Rote learning is the process of memorizing information based on repetition. The primary goal is to keep various facts in a person’s brain as long as possible, whereas understanding them is overlooked.
This way of learning is notorious nowadays, and is often considered a mechanical acquisition of teaching material without any deeper understanding. But the truth is that rote learning is just one of the learning styles with advantages and disadvantages of its own.
This type of learning can be useful, especially when we need to memorize certain facts and recall them when necessary, or acquire basic knowledge, however, if we need a deeper understanding of the matter, this style is simply not enough.
The lists of advantages of rote learning is quite long:
- ability to instantly recall data;
- acquisition of some basic knowledge.
On the other hand, the list of disadvantages is even longer:
- mechanical repetition;
- easy loss of focus;
- lack of deeper understanding of the matter;
- inability to develop soft skills;
- inability to link existing and new knowledge;
- it often results in misunderstanding or misinterpretation of concepts.
Is rote learning irretrievably outdated?
One of the main reasons against rote learning is the very age we live in.
Namely, in the age of fast Internet, Google and smartphones, all the information we need is literally just a click away. Before the digital revolution, people able to keep large amounts of information in their head were viewed as walking encyclopedias and commanded great respect. Nowadays, everyone carries a portable encyclopedia in their pocket.
The characteristic that distinguishes educated people of the 21st century is not the amount of information they can memorize, but the fact that they unmistakably know where to find the information they need, as well as the ability to creatively link and interpret facts.
What about rote memorization?
Rote memorization is wrong, according to businessman and author Don Tapscott. He believes that this learning style is ineffective for the Google generation, as he calls them. Specifically, Tapscott points out that we live in a world where information changes at the speed of light.
To be able to process and creatively use it, students no longer need to memorize it, instead, they have to be able to understand the concepts that underlie that information. Rote memorization was suitable for the industrial age and mass production, whereas the digital economy demands a different, more creative approach, concludes Tapscott.
Certain research shows that rote learning is effective when we have easier questions with multiple answers, but it is simply not enough for solving more complex tasks.
Thus, for example, when assessing student mathematics knowledge and skills in the PISA test, students who relied on rote learning to prepare for the test (memorizing problems they had already solved and doing as many examples as possible) achieved the same results on the easiest problems as students who used different preparation methods.
However, when it came to more complex problems, things changed. Candidates who relied heavily on rote learning achieved worse results than their peers who relied on different learning strategies, such as: linking ideas, distinguishing between what’s important and what’s not, and problem-oriented thinking.
Learning with understanding
Learning with understanding or meaningful learning is often considered the opposite of rote learning.
It is a technique that involves understanding how different elements and pieces of a concept fit together. Meaningful learning is above all an active process, because it engages students and encourages them to take a constructive approach.
The main advantage of this type of learning is the fact that knowledge acquired through meaningful learning can be applied to new situations, and thus turned into new opportunities for successful learning. In other words, the meaningful knowledge a student acquires remains with them for the rest of their life.
Every successful learning process has two main goals: retention and transfer:
- i.e. the ability to retain the acquired knowledge in a person’s memory, and the ability to apply it in different situations.
Although it may seem that fast memorization is a more adequate way to memorize information, the facts show that knowledge acquired this way is lost more quickly. Only the facts we acquire through concepts and by understanding the context remain in our long-term memory. This is why meaningful learning is the best choice for achieving knowledge retention and transfer.
Learning with understanding has numerous advantages:
- it encourages understanding instead of rote memorization;
- it increases student engagement and activity;
- it focuses on the main goals of the learning process, instead of current results;
- it links old information with the new.
Potential disadvantages of this type of learning include:
- results take longer;
- it needs to be adapted to different student types.
When it comes to the first ‘disadvantage’, it’s not really a disadvantage, because the goals of rote learning and meaningful learning are different. Namely, the main goal of meaningful learning is to be able to apply the acquired knowledge in practice, whereas the goal of rote learning is usually to quickly memorize facts in order to pass a test.
This is why good schools combine teaching and practice, thus enabling students to understand how what they’ve learned can be applied in real life. In other words, learning gains existential importance and becomes successful.
When it comes to adapting learning to different student types, this is the practice that yields the best results. The curriculum should be adapted to each student so they could adopt the required knowledge in the best and most efficient manner. Therefore, you should check if the school your child attends nurtures personalized learning.
Finally, the greatest advantage of meaningful learning is that it matches the needs of modern society. Students who learn with understanding develop a number of qualities and traits that are in demand in the business world of the 21st century:
- creative and problem-oriented thinking;
- team work;
- cognitive skills: analysis, evaluation, memorization, comparison.
