Understanding And Memory – Which Comes First?

There is a great debate in educational circles about which should come first, memory or understanding.  So when you are learning a topic should you understand it first or should you memorise the facts and then try and work out what they mean?

Because I focus on memory improvement techniques and how to memorise things faster, more efficiently and for much longer I am often challenged, by teachers especially, about understanding being far more important when it comes to learning.

Whilst I’d agree with them on one level, these very same people are often the first to complain when their students are unable to remember what they have previously understood.

So which should come first, memory or understanding?

Well I think that if this is the question that is being asked about these two important elements of learning, then we are missing the most important factor.  It is not that there should be a particular order in these two vital steps but that we reach a point that we not only understand what we have learnt but that we can also remember what it is that we have learnt.

Or if you want to look at it another way it is not only important that we remember what we have learnt, we must understand it too.

I am sure that most, if not all, would agree with that so then the question becomes more refined as we recognise that ok we need both but which should I focus on first?

The only right answer here is…… it depends.


Yes it depends on what you are trying to learn.  So really it is context dependent.

Let me give you an example.  Just recently I was working with someone from the financial services sector who is sitting examinations relating to the sale of personal financial products.  These products are heavily regulated and there is a ton of legislation and compliance regulations related to just about everything to do with personal finance.

You can’t breathe around a pension plan without consulting some document to see if you are taking in the right level of Oxygen!

Anyway as I am sure that you can imagine, the rules and regulations that even the most basic qualified financial planner must know can be quite complex.  This client of mine came to me with the problem of trying to learn something that she couldn’t make sense of.

It was only a couple of paragraphs about the taxation of contributions made by an employer to its employees pension scheme however the way it was written seemed confusing and contradictory.

Now I am not a financial planner but I do consider myself to be reasonable intelligent but when I first read the paragraphs she was struggling with I had to read it 3 times just to make sense of the language, never mind what it was supposed to convey.

So here we were faced with a classic case of needing to understand something before you can even begin to try and remember it.  What we had to do was to decipher the meaning of the words so that we could first understand it and then in the longer term be able to remember it.

I won’t go into great detail about how we did that (maybe another time), other than we harnessed the brain’s natural mechanisms and tendencies to create a very straightforward understanding of what these paragraphs meant.  It only took a couple of minutes and it was a delight to see the realisation of the meaning cross her face once she “got it”.

Once this had happened the block to learning was gone, she now understood what this paragraph meant, had a powerful brain friendly way of explaining it and now all she needed to do was to be able to memorise it.  So in this instance it was vital that she understood before she could remember.

But this isn’t always the case.

I can certainly remember many times in my training when I was in the Royal Navy when we needed to remember lots of check lists and sequences.  We used to train so that we’d memorise these lists and sequences before we ever got near to some of the equipment we were responsible for (remember I am talking about some dangerous stuff here).

It was only when we had the order and content in our memory that we could then appreciate the meaning of why we did what and when.  So here it was important to memorise and then understand.

At the moment as I am learning to speak some Russian I am finding that I am needing to memorise new words and phrases just to keep up with the CDs I am using.  This is a great way to learn new vocabulary but what about grammar and word order?

Well it has been really interesting to discover that in this instance I have relied on memorising first and then understanding.  For example in Russian there is a different verb ending depending on whether you are saying “I understand” or “You understand”.

I memorised both phrases without really appreciating the difference.  Later on after learning a few more verbs as part of useful phrases in the same way I suddenly noticed the consistent endings for the two forms of a verb across a number of different verbs.  I then had my “aha” moment and suddenly I understood but it had taken me the effort of relying on memorisation to get that.

So when you are learning something new, consider whether it will help you to understand it first before you memorise it or do you need to be able to recall it perfectly before you can make sense of it.

Whatever the situation you can only really say that you have learnt it if you can REMEMBER and UNDERSTAND it.