Is memorization a necessary skill for college journalism students?

I know this might seem like a click-bait headline or like I have the answer to it, but this is an honest question for my fellow J-folk out there.

The reason I ask is because I heard a number of students grousing in my writing class about a gen ed course they all are taking that requires them to do (what I consider to be) an insane amount of memorization for tests. The exams are between 80 and 120 questions each and are to be completed within two hours. They also allow no aids, such as notes or books.

Since most of my classes are skills-based, I tend to avoid multiple choice questions or exams that go this route. However, since I let the students pick their poison when it comes to in-class exams, we do have a mix of “write this” and “pick this” kinds of questions, including multiple choice. However, I let them have the AP style book and whatever notes and homework I’ve turned back to them. My rationale is that the point of this course is to help you improve your writing/editing/reporting/whatever, so learning from previous successes and failures is par for the course in our field.

However, I have plenty of colleagues who teach large pit classes with more dates and places kinds of stuff who do use the “choose A, B, C or D” kind of questions, some of whom allow notes while others don’t. Is one better than the other? I don’t know. That’s the point of my question here.

Here are a few caveats for the discussion:

  • I know some fields need memorization because looking everything up at the time in which the information is needed doesn’t work well. If you’re majoring in a language, fluid speaking, writing and reading are crucial, thus, memorization is at the core of what we do here. Also, when it comes to the medical field, I don’t want to hear my doctor or nurse saying, “I don’t know… Just Google it!”
  • I used to be of the “what if you CAN’T look it up” denomination of our field. The idea of quick recall mattered when you didn’t have an AP style book at hand or you couldn’t get to the clip files to look something up. Now, we all carry computers with us that can tell us everything we need. (And if you’re going to make the “What if you don’t have service?” argument, I’d counter with, “You’re probably going to be eaten by the “Hills Have Eyes” people, so not knowing when the Council of Trent happened is probably not a priority.”
  • I also used to be of the “You need the basics of our bible” kind of person as well. That meant a lot of AP memorization or at least knowledge of where to go in the book. I still force the kids to read the actual book in early classes so they know where stuff is or what is in there, but now everything is searchable for a reasonable subscription fee on AP. We also have dictionaries online. (It also makes less sense to memorize AP these days, since it seems like AP is changing rules at a maximum volume every year.)

What I’m looking at is the idea of forcing memorization in journalism classes and requiring gen ed classes of our majors that rely on this kind of approach to education. Is this the best path forward for our students? If so, why? If not, what should we do then?

I look forward to your thoughts in the comments or via email.

7 thoughts on “Is memorization a necessary skill for college journalism students?

  1. I’m a former newspaper editor who started teaching seven years ago. I think memorization is overused in higher education. I tell students often that researched answers are almost always better than best guesses. I primarily teach journalism skills classes, so I don’t give many tests. The AP style quizzes that I use are open book and we set aside time each week for students to work on the quiz together. This method leads to some interesting conversations, and a few friendly arguments. Former students have told me, however, that when they join a news organization they are confident in their AP style skills.

  2. For me in my General Ed Media and Society classes I do use a lot of multiple guess questions, but that tends to be on my daily current events quizzes to make sure that students are staying on top of the news. In my major classes that I teach it’s not a matter of memorization for memorization sake but it’s allowing them the opportunity to master what the basic skills are that they need to understand and practice as a journalist so it becomes second nature to them

    I adapted this speech from Professor Kingsfield in the movie The Paper Chase that I give to my classes at the beginning of every semester.

    “The study of Journalism and Media is unlike any schooling you ever been through before. I use the Socratic method here, I call on you ask you a question and you answer it. Why don’t I just give you a lecture because through my questions you learn to teach yourselves. Through this method of questioning and answering , questioning and answering I seek to develop in you the ability to analyze that vast complex of facts that constitute the relationships of members within a given society. Questioning and answering. At times you may feel that you have found the correct answer, I assure you that this is a total delusion on your part you will never find the correct absolute and final answer. In my classroom there is always another question and another question to follow your answer. Yes you’re on a treadmill my little questions spin the tumblers of your mind. You’re on an operating table my little questions are the fingers probing your brain. I do brain surgery here, you teach yourselves journalism but I train your mind. You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a journalist!”

  3. You bring up some good points, and it makes me think of others. There are many things journalists need to just know, and I suppose that is memorization. It may come from repetition. Language itself is an example. Another good example is style. How much time do you have to look up every single thing? You need to at least know what to look up. Many students wouldn’t know if statehouse is one word or two and when it is capitalized. Did you know SST is acceptable in all references for supersonic transport? Lots of details can trip you up if you don’t know what to look up.

    Another issue implied in your question is that of consistency in teaching. Sure, our teaching styles vary, but the pedagogy of a course should be consistent, at least at the same institution. I was at a university that made it a mandate. The college I’m at now is moving in that direction, although each instructor still writes his or her own courses, so the rigor and methodology may be inconsistent.

  4. Michael Hotchkiss says:

    I can see various sides of the question about memorization as part of higher ed. But I think the most important thing any young journalist can learn about memory is this: Your memory sucks. The memory of every person you will ever interview sucks. You can’t trust your memory or anyone else’s about anything. Anything you write from memory is a correction waiting to happen.

  5. All of my AP quizzes and grammar tests are open book. I tell my students that in the real world, they will always be able to look stuff up. What they must know before they graduate is what they should be looking up. If they never know that commas are an issue in AP, why would they look it up? They have to know what they don’t know. My quizzes are designed to teach them that and where to find the answers.

  6. I am not a journalist, and I don’t pretend to be, even with my 15+ years of blogging, but I will concur with those who say memorization is overrated. I work in the tech field, and where people will get an undergrad they emphasize on the industry and vendor certifications, which are all about memorization and not about practical, hands-on experience. It’s also harder to certify someone based on their experience… but anything worth doing it worth it.

  7. If you don’t remember a fact, you haven’t learned it. If you haven’t learned it, you can’t use it. If you have to look up basic information constantly, you’re likely not doing your work with any great skill. The thing is, memorization is not hard if you understand memory. There are simple systems that have been used for thousands of years, systems that allow you to memorize anything, easily and quickly. Want to memorize a full, shuffled deck of cards in about a minute? I used to do that just to amaze myself. It’s not that hard. Memorization ceases to be an issue, and becomes a useful tool – if done right. Look up Harry Lorayne. The ideas and techniques he teaches, based on ancient skills, should be taught from the first grade (along with critical thinking skills, which is another ball of wax).

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