Memorizing Facts has Great Value for Students

Commentary, Education, Michael C. Zwaagstra

Canadians were saddened when they learned that long-time “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek passed away earlier this week from pancreatic cancer.

 For more than 35 years, Trebek was a familiar face in our homes. There was no better way of testing your general knowledge than seeing how many “Jeopardy!” questions you could correctly answer.

 The outpouring of emotion over Trebek’s death has been huge. There’s no question that hosting “Jeopardy!” was his primary claim to fame.

 But this raises an obvious question: Why did so many people have such a strong emotional attachment to a gameshow host?

 Given the way in which some people, particularly progressive educators, dismiss the value of “rote memorization” of facts, it seems surprising that Trebek would become such a popular icon.

However, “Jeopardy!” isn’t just a show where contestants show off that they remember a bunch of random facts. Rather, it’s an opportunity for everyone, contestants and viewers alike, to test the extent of their general knowledge.

That’s because “Jeopardy!” questions deal with many different topics. Contestants could be asked about anything from Shakespeare’s plays, to the solar system, to the civil rights movement. Being able to answer most of the questions correctly in “Jeopardy!” can be taken as a pretty good sign that you are a well-read individual.

Interestingly, the top performers on “Jeopardy!” don’t win by cramming a bunch of random facts into their brains. Rather, contestants are far more likely to do well if they have a broad knowledge base about many different topics.

For example, someone who is familiar with William Shakespeare’s life story, knows the broad narrative of his key plays, and understands the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, is far more likely to sweep the “Shakespeare” category than someone who, without any prior knowledge of Shakespeare, tries to memorize many random facts about him.

In short, a broad and deep knowledge base is essential in “Jeopardy!” and in life.

This is why it is important for schools to have a knowledge-rich curriculum that sequentially builds on prior knowledge year by year. Commonly referred to as a core knowledge approach, the emphasis is on ensuring that students acquire substantial background knowledge in all subject areas.

For example, instead of simply encouraging students to learn about themselves and their neighbourhoods, students benefit far more from a curriculum that exposes them to people and places that they probably would not learn about on their own initiative. 

A good curriculum should help students broaden their understanding by looking outward rather than inward. This is particularly important for students who come from disadvantaged homes since their parents cannot afford private tutoring and probably aren’t taking them on educational trips around the world. 

Not only that, background knowledge is key to improving students’ reading comprehension. The more students know about the topic of a book or article, the more likely they will be able to read and understand it. In fact, background knowledge about a topic is a better predictor of reading comprehension than the complexity of the words or sentences within an article or book.

All Canadians should be grateful to Alex Trebek. He reminded us that there is great value in knowing a lot of facts by memory. 

For students, memory work is important work.


Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash.