Although I try to stay anonymous in this blog, I’m going to give away a little bit of intel on myself: sometimes I teach at a university, and I’ve been doing that for redacted years. One thing that I’ve noticed is that sometimes I will assign something and the students will say “But that’s just memorization” — as though this magic incantation forever banishes the assignment to the netherworld of bad ideas.

“Well,” I reply, “memorization is just another term for learning something” — and this, IMHO, excellent retort is met with blank stares. In the United States, students are actually taught that remembering things is bad! Remembering is just the ugly step-cousin of the devil of all education theory: rote memorization (click here for dramatic sound effect).

Memorization is just another term for learning something.

Well, imagine this: you’re wheeled into an operating room and, just before they put you under, you have this conversation:

Surgeon: “Okay, we’re going to take out your appendix.”

You: “No! It’s my gall bladder!”

Surgeon: “Oh, that’s right, I always get those mixed up — count backwards from 100…”

(Click here for dramatic sound effect)

In this world where “google” is now a verb, we tend to think that memorizing things is pointless. But let me tell you a quick story which maybe you can use in your own life…

My second semester calculus course in college (yeah, I’m one of those freaks) was taught by an older gentleman whose entire method of instruction went like this:

  1. Shuffle into the room.
  2. Open notebook on lecture.
  3. Flip to last bookmarked page.
  4. Turn to the board and write three boards worth of calculus.
  5. Step back and — never facing the students — read the blackboard to us.
  6. Erase the blackboards.
  7. Continue with step 4.

Clearly, not the best way to learn calculus. However, I started to realize that most of the task of this course was/would be deriving integration formulas from base principles. So, I decided that I would just memorize them all. Okay, there are literally infinite integration formulas, but pragmatically there are only — as I found out — about 800 of them. And, each of them looks something like this:



So,  this was going to be quite a task. However, I had developed a strategy to memorize things (which, BTW, I later used to memorize all the words on the GREs), and so I was pretty confident that I could do it.

When it came time for the final exam, I completed the exam five separate times within the allotted time frame — all while my fellow students were weeping and gnashing their teeth. I did the exam over and over again to make sure that I hadn’t made any small calculation errors and, of course, got 100% on it.

Am I gloating? Well, yes, but that doesn’t change the point of the story: Sometimes there’s just no substitute for knowing the answer. Student will often ask me before a test if the test is hard; I always reply: Not if you know the answers.

Sometimes there’s just no substitute for knowing the answer.

And so, with all this in mind, I offer the following algorithm for memorizing a stack of stuff. Note that this is not magic; you have to start at least a week or two before the exam or whatever (the length of time you need is of course dependent on how many things are in the stack). Caution: Do not dismiss this after reading the first few lines because “I already know this” — the key to it working is the reinforcement intervals.


The “key” side of the card is the item to be learned (e.g., the vocabulary word); the “response” side of the card is the explanation (e.g., the definition of the vocabulary word).

  1. Draw five new cards from the top of the stack.
  2. For each card, look at the key side and paint a picture in your mind of the word. For example: If the key word was SUMMIT, you might think of a mathematician adding up baseball mitts (summing the mitts).
  3. Next, look at the response side of the card and add something about the response to the picture that you already have of the key. For example: If the response side of the card said “the top of a hill,” you would think of the mathematician counting baseball mitts on the top of a hill.
  4. Complete steps 2 and 3 for all five cards.
  5. Shuffle the cards.
  6. Go through each card, looking at the key side and replying with the response side. If you get it wrong, put it in a pile to your left; if you get it right, put it in a pile to your right.
  7. When you have done all 5 cards, pick up the pile on the left. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until all the cards are on the right.
  8. Take the five cards and put them on your “done” pile.
  9. If there are more than 5 cards on the “done” pile, do the following.
  10. Shuffle the cards.
  11. Go through each card, looking at the key side and replying with the response side.
  12. If you get it wrong, write a small slash (/) on it and put it in a pile to your left.
  13. If you get it right, put it in a pile to your right. If this is the FIRST TIME through the “done” pile on this particular day, cross off one of the slashes. If there are no slashes to cross off, put it on the “memorized” pile.
  14. When you have done all of the cards, pick up the pile on the left. Repeat steps 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 until there are no more cards on the left.
  15. Add five cards in this way each session; every fifth session, do the following instead:
  16. Shuffle and go through your “memorized” pile.
  17. If you get any wrong on the first pass, mark them with a slash and put them back on the “done” pile.
  18. Repeat steps 10, 11,12,13,14,15.

If you want to remember these things forever and not just for a test, repeat the process for the entire deck once per week for six weeks, then once per month thereafter.

This method can be used for memorizing anything from french vocabulary to calculus formulas. And maybe — just maybe — we can resurrect the notion of actually knowing things ourselves and not always having to ask “Dr. Google.”