Rote learning refers to a type of learning where students memorize subject content. It is usually accomplished through repetition and often involves the memorization of dates and facts.
Rote learning is frequently used in younger age groups because they need to form a solid foundation of knowledge.
For example, kindergarten-age children learn how to count through practice. Similarly, learning how to read requires the memorization of sounds that match specific letters.
For older age groups, rote memory is regularly used to teach students how to solve mathematical and chemical equations.
Once foundational knowledge has been established, students can engage in critical thinking and analysis, which are higher-order cognitive processes.
Rote Learning Definition
Here are two quick scholarly definitions:
- “Rote learning occurs when the learner memorizes new information without relating it to prior knowledge and involves no effort to integrate new knowledge with existing concepts, experience, or objects. (Repko, 2008)
- “To learn by rote is to learn by means of repetition, i.e. by going over the same beaten track or route again and again. Rote is really the same word as route.” (Cobham Brewer, 2001) Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
Rote Learning Vs. Meaningful Learning
- Rote learning is fundamentally a memorization technique. It requires the learner to repeat facts and procedures until they are thoroughly memorized.
- Meaningful learning refers to a focus on understanding rather than just memorizing. It requires connecting new information to prior knowledge through experiential learning scenarios. It is argued that this leaders to deeper understanding and more long-lasting learning.
Meaningful learning refers to the ability to understand how those memorized concepts are connected and relate to one another. This represents an advanced level of learning and as such requires higher-order cognitive processing.
Although rote learning and meaningful learning are usually discussed as distinct categories, Grove and Bertz (2011) explain that:
“Rote and meaningful learning, rather, are endpoints along a continuum of learning.”(Grove & Bertz, 2011, p. 201)
The rote vs. meaningful learning dichotomy has been around for several decades.
Novak (1977) was among the first to identify this misconception by stating:
“…Except perhaps in a newborn infant, absolute rote learning probably never occurs. [. . .] It is very important to recognize that rote – meaningful is a continuum and not a dichotomy.”(Novak, 1977, p. 80)
By conducting a qualitative analysis of several organic chemistry students, Grove and Bertz discovered that learning could be enhanced by helping students identify
“…intermediate positions on the continuum connecting meaningful learning and rote learning” (p. 207).
They suggest that “it is essential that professors make every effort to highlight the vital role that organic chemistry plays in connecting the sciences.” (Grove & Bertz, 2011, p. 201).
This approach can help fill the gap between the false dichotomy of rote and meaningful learning.
Rote Learning Advantages and Disadvantages
Rote learning has been heavily criticized since the rise of constructivism in education in the second half of the 20th Century.
The key criticism is that it tends to be a passive form of learning under the behaviorism model of education. Under this model, students aren’t encouraged to learn through experiences or by connecting, comparing, and contrasting new information with their prior knowledge. Rather, they learn primarily through repetition.
Here is the contrast:
- Constructivism’s Argument: We tend to remember things more effectively when making connections to prior knowledge, contextualizing knowledge, and exploring concepts through storytelling and experience. For example: you will be able to recount events better if you actually were there rather than if you’re just retelling someone else’s story. (This approach tends to be associated with active learning).
- Behaviorism’s Argument: We learn through repetition. Give the student the information they need to know, then get them to repeat it over and over again, often over a spaced period of time (see: spaced repetition), accompanied by rewards and punishments. (This approach tends to be associated with passive learning).
Generally, contemporary education theorists believe that the constructivist perspective – what we might call contextualized learning – is far more effective than behaviorism.
1. Is Good for Developing Foundational Knowledge
It is quite difficult for students to exercise higher-order cognitive processes without a solid foundation of facts and concepts.
The understanding of basic definitions is the first step to advanced application that is needed for most areas of academic study.
Therefore, rote learning serves an invaluable place in educational endeavors. It lays the foundation of knowledge that can then be utilized at other levels such as analysis, synthesis, application and innovation.
2. Could be an Essential Step to Mastery
In addition to cognitive activities, rote learning also plays a key role in the development of physical skills. This includes sports and learning how to play any musical instrument.
The physical coordination that is required to excel in these domains cannot be mastered without repetition. In fact, the degree of rehearsal of specific movements and sequence of actions is directly related to performance.
Those that master these skills will invariably point to the number of hours spent practicing (i.e., rote learning). Those not willing to put in the time simply fail to succeed.
1. Shallow Learning
Almost by definition, rote learning represents a very shallow level of understanding. The memorization of facts and definitions in no way implies that the individual has a mastery of comprehension.
Rote learning does not involve higher-order cognitive processing needed for critical analysis, synthesis or innovation. Moreover, testing students’ memorization of facts and definitions really tells us nothing about if they truly understand the concepts being assessed, or if they are just repeating a sequence of words they have been told go together.
2. Dull Learning
Repetition in and of itself is unstimulating. When students are studying an academic subject or attempting to learn how to play a musical instrument, repetition is their least favorite aspect of learning.
Many students will simply lose interest and motivation to continue study or rehearsal. Their goals often include visions of accomplishment that are far-removed from the daily grind that is required to reach those heights.
This is often what separates those who become masters and those who fall by the wayside and ultimately pursue other interests.
Below are some additional advantages and weaknesses of rote learning:
|Advantages of Rote Learning
|Weaknesses of Rote Learning
|1. Memorization: Rote learning can be effective for memorizing factual information. It may have its place for memorizing dates, formulas, and vocabulary words that are hard to remember in any other way.
|1. Limited Understanding: Often, students memorize information without truly understanding it, leading to poor long-term memory and inability to use the information in a new context.
|2. Necessary for base knowledge: Sometimes, we just need to memorize things such as our times tables. Once we have them in memory, we can do more complex math tasks by quickly recalling the base knowledge necessary.
|2. Boredom: Rote learning can be tedious. It tends to be very boring because it’s literally trying the same thing over and over again.
|3. Quick and efficient: Rote learning tends to be quick and efficient. You simply get told the facts, and then are asked to repeat them. There is no worrying about context or background knowledge.
|3. Lack of Critical Thinking: Rote learning does not encourage students to critique and analyze information. It simply requires “knowledge banking” in the mind.
|4. Helpful for standardized tests: Unfortunately, standardized tests tend to ask students to repeat information in a decontextualize way. Rote learning can be very helpful for preparing for these sorts of tests.
|4. Lack of Contextualization: People who learn things by rote tend to find it hard to apply the knowledge and facts to new contexts.
|5. Can improve confidence: Rote learning – for example, through memorizing a presentation you need to give – can give you great confidence leading up to a test or presentation.
|5. Limited retention: Rote learning may result in short-term memorization but it is still questionable as to whether the information will effectively be retained in the long term.
Rote Learning Examples
- Mrs. Williams is preparing her grade one students for the school’s annual Christmas Show. They have been rehearsing the song they will sing for weeks.
- Mr. Yamamoto starts every chemistry class by asking his students to collectively recite the chemical equations from yesterday’s class.
- Janelle has a stack of index cards with the names and dates of historical figures and events that she studies every night before going to bed.
- Students in Maria’s anatomy class have to name all the bones in the human skeletal structure if they want to pass the cumulative final exam.
- Sam has been repeating over and over again all 17 of his passwords so that he can commit them to memory and doesn’t need to set his computer to hold each one in storage.
- Joon is memorizing his parent’s phone number instead of saving it in his phone in case he loses his phone one day and needs to call home.
- Kumar wants to make sure his son will do well on his next geography test so every night he gives him a blank map to fill in.
- Mrs. Rodriguez makes each of her kindergarten students repeat every morning the phone numbers for emergency services such as the police, fire department, and ambulance.
- Each night, Javier memorizes another column of the Periodic Table.
- The coach insists that his players run the drills until they can perform each one without thinking.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Kwan and Mafe (2016) – Rote Learning In Medical School
Is there a profession with more challenging training than medical school? Well-known for its rigor and demand, future physicians must master the knowledge and operating principles of one of nature’s most complex creations: the human body.
Medical schools are some of the best practitioners of effective educational strategies.
Case in point: the best medical schools in the world implement a problem-based approach that requires students to work in teams, diagnose, and develop treatment regimens for actual clinical cases.
With such high-level cognitive demands, you would think there is little value in rote learning.
