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The Difference Between Studying and Learning

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Aya Katz has a PhD in linguistics from Rice University. She is an ape language researcher and the author of Vacuum County and other novels.

A student preparing for an exam.

A student preparing for an exam.

How Important Are Study Skills?

Are study skills important for success in school?

Is success in school essential for success in life?

And where does thinking come into all of this?

If you spend too much time thinking about the material, but not enough time studying for the test, will this jeopardize your chance of making a good grade? Is the person who made the best grade the person who understands the material the best? Or is it just the one who studied with the test in mind? Are exams a good tool to help students learn the material, or does teaching to the exam jeopardize a student's opportunity to learn?

These are questions that teachers, parents, and students would do well to ask themselves. Ultimately, what is more important, studying or learning?

What Do You Like to Do?

What do you like to do? Why do you like it? Why are you taking this class, and what do you hope to get out of it? These are questions worth asking yourself, if you are a student, and well worth asking your students, if you are a teacher.

If the answer is: this a required class and I have to pass it, but I really have no interest in the subject, then we are already in trouble. Most of the learning problems in classrooms throughout the world are precisely because of such an answer. It's almost impossible to learn something without developing an interest in the subject. And yet many, many students manage to get fairly decent grades without doing so. What does this tell us?

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

A Star Trek fan may know all the names of the episodes of the original series and be able to place them in the right order. But if you are not a Star Trek fan, do you imagine that memorizing the names of the episodes will make you a fan? Not only will it not, it will probably make you hate the show all the more. And if you think you could fool real fans by spouting off that kind of trivia, then you are sadly mistaken.

Someone who really understands a subject, any subject, is like a fan. To become better at math, you have get to the point where you are truly, intrinsically interested in math. If you want to learn history, you have to breathe, eat and drink history. To become a good speller, you need to develop an interest in words and what they are made of.

But when students are told to study, this is seldom what they are instructed to do. Instead, they are asked to upload information into their brain without processing it first. There it sits, isolated, with no connections to anything else. And with connection strength weak, eventually the fact will fade away.

Trying to get a good grade by memorizing facts is not all that different from trying to get a better page rank by buying links. This kind of studying is cheating, only the person most cheated is the student himself.

Memorizing Versus Understanding

Every educated person is aware of certain facts, just in the course of having acquired an education. The dates of certain battles, the multiplication tables, the names of certain historical figures, the words to certain poems and the music to specific musical pieces. When we discover that someone we know is lacking in a key piece of information on any subject -- math, history, literature or music  -- we may conclude that his education is lacking. Conversely, when people are trying to appear better educated than they actually are, they try to dazzle us with the amount of "high class" trivia that they have stored in their heads.

A well educated person may in fact have certain trivial dates and numbers and verses and tunes embedded in his memory, but it is not trivia that makes him educated. The trivia is a by-product of the education.

When educators try to spoon feed trivia in order to create an educated person, they invariably fail.

An artist's rendition of the Louisiana Purchase one hundred years after the fact Image Credit: Wikipedia

An artist's rendition of the Louisiana Purchase one hundred years after the fact Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Battle of Gettysburg by Currier and Ives Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Battle of Gettysburg by Currier and Ives Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Dateline: What Does It Mean?

Imagine a typical American child asked to memorize the following dates for a test in social studies:

  • 1803 The Louisiana Purchase
  • 1804- 1806 The Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • 1812 Missouri Territory defined
  • 1820 The Missouri Compromise
  • 1821 Missouri achieves statehood
  • 1861 Civil War begins
  • 1863 Battle of Gettysburg
  • 1865 The Confederacy Surrenders

Now say the the child has perfectly memorized these dates and this timeline. If you ask him, when did the Battle of Gettysburg take place, he will answer "1863". If you ask what important event happened in 1803, he will tell you "the Louisiana Purchase." As long as you ask for exactly what has been memorized, you get the right answer, and the child can make an A on a test which is written with this study method in mind.

