One little-known aspect of international teaching is that very few expat teachers end up learning the local language in the countries where they teach. This may vary by language, of course; I’ve heard that far more international teachers pick up Spanish than Kazakh, for example; but by and large it seems that most international teachers, regardless of where they’re stationed, do not move beyond the survival phrases of thank you and toilet? in the host country language, let alone reach a high level of fluency.

The nature of the international teaching lifestyle, where one is constantly surrounded by native speakers of a language different than one’s own, can be viewed as a natural experiment: Does living in a foreign country, immersed in a foreign language, teach you the language better than if you’d never moved overseas? Or, an even more interesting research question: Does immersion in a foreign country teach you the language better than formal methods of teaching?

In a previous post on this blog, I shared some RCT research that seemed to refute immersion learning theory, at least for adults. Such evidence (Piesche et al., 2016; Roussel et al., 2017) is consistent with my own experiences as a foreign exchange student, as well as with the experiences of others I’ve met. One of my expat friends in China, feeling completely deflated about the meager progress he’d made with Chinese after spending many years trying to pick it up in the street, decided to ditch the fantasy that immersion alone would teach him Chinese and purchased an instructional program and taught himself! During a visit to his house I was in awe of all the color-coded vocabulary lists that adorned his walls, each with tiny symbols next to the words indicating the words’ status, such as whether a word required more practice or whether the word was fully memorized. As he described to me his rather complex blend of homemade and store-bought learning materials and strategies over steaming plates of dumplings, I realized why this friend was one of the few foreigners in China to have conquered the Chinese language; It’s because he’d memorized it.

I don’t know why memorization in education has such a bad rap. I attribute many of my most useful skills, such as the ability to speak Spanish, teach the Common Core, and locate countries on a map, to the processes I used to commit facts to memory. I owe memorization strategies, including those that go under the umbrella term retrieval practice (Bae et al., 2019; Karpicke & Aue, 2015) for helping me succeed in school, including in my PhD. My current doctoral memorization routine is pretty simple compared to my expat friend in China: I highlight things in articles as I read them, I turn these into questions in an app called Quizlet, I test myself on these in spaced-out intervals, rinse and repeat. Doing this automatizes the knowledge so that it is readily available when I’m writing, in discussion with others, or brainstorming ways to improve my school.

When I work with my fellow doctoral students, some of whom struggle quarter after quarter trying to grasp the key concepts of our field, I wonder what they’re doing to make new knowledge durable and automatically retrievable. Are they avoiding the cognitively demanding process of active rehearsal and retrieval in favor of a passive review of the readings? When I work with teachers, many of whom shudder at the thought of memorization and quizzing exercises, my questions are similar; Do you think that your low students will be able to connect with the content, use new knowledge in sophisticated ways, and transfer that knowledge to novel situations if they are passively exposed to something once (such as hearing or reading) or through multiple exposures that require active information processing (such as flashcards, free recall, test generation, online quizzing games, and mnemonics)?

Why do I memorize? Because I know it is effective for study and enhancing memory (Endres & Renkl, 2015; Nelson et al., 2013; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Because I would prefer for knowledge to be automatically available to me rather than have to look everything up (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013). Instead of having knowledge be under the control of an outside source, I would like to be in control and I would like to be the source. And, finally, memorization is a starting point for long-lasting, durable understandings that empower us and transform us so that we, now experts, see the world in a whole different way.

– Zach Groshell, @mrzachg


Bae, C. L., Therriault, D. J., & Redifer, J. L. (2019). Investigating the testing effect: Retrieval as a characteristic of effective study strategies. Learning and Instruction, 60, 206–214.

Endres, T., & Renkl, A. (2015). Mechanisms behind the testing effect: an empirical investigation of retrieval practice in meaningful learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(July), 1–6.

Karpicke, J. D., & Aue, W. R. (2015). The Testing Effect Is Alive and Well with Complex Materials. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 317–326.

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183.

Nelson, P. M., Burns, M. K., Kanive, R., & Ysseldyke, J. E. (2013). Comparison of a math fact rehearsal and a mnemonic strategy approach for improving math fact fluency. Journal of School Psychology, 51(6), 659–667.

Piesche, N., Jonkmann, K., Fiege, C., & Keßler, J. U. (2016). CLIL for all? A randomised controlled field experiment with sixth-grade students on the effects of content and language integrated science learning. Learning and Instruction, 44, 108–116.

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255.

Roussel, S., Joulia, D., Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2017). Learning subject content through a foreign language should not ignore human cognitive architecture: A cognitive load theory approach. Learning and Instruction, 52, 69–79.

4 thoughts on “Why I Memorize

  1. Memorising does help in learning but to a limited extend…..for sustained retention I think one got to understand it to enable the mind to recall it when required..
    I have also resorted to memorising things which I found difficult to understand but felt that was good enough to just pass…now I do not remember much of it..
    Yes ..learning a foreign language one has to resort to memorising certain words and phrases initially but what actually help is the daily use…I have tried it with Deutsch and succeeded to some extent..
    Very well researched and expressed article..

    Liked by 1 person

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