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Ahh, memorising. it’s an argument almost as old as time itself. Sort of. Not really.

For us though, this is probably one of the biggest debates between students. Should you memorise your essays (not only for English, but Legal Studies, History, Business, etc)? Or should you just study your content and be ready to write the essay on the spot? There is no clear answer this question. Both methods have their ups and downs.

I am a massive anti-memoriser. For me, memorising essays is asking to be shot in the foot. Here are a few reasons why.

Now is a good time to mention that I am a bit of a lone wolf on this issue. Elyse and Jake are both memorisers. That’s cool, I’ll be a good sport. If you want help memorising an essay, check out this article written by Elyse.

Memorising is Restrictive

This is the first and most obvious reason for not memorising essays. It is massively restrictive to your ability to respond to the question at hand.

I’ll give a great example. My prescribed text(s) for Module B in my HSC was a set of 7 speeches, each different in their purpose, context, theme, etc. I developed a liking for three. All of my assessments up to that point had been based on my favourites, because I could choose.

My HSC was on what was probably my least favourite speech of the bunch.

I wasn’t alone either. When my cohort turned the page to find William Deane’s name staring back at us, I swear I heard 25 Advanced students mutter the same swear word under their breath. Damn you, BOSTES. Damn you.


The point being, of course, that if I had memorised an essay for this Module, I would have been absolutely screwed. When they ask about a text you haven’t focused on, or a theme you may not have explored in depth, you can throw all your memorising out the window. You have to fly by the seat of your pants. Sure, it sucks either way. When you do get a tough question though, it is definitely better to have spent your time learning your content holistically, rather than investing effort memorising your essays word for word, or even quote for quote.

I liken it to the comparison between a Swiss army knife and a can opener. Both are great. A can opener does ONE job, but does it very well. A Swiss army knife does lots of jobs, and it can still open a can decently enough. When you don’t know what you’ll be doing, it is better to be prepared for all contingencies reasonably well, rather than one contingency amazingly. It’s not worth the gamble.

So wait, if I know the question, can I memorise?

Oh, totally. That’s a completely different thing. You wouldn’t use a Swiss army knife if someone told you you’d need to open a can. If you have an assessment task that you know the question for, go for it. You may also choose to still use quotes, that’s fine too. I did a bit of both whenever I knew the question, I knew my quotes, but I did end up memorising some paragraphs by the end of practicing.

Memorising Takes Longer

I’ll probably cop a bit for saying this, but memorising takes longer than actually learning your stuff holistically.

Let’s think about it this way.  For Paper 2, you need to write 3 essays. That is, roughly, 2500-3000 words for most students. How long do you think it takes to memorise 3000 words? Even if you are just remembering the order of your ideas and Thesis statements, skeleton things, it adds up very fast.

Compare that to a student who memorises about 20 quotes/textual references to use in each essay. These are probably about 10 words each. So, 200 per essay, 600 in total. That is so much easier!! That student then spends the extra time practicing their responses, understanding their texts and the themes they are presenting to the audience.

Same thing goes for more ‘content-heavy’ subjects, like Legal Studies. It is far quicker to memorise a list of laws and cases, as it is to memorise exactly where they go in an essay and exactly how you will use them in an argument. Memorising is a much larger investment of time than just developing a content bank, and in busy times, this is a huge disadvantage.

Memorised Essays May Not Perform as Well as You Think

The big argument for memorising essays, is of course:

I will score better if I present something that I’ve worked on over time, rather than something I slap together in an hour.

In general, this is probably true. I totally get it. The thing is, memorised essays come with little traps. Lots of little things that can be picked up by the marker that cost you marks.

  • – Not Answering the Question: When you memorise an essay, you want it to work for the question. You seriously don’t want to write it from scratch. Thus, you will stretch it as far as you can to make it work for what is in front of you. This can mean that you don’t answer the question. You might not address the themes in the same way as dictated, or focus on an incorrect aspect of the concept. Essentially, an essay prepared to answer one question can’t answer every question.

  • – Not Accounting for Time Constraints: When you practice writing that essay at home, you are relaxed. There is no stress. Your hand isn’t tired from other sections. In the exam, it is a whole other story. If you do want to go down the path of memorising, be generous with how long you give yourself to write it. It is very hard to write a 1400-word essay in 40 minutes, probably near impossible. If you use a prepared response and don’t finish it, that’s not a good thing.

  • – Inconsistencies in Style: A popular middle ground on this issue is memorising Thesis paragraphs, isolated topic sentences, contextual linking sentences, little things like that to help you along. This isn’t such a bad idea, but be warned. If you write with sophistication akin to Shakespeare in your Thesis, and then drop to the level of Homer Simpson in your body paragraphs, that will stand out like a sore thumb. Isolated periods where your style deviates from the norm detract from the sophistication, and will interrupt the flow of the marker. Trust me, you do not want to interrupt the flow of the marker. Bad things happen when stop to pick through your work.

Great, I suppose I’ll bin these essays I’ve been memorising then…

Not so fast! Prepared responses are still excellent study tools. I used submitted assignments as sort of comparative tools. I would compare them against my impromptu responses to help me gauge my progress.

At the end of the day, any essay you have written is awesome practice and an excellent study tool. The more essays you write, the better!

So should you memorise? The answer is totally up to you! If you do choose to go down the impromptu route, you should instead focus on learning your quotes, developing a bank of content to use in essays. Then, practice practice practice! Remember, you can post any essays you’ve written (memorised or otherwise) on our marking forums for feedback! We offer marking for English Advanced and English Standard (including AoS), Modern History, SOR and Legal Studies!