Future Teachers Often Think Memorization is the Best Way to Teach Math and Science

–until they learn a different way

Peter C. Cormas, California University of Pennsylvania

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

I found that college students who are taking courses to become teachers can change their beliefs of how science and mathematics should be taught to and learned by K-12 students.

Most of these future teachers tell me when they start my course, they believe that K-12 students must memorize science and mathematics knowledge to learn it. They also believe that students cannot acquire knowledge through a process used by scientists and mathematicians called problemsolving. Problem-solving asks students to solve engaging and challenging problems that are provided without a strategy or solution. It also involves group work and a time to present and justify their strategies and solutions to the class.

To challenge my students’ beliefs, I ask future teachers to teach science and mathematics to students with problem-solving. At first they often resist because they believe that their students can only memorize science and mathematics knowledge. However, after they have asked the students to use problem-solving and find it successful, they discover that students can learn like scientists and mathematicians The evidence and experiences start to change their beliefs.

The way I reached these conclusions was by studying future teachers over the course of four years. I studied 113 future teachers’ beliefs in 10 sections of a course that I taught on how to teach science and mathematics. Throughout the course, I asked the future teachers to discover science and mathematics knowledge with problem-solving. I also had the future teachers teach students at a local school by asking them to learn with problem-solving.

To measure changes in future teachers’ beliefs following completion of the class, I asked them to complete a survey at the start and end of the course. At the end, the findings showed that the future teachers were significantly more likely to teach in a way that reflected how scientists and mathematicians solve problems.

It also appeared that their teaching of science with problem-solving encouraged their use of the method when they taught mathematics. Conversely, their teaching of mathematics with problem-solving encouraged their use of the method when they taught science.

Why it matters

This study matters because a teacher’s beliefs – their personal philosophy about teaching and learning – often determine how they will teach and what students will learn. And because problem-solving is necessary for scientific and mathematical literacy, students need teachers who will expose them to problem-solving.

This study also matters because college professors who work with future teachers can employ similar strategies. They can place future educators in situations in which they must confront their beliefs about teaching and learning with evidence and experiences that contradict their beliefs.

What other research is being done?

Those who do similar research are trying to figure out how to assure future teachers use problem-solving in their future classrooms. I have taught many education students who did quite well in my course, and successfully used science and mathematics problem-solving with their students. However, former students that I ran into years later often told me that they do not use problem-solving as teachers. Instead, they reverted to simply asking students to memorize science and mathematics information. They told me the reason for this is that teachers in their present schools do not use problem-solving. I find this troubling.

What’s next

It may be that one way to solidify beliefs about teaching through problem-solving instead of memorization would be for science and mathematics faculty to use problem-solving in their college classrooms. Research shows that similarities and coherence between college courses may increase the likelihood that future teachers will believe in the value of problem-solving. If so, then my students may become less likely to abandon the methods learned in their courses. In turn, they may be more likely to help make their future students more adept at mathematics and science.The Conversation

Peter C. Cormas, Associate Professor of Science Education, California University of Pennsylvania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


THE CONVERSATION US launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public. Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism. All authors and editors sign up to our Editorial Charter. All contributors must abide by our Community Standards policy. We only allow authors to write on a subject on which they have proven expertise, which they must disclose alongside their article. Authors’ funding and potential conflicts of interest must also be disclosed. Failure to do so carries a risk of being banned from contributing to the site. The Conversation started in Melbourne Victoria and the innovative technology platform and development team is based in the university and research precinct of Carlton. Our newsroom is based in Boston but our team is part of a global newsroom able to share content across sites and around the world. The Conversation US is a non-profit educational entity.​

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Professor Cormas – Well, to say that you made my day would be an understatement. I’ve long held the believe that most universities and colleges of education perpetuate the old routines of computation and memorization. They’re stressing content acquisition versus application. I applaud that you are taking a different approach.

    To further thwart your former students abandoning problem solving in favor of memorization when they enter their own classrooms later, I would suggest that you ask a question of your students at the very beginning of your course, such as: “What do you want your future students to know and be able to do with their knowledge of mathematics / science when you leave my course?” I suggest this question because it gets your students thinking about the PURPOSE rather than mere mechanics of instruction / schooling. This should generate a lively discussion.

    But if it doesn’t, or as an alternative, place a blank continuum on the chalk board / overhead / whiteboard, whatever your means of communicating to the whole class. The heading of the continuum should be something like THE ROLE OF EDUCATION. The far left side should be labeled something like “Imparting knowledge and skills.” The far right side should be labeled something like “Using knowledge and skills in the context of solving today’s problems.” Then ask the class members to create their own version on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. Have them put an “X” on the continuum to mark their instructional “heart” – their belief in the role of education and their instruction. Ask everyone to reveal the response at the same time. Again a lively discussion should ensue.

    The goal of this exercise provides the underlying rationale of using a problem solving approach once they have their own classrooms.
    Before that, of course, they need to work through some examples of problem solving in your course to see the potential.

  2. Thanks!

    I like the pun of “thin memorization.” Ain’t the universe great?

    The dislocation of the pandemic provides us with an immediate and unyielding opportunity to throw out a whole bunch of outmoded and pretty useless pedagogy. We all have instantaneous access to all recorded knowledge via our pocket computers (we mislabel them cell phones), so we need teachers and schools to challenge thinking, understanding, problem-solving, innovation, insight and collaborative skills, not to inject particles of data.

    We will never go back to the way it was. Let’s use the leverage of dislocation to re-design, from the ground up, aka everyone’s thinking and assumptions about what education looks like, feels like, and creates for our kids. to do anything less would be unethical.

    Two ways to start? No more segregation by age, and have students – not teachers and administrators – create (and hold themselves accountable for) learning goals and objectives. Voila!!!!

    Have more fun!