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On the Relationship Between Memorizing and Understanding
All throughout studying Computer Science in undergrad, I believed memorization was orthogonal at best, and actively detrimental at worst, to actually understanding something. To me, if understanding was like having a painting conjured in my mind, then memorizing facts was akin to having vector coordinates of the lines making up the painting stored somewhere:
Thus, if I truly understood something, it should be fairly trivial to derive the relevant “lines” from there and remember everything I needed to. On the flip side, just memorizing a collection of facts was not enough to guarantee true understanding.
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Throughout undergrad, I aimed to understand concepts first in broad strokes and with a generalized focus, followed by more specific details (an example — when learning about different search algorithms, I found that after I conceptually understood the goals behind these algorithms, ironing out the specific details and implementation would be straightforward).
This mental framework worked well throughout my time studying CS. However, over my time in med school — particularly the first and second years, which had a heavy emphasis on knowing minute pharmacological and physiological details — I’ve started thinking about the role of memorization in understanding something differently.
As a med student, I tried following this same approach for the first year and half, but ran into several obstacles and struggled with feeling as if I properly “understood” concepts. Even if I could retain a very high-level understanding of a particular concept, there were so many lower-level details which interacted with the overall system in a myriad of ways that taking a top-down approach and gradually adding more levels of details to my understanding turned into a convoluted jumble of ideas I couldn’t retain (a prominent example from my first year being the process of glomerular filtration). Given that this approach of understanding was how I had spent the vast majority of my undergraduate and master’s degrees learning, I kept at it (maybe a little too stubbornly, in hindsight), seeing if there was maybe a little more intuition I could squeeze out before delving into the details.
I gradually realized that for my understanding of many medical concepts, a memorized collection of facts were atomic (relatively speaking) underpinnings upon which I could build a solid understanding of overall systems — completely opposite to how I viewed memorization previously.
If understanding something was like having a painting put up in my mind, memorized facts were little hooks on which the painting was hung:
A collection of memorized facts (I, like many other medical students, use Anki to load up these facts into my brain) effectively serve as “hooks” which I can hang bigger concepts onto, and better understand how these systems can change and be manipulated. Somewhat counterintuitively, I found that starting a particular educational journey by cold-memorizing a collection of facts was essential to help me understand the bigger picture, which in turn would help me truly understand what I had essentially brute-force memorized previously.
Is one framework of thinking about memorization vs. understanding better than the other? In my experience, as with many things, the correct answer is that it depends. For some things — like reasoning about how a psychiatric condition may manifest with physical clinical symptoms — taking a high-level approach to think about the more specific details as been very helpful. For others — like thinking about the workup for a patient presenting with diabetic ketoacidosis — having a firm grasp of the underlying physiological concepts is essential to understanding the broader presentation and goals of care. I don’t know yet exactly what it is about certain situations being better suited to certain methods of understanding; however, being able to appreciate some advantages of purely memorizing things and a willingness to try it out has been very helpful for me to consider.
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