Infomancy n. 1.The field of magic related to the conjuring of information from the chaos of the universe. 2.The collection of terms, queries, and actions related to the retrieval of information from arcane sources.

Learning != Memorizing

June 21st, 2005 by infomancy

And being intelligent and capable in the 21st century is most certainly not going to be defined by how much African geography you can memorize in four hours. So why, then, is this the basis of the new TV show, “The Scholar“?

I stumbled upon this gem of the bottom end of Bloom’s Taxonomy while flipping through weather reports this evening after finishing up some cataloging homework, and was quite unimpressed. I am not sure if the producers realize the educational message they are sending, but I hope this is just their idea of merging a game show with reality television.

The show (or what I understand of it): By performing well in real-world tasks, college hopefuls win a spot on an admission showdown where they are competing for a $50,000 scholarship and a place in the finals. Sounds good so far, I like the real-world tasks where students are assessed on their problem solving, communication, relationship, and leadership skills. Those are all attributes that are important in life. The problem I have is that the admission showdown was run like a bad game show meets standardized test.

The three students in the show down were given a topic (African geography) and four hours to memorize as much as they could before going in for the “test.” The three young women are all smart, we the viewers are told by their peers, because they “can memorize a lot very quickly.” Okay…a pretty pointless skill, but a great way to prepare to break the ice at a party in college by sharing that the capitol of Kenya is Nairobi. How much of the geography they just crammed into their heads in four hours will they remember in a week? A month? A year?!? If I forget that Nairobi is the capitol of Kenya (I learned this many years ago from Heinlein’s Friday), I can just look it up on or some other reference tool. But that is because I learned how to use a tool, instead of memorizing an answer.

I would hazard a guess that no real learning took place in those four hours. How then, is this a representative assessment for how the students will do in college? I can’t even begin to imagine what the “admissions officers” on the panel were writing as the students answered question after question with single word responses. “Hesitated 3 seconds…” or maybe “showed a great understanding of the long history and deep socio-economic issues behind Cairo being the capitol of Egypt.”

The scary thing is, in a education system driven by high-stakes testing using multiple choice forms, this program is perhaps not so far off from a high school graduation exam. I just hope this isn’t what college is turning into. I have very fond memories of reflecting, discussing, applying, and synthesizing…

A fascinating blog from an assistant director of admissions at MIT makes me think there may still be hope. I especially liked the comment from one respondant: “All of the academic tests seemed a bit weak. I’d prefer an Apollo 13-style test, where they get a table of junk and have to make a square peg fit into a round hole. ” Way to move things into the realm of infomancy!

2 Responses to “Learning != Memorizing”

  1. Tanuki Says:

    Perhaps it’s not what the students learn about Africa that’s being tested. It’s their being able to focus under stress and come up to speed on a subject quickly. This is definitely real-world, if not for college then for their work afterwards.

    For example: On Wednesday, your boss (under the illusion you are more technologically literate than you really are) assigns you to a team that is writing up the specs for converting about a hundred old HTML files with outdated coding into XML files that can be used more flexibly and dynamically, complete with style sheets. The deadline for outlining the proposal is two work-days from now (given you’ve already taken the Friday off and can’t now reschedule your appointments, and Monday is a holiday), and you now have those two work-days to come up to speed on XML and what it can do for you to the level that you can discuss the project intelligently with your IT department, who are already great experts.

    Okay, so the test now is one of not losing face and credibility with your boss and IT, and you have two whole days (minus time for the usual meetings and whatever other work you have on your desk), but is this in essence that much different from four hours and Africa? I don’t think so … (BTW, I sent the list of proposal points up to IT five minutes ago.)

    In addition, there’s the factor of testing if the students know what they should be memorizing, what the most important facts are and what is mere trivia they can look up as needed and would (or should) not be on a real college test. And, if they’re not simply handed the same handy-dandy little fact book, they’re also being tested on how well they can judge research materials to choose as their resource for this exercise. (Not being much of a television watcher, I had never heard of this show — I don’t know the details beyond what you post in your blog entry.)

    As long as the other tests are relevant (you mention “problem solving, communication, relationship, and leadership skills”), that final part is quite legitimate.


  2. Christopher Harris Says:


    I like your example, and agree that you presented a great real-world scenario for someone having to come up to speed and speak intellegently on a topic in a short time frame. But I notice that your example didn’t propose having your boss (or, one assumes, the IT department) come back to ask you: “What is the XML tag to perform a string XPath expression?” [xml:expr]. That would, as you say, be a silly test because you can easily check a quick tag library. A question you could expect might be “Why should we move to XML? What are the benefits? What are the potential dangers?”

    But from what I saw from watching one episode of the show, they asked simple fact/recall questions. What is the capitol of Egypt as oppposed to what geographical elements have contributed to Egypt’s long standing power in the region?