But if you ask: "What happened first, the Louisiana Purchase or the Missouri Compromise?", you might very well get a blank stare. "How should I know?"

The child knows that the Louisiana purchase took place in 1803. He knows that the Missouri Compromise took place in 1820. But to know which happened first, the child has to understand the timeline and numbers. Or failing that, he has to take an interest in the plot of the story leading up to the civil war.

Cause and Effect

Knowing the date when something happened is a natural by-product from having an organic, holistic understanding of a series of related events and how they unfold. Someone knowledgeable in American history understands that the Lewis and Clark expedition took place right after the Louisiana Purchase, because it was necessary to map out the new territory. Someone interested in the topic would naturally understand that the territory could not be split up into subparts until after it had been mapped, and that a dispute and a compromise about the slave laws in the subparts could not have taken place until after the territory was divided into parts. So the Louisiana Purchase had to have happened before the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition had to have occurred before the Missouri Compromise. All of this can be determined without knowing the exact dates, if you have a feel for the cause and effect inherent in this story.

But if you do have the exact dates, you might ask, how is it possible not to know which happened first? Well, the dates are numbers. Did the teacher bother to explain what the numbers stood for? Was the timeline drawn explicitly, and did the students discuss what time is, how we measure it, what direction it flows in?

You may still be skeptical that a child could fail to know that 1803 happened before 1820. But ask yourself this: How is anyone supposed to know, if we don't specify A.D. or B.C.?

Grade school children in the United States today could not tell you if Caesar conquered Gaul before or after WWII. They have no background and no context by which to judge anything.

What We Take for Granted

We as adults and as teachers take for granted a lot of background knowledge that we already possess. When we are trying to impart this to children or even adults with less background than ourselves, we need to try to understand what key concepts and ideas may still be missing. That's much more important than giving a student a list to memorize.

Knowing any given fact by itself is of very little use, unless you understand its relationship to other facts. Take the multiplication table. It would be hard to dispute that knowing the multiplication table is on the whole very useful, if you're going to be able to solve arithmetic problems. But those children who do well in arithmetic understand numbers and what they stand for, and without that understanding, having memorized the multiplication table is of no help at all.

The average school child in the United States is asked to memorize the multiplication table, and to know the answers to 0x0 all the way through 12x12. They memorize dutifully. But ask them something else, like 4x25, and you may get this answer: "I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"You're not supposed to ask me that."

"Why not?"

"I'm not responsible for that. It's not in the multiplication table."

A Holistic Approach to Knowledge

An educated person sees how seemingly unrelated facts are connected. True knowledge is a deep understanding of those connections. That is what education is supposed to foster. Telling students what they are "responsible for" and what they are "not responsible for" creates the opposite effect: graduates who have heads full of disconnected facts, and no idea how to use them.

Exams, in order to be good diagnostic tools, should be so designed as to make it impossible to study for them. Students should be encouraged to think about the subject, and those who have thought the deepest should do best on the exam.

Students who are good at spelling don't get there by memorizing unrelated words. They need only glance at a word once to know what it is and how it is spelled. This is not because they work hard at studying, or because they have a photographic memory. It is because they understand the spelling system, such as it is, and how one word's spelling is related to the spelling of a similar word. Students who are good at reading music don't get there by memorizing mnemonics for the letter names of notes. They understand the relationship of the notes and the music they hear. Students of history remember dates because they understand what those dates stand for and what events must necessarily have preceded others.

Students who are not doing well in a subject may think that their classmates are harder workers, but that is seldom the case. Those who do well have a context against which they judge the truth or falsity of any given fact. They know that if the Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803, then the Lewis and Clark expedition must have happened later. Students who are good at arithmetic can re-derive the multiplication table at will, so even if they do forget one of its elements momentarily, it is no big deal.

