Memorizing for finals? There must be a better way

America lags in international education rankings, let's change the course

It’s finals time. And we all know what that means: burying your head in a book and memorizing as many facts as fast as possible to get that A. And in a few months, 90 percent of what you learned will be lost forever to the depths of space and time. In one ear and out the other, or so they say.

Is this really the best way to learn? Can we do better? With the United States finishing 36th in the annual Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s general education rankings, clearly, there is room for improvement.

For the sake of fairness, it must be noted that most of the top countries in this list were Asian (Singapore, China, etc.). Cultural, as opposed to structural, differences certainly play a large role in these students’ success. For instance, 80 percent of Japanese students say they disagreed or strongly disagreed that they put off difficult problems in school. Procrastination seems to be a part of the education culture in America; many of us wait until the last minute to do work.

With that said, is it possible to invoke the same sense of passion in Asia here? To do so, several changes need to be made in regards to how students learn. First, teachers should assign more projects, and meaningful ones at that. Taking the time to thoroughly investigate an issue helps students learn and retain information better than rote memorization. Everyone remembers projects from elementary school or junior high, but one would be hard-pressed to find students who recall specific information from their tests. Projects are also more applicable to “real life” jobs, where an employee has to gather information and put together a solution or presentation.

Another key modification could be an increased focus on interactive learning, also known as the Socratic method. Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur read a journal report by Arizona State University professor David Hestenes that found students had the same misunderstandings of physics before and after taking introductory courses. Hestenes found that they improved in understanding and answering test questions effectively, but failed at applying those teachings to real-world scenarios.

Mazur conducted a simple experiment: He gave a 10-minute lecture on a specific topic. When he began to have students apply that topic to real-world examples, they were dumbfounded. However, once he allowed them to talk to one another, within three minutes they clearly gained an understanding of the concept.

Mazur found that students are more likely to reach one another than a professor is. He concluded this was due to the fact that professors know what they are teaching. In other words, professors often do not remember what it’s like to learn their field of choice, since they know it so well and have been teaching it for so many years. But a student knows how to fill in the blanks with another student since they just learned said concept recently. Mazur is now world-known and has concluded that interactive learning triples a student’s understanding of content.

Another simple way to improve education is to increase spending on education. It’s no coincidence that states that spend more money on education fare better. Generally speaking, this is what often makes the education received in the northeast better ranked than southern states. Higher salaries attract better talent; it’s a simple component of capitalism that proves true again and again.

Perhaps we have fallen behind in education because we got too comfortable. After all, America was at the top of the world for the last 100 years. We aren’t used to having competition, but it’s coming fast. Now is the time to make some changes. As a society, the barrier between the classroom and the real world needs to be diminished. Teachers need to grow with the times, and students need to demand more of their teachers. Fill out those surveys, and fill them out honestly. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask a peer for assistance. He or she may help you more than your professor ever could.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.