However, use the example of the physical examination to illustrate the importance of rote memory:
“Learning the physical examination is much the same as learning scales on a musical instrument where muscle memory needs to be trained and in place before more complex melodies can be performed.”(Kwan & Mafe, 2016, p. 430)
2. Brett et al. (2020) – Gamification Of Rote Learning
Rote learning is necessary for the mastery of physical coordination found in sports or learning to play a musical instrument. Both of these pursuits require repetitive movements to build muscle memory.
Unfortunately, these aspects are least appealing to most people.
Brett et al. (2020) suggest that gamification offers a solution. Gamification involves incorporating game elements into a repetitive task, such as learning to type or play a musical instrument.
The describe several games that try:
“…to teach users how to play an instrument draw upon the professional side with detailed lessons and exercises, whilst also utilising elements of gamification …to enrich the educational experience and motivate users to keep learning and practicing” (p. 724).
For example, meaning. This involves adding a narrative to the play that users find interesting, which then increases motivation to continue playing.
Another element is accomplishment. Players can progress through stages as their skills improve. This element adds a much-needed feeling of accomplishment that can be missing in traditional rote-learning activities.
Gamification offers a potentially effective approach to increasing both motivation and enjoyment of rote learning.
3. Roche et al. (2009) – Rote Learning And The Aging Brain
Getting older means losing various physical and cognitive abilities that most people take for granted during their younger years. Memory problems are one of the main complaints the elderly express to their doctor (Levy-Cushman & Abeles, 1998).
As Roche et al. (2009) explain:
“The normal decline in memory performance that accompanies old age is thought to be related to cell loss in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, two crucial areas for memory encoding and recall.”(Small, 2001, p. 2)
In an attempt to combat cognitive decline, Roche et al. (2009) had 24 participants, ages 55-70, engage in six weeks of a rote learning training regime.
Participants were then administered various memory tests and had the metabolic profile of their hippocampus measured.
The results “found that this training regime did produce an enhancement in memory function” (p. 11).
In addition, “A delayed memory enhancement was found…six weeks after the end of their weekly rote learning regimen” (p. 12).
Even more interesting, “these benefits appear to be associated with metabolic changes in the left posterior hippocampus” (p. 15).
Rote learning is the repetition of learning material in order for it to be committed to long-term memory. The process is quite simple: repeat the material, over and over again.
It does not require any advanced cognitive skills such as understanding how concepts are connected or engaging in critical analysis.
Because it is so repetitive, it represents an impediment to beginners continuing their pursuit. Students simply get bored and lose interest.
Some strategies can help students maintain interest. For instance, integrating gamification elements in a subject can make the experience of learning more dynamic and compelling.
Research suggests that helping students understand the relevancy of a subject can improve motivation as well. This can involve teachers highlighting the practical applications of the subject domain or its value to other disciplines.
Brett, J., Gladwell, T., Xu, N., Amelidis, P., Davis, T., & Gatzidis, C. (2020, August). Developing games for the purposes of rote learning for keyboard and piano. In 2020 IEEE Conference on Games (CoG) (pp. 724-727). IEEE.
Grove, N. P., & Bretz, S. L. (2012). A continuum of learning: from rote memorization to meaningful learning in organic chemistry. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 13(3), 201-208. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1039/C1RP90069B
Kwan, R., & Mafe, C. (2016). Rote learning: A necessary evil. Advances in Medical Education and Practice, 7, 429-432. https://doi.org/10.2147/AMEP.S115838
Levy-Cushman, J., & Abeles, N. (1998). Memory complaints in the able elderly. Clinical Gerontology, 19, 3-24.
Novak, J. (1977). A theory of education. Cornell University: Ithaca, NY.
Pasquier, F. (1999). Early diagnosis of dementia: Neuropsychology. Journal of Neurology, 246, 6-15. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s004150050299
Roche, R. A., Mullally, S. L., McNulty, J. P., Hayden, J., Brennan, P., Doherty, C. P., … & O’Mara, S. M. (2009). Prolonged rote learning produces delayed memory facilitation and metabolic changes in the hippocampus of the ageing human brain. BMC Neuroscience, 10, 1-17. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2202-10-136
Small, S.A. (2001). Age-related memory decline. Archives in Neurology, 58, 360-364.