Today, students who are doing well are doing so despite their teachers and the curriculum. They are doing well because instead of memorizing, they think. But there is no reason it has to be this way. Everyone is capable of thinking. Everyone can learn. To help a student do better at any given subject, we need to get him to stop studying and start thinking.

© 2010 Aya Katz


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on February 09, 2012:

Thanks, Alocsin. It is hard to document in any objective manner either studying or learning, because you have to take the limitations of tests into consideration, too. However, there are some interesting studies being conducted, and maybe we will be able to know more about the learning process soon.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on February 09, 2012:

I don't know that we have adequate measurement of either studying or learning -- grades don't seem to be a good measure. I suspect the result is what's more important -- how much information you retain and use. Voting this Up and Interesting.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 12, 2011:

Elena, you were lucky to have parents and teachers who encouraged you to think, rather than study. Of course, it's not necessary to hide the dates of historical events from students, but testing them only on the dates doesn't promote a real understanding of the events. Essay questions like the ones you described are very good at exploring the material in a thoughtful way. Another good method is to give individualized oral exams. It's really impossible to fake it in a face to face interview with a teacher, and if an instructor really wants to know what a student has gotten out of a course, this is the best way to find out.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 12, 2011:

Hi, Kimho39, nice to see you again! We learn all the time, I think, so we're often not aware of the process. Memorizing without understanding is a real drag, which is why most people don't like to "study". I wouldn't consider researching a hub the same as studying, though. When we do this we are self-directed, and really want to know the information!

Elena. from Madrid on January 12, 2011:

Hello, Aya! So VERY delighted to have caught this article in the feed!

Fortunately, I went to a school that employed the method you propose -- no memorization, but thinking and analysis. I didn't start learning "datelines" or "names of rivers" or whatever else along those lines until I started playing Trivial Pursuit well in my teens (though I'm not sure if I should be proud of that... ahem!).

Both my parents and the teachers in my school said I could find dates or names of rivers in any encyclopedia or history or geography book, but what I would, could never find in books was the tools for thinking, that those were in my brain.

Speaking of exams, a big majority of all I took back in primary and high schools where of the type "explain the causes of French Revolution and compare to the American Revolution", or "Explain the consequences of industrial development in early 20 century", or "What do you think is the better argument from Descartes Method and why", you get my drift. All of these have mostly no right or wrong answer, they simply require one to have listened and processed the information to be able to submit an opinion based on the learned facts that are in the books or in the teacher's lessons. The only way to fail these sort of exams is if one is incapable of thinking "about the lessons" and only capable of memorizing them!

Kudos to your holistic approach to education and knowledge!

Kim Harris on January 11, 2011:

Aya, I'm having an epiphany! This is why I have always had to study sooooo long. I think I am not capable of memorizing without understanding! I've learned mnemonic devices when I absolutely have to memorize something and I'm short on time, but typically I aim to understand, and the rest seems to fall into place. When I am "finished" studying, I really do understand the material backward, forward and upside down - and have been called "walking encyclopedia". But, if I didn't have a test or a study guide, I would not likely put forth that intense level of effort. I enjoy learning and often learn for the sake of learning, but the only time I really put forth studying effort is for a test....a work project....or a hub. Thanks for the thought provoking hub, Aya. This was awesome.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 11, 2011:

Thanks, TonyMac!

Tony McGregor from South Africa on January 11, 2011:

Thanks - done!

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 11, 2011:

Shalini, thanks! I think it's possible to do this.

Shalini Kagal from India on January 11, 2011:

'..stop studying and start thinking' - I think you've captured that so perfectly in a nutshell! If only.....

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 11, 2011:

Thanks, TonyMac! All exams, even the "objective" multiple choice ones, have a subjective element. Unless the exam takers keep in mind the point of view of the exam writer, they are unlikely to do well on anything but the math part. Even there, there are tricks that are now being taught to elementary school children about how to guess what the answer is without actually knowing the answer, and this on simple arithmetic problems! It's the teachers who are encouraging this strategy, because how well students do on state-wide standardized tests reflects on them and affects their salary and eligibility for promotion.

