The Dirty Word of Math/Physics Education

A good way to distinguish between the two modes of memorization is to look at two multiple-choice questions involving the well known equation, E=mc^2. First question:

The relativistic equation stating the equivalence of mass and energy is

  • E=mc^3
  • E=m^2c
  • E=mc^2
  • E=mc^4
  • E=m^3c

Second question:

If you could convert one kilogram of mass completely into energy in a large power plant that by itself supplies energy to a medium-sized city, for how long would that energy last? Assume that the plant has an output of one gigawatt and the speed of light is 300 million meters per second.

  • About one month.
  • About six months.
  • About a year.
  • About two years.
  • About three years.

The first question can be correctly answered by a student who has no clue as to what the symbols and their meanings are but has seen the equation multiple times. A kindergartener who has been shown the equation repeatedly can successfully answer the question. This question exemplifies rote memorization!

The second question demands that students memorize not only the equation but the concepts of energy, mass, and speed. They must have also memorized that E stands for energy, m for mass, and c for the speed of light. The students are furthermore required to have memorized the concept of power and how it is related to energy and the fact that to find time one has to divide energy by power (surprisingly, many college students don’t know the concept of division in this context). In addition, they must have memorized the power of ten notation and words — such as giga — representing them, as well as the process of finding how many seconds there are in a month or a year (a good number of my former millennial college freshmen thought that there were 60 seconds in one hour). This question illustrates useful, essential, and necessary memorization that is vital in the education of our students.

One thought on “The Dirty Word of Math/Physics Education”

  1. Good points you have made in this article, professor. I myself had always hated memorisation during my school years. Now, with your classification of types of memorisation, I see that what I hated was actually the bad kind of memorisation. e.g. Why did I have to memorise the agricultural products of neighbouring countries in order to get a full mark on geography? What was the point?!
    On the other side, learning the proofs of matyematical theorems or ways to solve a problem in physics did not have the bad feeling of memorisation and was actually quite challenging and enjoyable.
    Without your classification, It seems natural for people to try to abandon memorisation altogether.
    I guess we have to accept that getting well-educated has no shortcut. We are talking about the accumulation of hudreds of years of evergrowing human knowledge that every child has to start to learn from scratch. This is a formidable task! The new education system tries to make the path easier and more enjoyable, but the truth is that we have to strive for years and years to gain even a small fraction of the whole human knowledge. This cannot be made any easier.

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