Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Forget about Memorization

A recent article in Wired, Want to Remember Everything You'll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm, offers both a fascinating sketch of Piotr Wozniak's single-minded pursuit of memorization and all that you need to know if you want to match his incredible achievements. It boils down to this: Use Wozniak's program, SuperMemo, if you yearn to remember lots of data.

Alas for my students, however, SuperMemo probably won't help much with the study of law. As first-year students quickly discover—often to their evident chagrin—you cannot learn the law simply by memorizing it. SuperMemo might work for, say, drumming conjugations of French verbs into your head, but it won't help you figure out whether a promise to forego demanding payment of a debt constitutes illusory consideration. In that, the law resembles physics; learning the rules couts for far less than figuring out how to apply them to particular facts.

I don't know of any sure-fire way to package that sort of teaching. We law profs muddle along with a mixture of classroom demonstrations, abstract theorizing, rough rules-of-thumb, and hands-on practice. I'd love to offer my students something like a SuperMemo program for mastering the law, but I doubt that so complicated a task would squeeze into a neat algorithm.

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia, MoneyLaw, and College Life O.C..]


Blogger Jim Chen said...

Tom, rote memorization doesn't help with French verb forms. Even more than law, foreign language learning hinges on practice, application, and contextual learning. Drill-and-repeat repetition is a waste of time. Sans doute.

A good friend of mine -- one who regularly reads MoneyLaw -- often annoys the hell out of me without intending to. She thinks she is paying me a compliment whenever she lauds my "incredible memory." No. It isn't memory. It's the ability to connect things that are in fact related, even if -- especially if -- others haven't yet seen the connection.

Memorization is probably the most overrated skill in higher education, legal or otherwise.

5/07/2008 11:54 PM  

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