them by name. This was to him a leadership strategy that endeared him to each soldier and they all felt he cared.

Now, I would never be able to do that but he did this because he was determined. Memorizing those names worked for him. It’d be hilarious if he decided to understand each person’s name (who does that?).

Memorizing is used to hold names, mnemonics, phone numbers, dates, locations and pretty much petty details that need to be remembered and don’t require logical reasoning.

If you need to grasp something real fast, say an apartment floor number, then understanding wouldn’t be necessary.

Comprehension, on the other hand, comes in when a process or chain of information needs to be understood and requires reasoning. Actually, comprehension goes way further than just memorizing stuff.

3. Comprehension requires reasoning

Memorization VS Understanding: Benefits & How To Find A Balance
Memorization VS Understanding: Benefits & How To Find A Balance

Whenever you reason, you consciously make sense of things. You apply logic, adapt or justify practices, institutions and beliefs based on new or existing information.

It’s like having this aha moment where what you learn makes more sense to you which insights can be inferred from. It is true that sometimes while studying, you may need to start with memorization.

However, comprehension goes further to understand the why behind those facts. That way, the information makes more sense. You get to link up cause and effects and the whys behind certain occurrences.

Memorization does not require reasoning of any sort. Memorization is a word for word quotation and, except understood, remains a superficial knowledge. At the point of memorization, the facts or whatever is memorized does not make sense.

4. Comprehension is efficient for problem-solving

Every teacher, lecturer or coach gets to a point where they give their students tasks to test their knowledge of the subject.

As opposed to memorization, a student with a basic comprehension of what the problem is and what the solution is, based on garnered information, is able to find a solution.

He knows that there may be more than one right answer or approach to solve that problem and is better equipped to solve it. This gives the student an upper hand with school projects and with real-life challenges as well.

Memorized information is not efficient when it comes to solving problems

Let’s look at a situation where a student is faced with an algebraic problem. Supposing he memorized the formula without a full grasp of the algebraic principles, he may be faced with a problem where the required formula in itself is not sufficient.

Without an understanding of the problem concept and other requirements, the problem would remain unsolved and the student may be frustrated. This is where the problem with memorization lies. 

Here, the student believes there is only one way to solve a problem and doesn’t fully engage his mind to conceptualize the problem and solution. Hence, he is left handicapped when faced with challenges even in real life.

5. Learning Experience – comprehension Advances the depth of learning

I found out that whenever I understood a topic or subject really well, I was able to appreciate that knowledge. Learning becomes exciting when you become a part of it.

I could see where the teachers were coming from and I could use that knowledge to infer a whole lot more than what was taught in class. I believe you’ve had a similar experience with a subject you really loved. 

On the other hand, memorizing only deprives you of the process of actual learning. Memorization is mind-boggling and some students end up mixing up facts and forgetting them as well.

Thing is, people have different capacities for memorizing facts. Not everyone is able to grab facts in a short time and when that does not happen, learning becomes a chore.

It seems you just have to get information into your head instead of actually learning something meaningful. Hence, it is usually not recommended as the best approach.

6. Process

The retention and retrieval of information in the memory require the information to be firmly embedded within a neural network; which can be done through traditional methods of repetition and connecting new information with old information. The process of repetition facilitates the process within the brain.

Sometimes memorization is the first step towards learning. For example, when learning a formula or definition, you may need to get a grasp of the basic terms for a start. Learning is dependent on memory processes because previously-stored knowledge functions as a framework in which newly learned information can be linked.

Comprehension solidifies and activates the learning process.

When we repeatedly interact with the knowledge we have learned, our brain strengthens the existing neural pathways which embed this knowledge further within our long-term memory. It stores it and helps to connect ideas, internalize them draw conclusions and reproduce that information in a way that can be easily recalled and conceptualized.

7. Speed

Memorization saves the day most times when it comes to quick and urgent tasks and can be done in no time.

 Like I illustrated earlier about the bank transaction code that was quite urgent, I had to memorize the code, use it and forget it almost immediately. I had no intention of learning or doing any logical reasoning with it, so, memorizing was just the best option.

Comprehension takes much more time, might take days, months or just two hours of attention to a subject.

Because of how complex it is to actually link ideas up and conceptualize it, it isn’t something to do in a hurry.

8. Idea Generation

Memorization limits the ability to generate insight or creative ideas.

Ideas come from already existing knowledge in the brain if you’ve never heard of something at all chances that you will come up with an idea related to that subject is very lean. Now if you only memorized, you will likely forget as though you never knew anything about it.

Comprehending information helps you generate insights and creative syntheses

Thomas Edison was only able to invent the light bulb because he had a foundational knowledge about electron transfer, he also understood how lightning comes about when it rains. For you to fully implement an idea, you need foundational knowledge about that subject matter else you’ll just sit around and maybe only get to talk about your idea without achieving anything.

9. Conceptualization

The inability to deduce or induce is a limitation with information that is only memorized

Memorizing information is similar to being programmed as a computer without any intuition or initiative of what to do with the information or what to derive from it. Getting facts into your head and stopping at that leaves you almost unintelligent. Yes, you may get through with the grades but in real life all you’d know is that the moon shines at night without knowing the actual mechanism for which it shines. Or maybe you’ll know that but won’t be able to link that it uses a similar mechanism to that of a mirror, the concept of reflection.

With conceptualization, one can take in information and reproduce it in various ways than it was presented at first

For instance, I was discussing with my youngest sister about technology and some of its functions, what she did was mention another possible scenario for which it could be used. Wow, I was impressed, it showed that she understood really well and made sense of that piece of information. This is definitely beneficial in learning. Comprehension in fact is a major success when it comes to learning and conceptualizing.

10. Examinations

Memorizing while preparing for examinations, puts stress on the student and may have a negative impact

One of those days in mid-school I had a course material that was quite bulky. Although it was a whole lot, I really wanted to pass so I had to do every possible thing within the law. My parents weren’t the kind to give me a pat on my back for getting poor grades. Whose parent does that anyways? So I tried to memorize everything at once and sat for my examinations. Well, this isn’t a tragic story like you’d expect. Although I felt so tensed, I actually passed but with weak grades. Needless to say that I forgot everything I read about that course the moment I submitted my paper. A friend of mine had an even worse experience, she went completely blank while taking her paper and that was really devastating for her.

That’s what happens when you memorize stuff. You forget most of the time. It is so much easier to memorize a piece of information and get into an examinations hall and pour out everything and even come out with good grades but it doesn’t stay so long after that. Likewise when it comes to studying.

In contrast to memorization, what you learn and fully understand sticks better and is able to be represented during an examination in one’s own words and ideas.  A piece of information well understood stays in the brain much longer. I have had countless occasions where my lecturer asked indirect questions that tested my full understanding of the underlying principles of that subject. I had to think critically analyze the problem and implement the solution with the information I had. Again I would never stand a chance if I just memorized.

How to find a balance between memorization and understanding

1. Spaced Repetition

The best technique that consolidates both comprehension and memorization is spaced repetition which enables the brain to consolidate the information acquired.

The psychologist, Herman Ebbinghaus, studied his own memory and generated what is now known as the Forgetting Curve.

In its simplest terms, the Forgetting Curve demonstrates that after forming a memory, you gradually forget more and more of it as time elapses. This because retrieving memories is a separate process from storing them.

Fortunately, repetition potentiates neural connections and allows you to remember information more effectively.

The problem sometimes is that you have far too much information to learn. Hence, you can’t repeat every fact you need to know on a daily basis.

It becomes more dangerous when you wait till exam time to memorize the relevant information. You will also end up forgetting it a few days after exams!

However, with repeated exposure to a piece of information at increasing intervals, you can optimize memorization. You will also be able to retain the most important information in the least amount of time and build a lasting memory.

2. Use ANKI

So, how do you implement the spacing effect?

Due to the increasing amount of workload, it is very difficult to manually keep track of the concepts you want to learn.

Anki is spaced repetition software that you can download on Playstore.

Anki makes remembering things easy because it’s a lot more efficient than traditional study methods. You can either greatly decrease your time spent studying, or greatly increase the number of things you learn.

3. Use Flashcards

Memorization VS Understanding: Benefits & How To Find A Balance
Memorization VS Understanding: Benefits & How To Find A Balance

Anki and other spaced repetition software only automate the process of scheduling facts that you need to learn in the form of flashcards.

Making your own flashcards is a form of active learning. Therefore, you will learn the information on those flashcards faster and more effectively.

We’ve seen that comprehension has way more advantages than memorization. It’s the long term, it makes learning more exciting and although it takes time, it has much more rewards in the long run. Whatever knowledge you comprehend is all yours for a lifetime.

Memorization has its specific uses with quick tasks names mnemonics and basically anything you may need for a short while. However, memorization usually comes before comprehension in some cases and you may have to make do with the two.


According to Wikipedia, learning is the process of acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences. Comprehension is the ability to understand something while memorization is learning an isolated fact through deliberate effort.

Comprehension and memorization have become controversial topics as you also probably want to know the best approach to learning. In order to avoid generalizing to a fault, this article has been tailored specifically to learning in academic settings.

From my perspective, I belong to the school of thought that sees both comprehension and memorization as vital ingredients for learning. As a student or scholar, you must be able to balance the two depending on the nature of what you’re learning. Furthermore, the approach of learning by the students as introduced by the teacher affects the general performance of the students when it comes to solving problems or executing projects.

So, comprehension versus memorization! Which is the best approach to learning? Quite a number of students may support memorization while a couple of others may love comprehension. What’s your take on this? drop it in the comment section 😆 

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Post Author: Abimbola Joseph

Abimbola Joseph is a creative content developer who derives pleasure in encouraging individuals to be the best they can be in all relevant facets of life. She believes that we all have a better version of ourselves which can be leveraged to impact others and make the world a better place. Connect with me on Instagram @abimbolajoe.

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