I'd be delighted to have this article linked to yours. Thanks!

Tony McGregor from South Africa on January 10, 2011:

Excellent Hub which I really found easy and good to read. I think the difference for me is that much so-called "education" is geared to passing exams, not real learning - someone once said that "students study to pass, not to learn. They do pass and they don't learn."

I don't think you have overstated this point. Exams are always graded subjectively anyway. The only almost object way of testing knowledge is the multiple choice questionnaire. Essay-type exams do not adequately test knowledge - they test mostly the student's ability to write an essay, and to regurgitate the "facts" that have been drilled into them.

Thanks for this excellent Hub and may I link it to mine on the characteristics of an educated person?

Love and peace


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on January 10, 2011:

Thanks, Rashmi. Glad you agree!

Rashmi Bachani on January 10, 2011:

Yup, I agree, we need to concentrate more on Learning for the sake of learning and not studying for exams - there has to be a slight shift in the way we as students and we as teacher's think.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on October 20, 2010:

Thomas, thanks for your comment and for sharing your thoughts on this subject. It's good to know that people your age are also thinking about this.

In fact, I think oral exams are a great way to test a student's knowledge at any age. Why separate the teacher and the pupil and make each of them work on the exam alone and in silence? Let the teacher come to understand how the student arrived at the answer. This way, it will be clear what key concepts may still be missing.

I think that most educators do not have the sinister intent to leave their students in the dark. But you may be right that those at very high levels of authority could have a different motivation.

Thomas on October 19, 2010:

A couple weeks ago I was discussing this very same thing with a friend of mine who is teaching me Japanese. I said to her, 'There is a difference between studying and learning'. She agrees with me. Haha! I'm only 24 and she's only 22! :D It's nice to see someone writing about the same sorts of thing that I think about -.-

Perhaps the sort of impossible to study for exam you have in mind is realized through doctoral dissertations.

Perhaps while it is true that it would be nice for students to all learn, it's more convenient for a select few for most people to merely have disjointed idea and facts in their mind. Is it really in the best interest of people in charge to elevate their entire population to being capable enough of replacing them at a moments notice? I don't feel like the drive is really there. Hah!

Anyway, this was a nice read. I started to ramble unnecessarily.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on September 30, 2010:

Misha, but the whole point of this hub is that even such basic subjects as geography and elementary arithmetic require interest and a context before memorizing anything can be helpful.

The American education system is in trouble, and educators are aware of this. They try so hard to make children memorize! But to no avail. They make them stay for long hours. They canceled the nap-time in Kindergarten, because they needed that time (they thought) to drill basic reading and math facts into children's heads. It does NOT work.

The habit of thinking needs to be encouraged. Somehow or other, people in Europe and even in communist countries, seem to have more of that habit. They do well in geography, not because they memorized it, but because they as individuals think this information is important. They do well in arithmetic, because they don't want anybody to cheat them while converting currencies. I don't know why, but American children seem uninterested, even when their own personal self interest should suggest to them that they need to know these things.

Misha from DC Area on September 29, 2010:

Sure, this was true. Because maths on that level is all about memorizing. Geography, too. :)

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on September 29, 2010:

Misha, my experience with eastern block classmates when I was little, compared to my American classmates, led me to believe that communist children were much better at math and geography. Yes, they were brainwashed about political philosophy, but they knew more or less where all the major powers could be found on a globe, and they could convert currencies in their head at lightning speed. Their American counterparts could barely find the US on a map of North America, and had trouble adding and subtracting.

I'm not a fan of the Soviets or their satellites, but at least in the sixties, it appeared that they had basic elementary education that could beat that of the average American public school.

Misha from DC Area on September 29, 2010:

My kids go to Montessori, which is quite different from public schools, and most private schools for that matter. We still have to try to counteract some influences...

As for the soldiers - their job is to blindly obey orders, thinking is a job for a commander. Whatever prejudices you may have in this regard, army cannot operate in any other way. I know, I been there. Overcoming a survival instinct takes some serious effort, partly from public education. :)

Soviet education was no better than current American, probably even worse due to a total absence of individuality and privacy for several generations. It was mostly oriented on memorizing a lot of random stuff, a big part of which were outright lies - pretty much what you describe, but brought to perfection...

Still some teachers managed to teach their students to think, and I am very thankful to my teachers for doing this, and to my parents for making a big effort of putting me into the best school around - it was not easy. And it really was one of the major things that shaped my whole life. :)

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on September 29, 2010:

Misha, do you homeschool? I don't, but I try to counteract any bad effects from exposure to the public schools.

Cannon fodder may not need to know anything, but successful soldiers do. Even for those with dreams of empire, a good education is not a bad idea.

BTW, weren't the Soviets better educators than the Americans during the cold war? How do you account for that?

Misha from DC Area on September 28, 2010:

Well, yeah, I would agree that would make much more sense. In fact this is how I teach my kids. But public education? It has different goals, you know, so your proposal looks like a total overkill and utopia. Cannon fodder will do without it just fine, ya know...

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on September 28, 2010:

Prasadjain, thanks for making the distinction between diagnostic tests and exams with scoring. I think that is a valid point. However, "where a learner stands" should have something to do with what concepts he has mastered, and what ideas he has not mastered. We don't want students who study hard but understand very little to do as well as or better than students who never study but understand quite a lot. This is for the students' own good, to keep them from wasting time memorizing things they do not understand, instead of thinking long and deep about the subject.

Dr.S.P.PADMA PRASAD from Tumkur on September 28, 2010:

In my opinion, exams( as they are commonly known) are quite different from diagnostic tests.In exams, there is scoring. They aim at measuring the level of achievement.But diagnostic tests are those which aim to find out where the student is facing difficulty in learning.Hence, proper diagnostic tests do not have scores.Diagnostic tests aim at designing remedial measures.Exams tell where a learner stands.Diagnostic tests tell where a learner is not faring well.

And, an exam.Qn paper should not be too difficult. The ideal Qn.paper is that, which contains-difficult,easy and average qns in33% each.

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on September 27, 2010:

Nets, you may be right that I exaggerate. The problem is that some people will go without sleep and endure all sorts of physical hardship for a grade, but if it were impossible to study for the exam, then that sort of cramming would not take place. Students would either learn to think about the subject or they would do badly. Also, maybe exams that are hard to study for are good diagnostic tools, but exams that are impossible to study for are good instructional tools.

nhkatz from Bloomington, Indiana on September 27, 2010:


Sometimes you state things unnecessarily in extremes.

You write:

"Exams, in order to be good diagnostic tools, should be so designed as to make it impossible to study for them."

If they merely have to be good diagnostic tools, might it

not be sufficient merely that they be very difficult

to study for?


Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on September 26, 2010:

Suzanne, thanks! Your experience with your Chinese students sounds familiar. Memorizing rather than learning is a method that has been adopted in that culture for centuries. On the other hand, and despite this, there are also a lot of excellent students who do think that emerge from Chinese schools. I'll have to take a look at your spelling hub. It's a topic I'm interested in.

justmesuzanne from Texas on September 26, 2010:

Most excellent! I am going to link this to my HUB about The Importance of Spelling Correctly. This is what I discuss with my Chinese students all the time. They are so entrenched in the idea that they must study, study, study, memorize, memorize, memorize, but many of seem to never really "get it" when it comes to English. This is especially true of those who study the hardest without finding anything truly interesting or enjoyable about learning.

Very nicely done! Thanks! :)

Aya Katz (author) from The Ozarks on September 26, 2010:

Thanks, BElliott!

belliott on September 26, 2010:

Great insights. Thanks