How and when can rote learning be effective?
E.D. Hirsch, a famous literary theorist and reformer of education advises “distributed practice” in place of rote learning.
Distributed practice involves exercises that can help students automate certain procedures and activities. This way, instead of thinking about them, students can focus on understanding deeper structural concepts of what they are learning.
In short, in order to be able to solve certain academic tasks with skill, students need to do some things automatically and confidently, without thinking about them.
For example, to be able to solve math problems, you need to know the multiplication table, and that requires certain exercise and drills.
Imagine your child were an athlete: If they want to compete in a sprint, they first need to be able to walk and run without thinking about it. Once they’ve mastered the basics, children get the opportunity to practice more complex running techniques and concepts that will make them more accomplished.
However, the fact that causes headaches for all participants of the education process – students, teachers and parents is – children hate endless exercises and drills.
And rightly so, because repetition is often tedious.
However, there is a solution. Education experts point to educational applications and their potential in education. In fact, they have coined a new term for them – edutainment – a portmanteau created by combining the words education and entertainment.
These applications make repetition and learning fun. Through different audio-visual and interactive applications, students unknowingly review the material they’ve already covered, and have fun doing it. This way, children are better motivated to practice, and can study much longer.
So, rote learning, or using different data memorization techniques is not wrong in itself. On the contrary, it is a necessary part of learning. We need to take advantage of the opportunities that technology provides, and make learning fun so as to motivate a child to study.
In doing so, we must be aware of the fact that rote learning is not enough. It is just the first step in the learning process that has to be complemented with other techniques, such as analysis, linking and creative interpretation of information.
How to learn effectively?
A student who prefers rote learning should not be discouraged or criticized for it. On the contrary, it may be part of his/her unique learning style. It is advisable to support their style and complement it with other techniques.
How can you do it?
- After the child has memorized a lesson and repeated it in front of you, ask them to do it again, but this time, in their own words. Retelling is a higher level of repetition, because it requires selection and certain interpretation of information. In other words, it involves meaningful learning.
- After that, you can ask the child about the lesson: questions may refer to the beginning, middle and end of the lesson, so they don’t have to follow the chronological order of the lesson. This way, the child won’t answer your questions mechanically, but will have to think about them instead.
- You can expand this activity by asking the child to tell you what they think and feel about the things they are learning. For example, why a certain historical event occurred, what were its causes and consequences.
This way, text memorization grows into other, higher forms of learning, enabling your child to retain and understand information.
Knowledge needs to be tested
All experts agree on one thing: one needs to test their knowledge. To answer the question of what a test that not only measures the quantity, but also the quality of a person’s knowledge should look like, education experts coined a term “desirable difficulty”.
What does it mean?
Questions shouldn’t be so easy that students can answer them in an instant, but they shouldn’t be so hard to make them impossible to answer, because students will then lose their motivation to learn. Questions should be designed so as to stimulate thinking, and direct students toward an answer.
If a history teacher asks the following question: “When did WWII begin?”, this is an easy question that students will be able to answer immediately, especially if they used rote learning techniques. However, if the teacher asks: “In what ways did WWII change Europe?”, it is a question that requires students to think, put facts in a context, and a question that, in order to be answered, requires them to use other learning techniques besides rote learning.
The solution is synthesis
What is certain is that there is more than one learning style. Each style and procedure has their own advantages and disadvantages, but all of them have a place in the complex learning process. Instead of opting for a single learning style, we need to strive toward a synthesis of different styles where the good sides of each style complement each other, thus creating a lifelong learning process. In other words, it is important that your child is open and ready to grab every opportunity to learn, and build their own learning style.
Bonus tips for the youngest students: How to learn a song by heart?
Rote learning can yield good results, especially at a younger age. This is why this learning style is implemented when teaching the youngest students. For example, a great way to help children master speech is memorization and repetition of rhymed songs.
Children usually don’t need much help when learning songs by heart. Their smart little brains are receptive for new things, and memorize them with ease. Your child needs only hear a song played a few times, and they will be able to reproduce it without any assistance. Of course, you can help them to learn songs by heart.
5 tips to help your child learn a song
- Play their favorite song often and encourage them to sing along.
- Connect the lyrics with things from your surroundings. For example, if you are taking the bus, sing: “The wheels on a bus go round and round, round and round, all day long”.
- Talk to your child about the song’s meaning. If it involves a story relatable to the child, they will memorize it more easily.
- Choose songs that rhyme. Our brain memorizes rhymed phrases better, so children will learn such songs more easily.
- Make sure the child likes the song. Pick only songs that they like to motivate them, and they will ask you to play them over and over again.