What is Rote Learning? A Battle Between Memory and Intelligence

Curriculum & Instruction Updated January 6, 2016

Rote learning is the memorization of information based on repetition. The two biggest examples of rote learning are the alphabet and numbers. Slightly more complicated examples include multiplication tables and spelling words. At the high school level, the elements and their chemical numbers must be memorized by rote. Many times, teachers use rote learning without even realizing they do so.

Is rote learning an outdated technique or is there a valid place for its use in the classroom today? Increasingly, rote learning is being abandoned for newer techniques such as associative learning, meta cognition, and critical thinking instead of being used as a functional foundation to higher levels of learning.

It’s always useful to apply meaningful relationships to basic skills. At the end of the day, however, rote learning plays a bigger role than most teachers would like to recognize in today’s learning climate.

The difference between memory and intelligence

The mental ability to memorize is often used as an indicator of intelligence. No doubt, the two are strongly linked, but memory is not always a reliable indicator of intelligence. Working memory does not directly affect the level of intelligence of a student.

Most of the time, a deficit in working memory is due to the structure of learning. Think of working memory as a filing cabinet. If each piece of information has a separate file, finding the information becomes difficult. If factors such as stress, lack of sleep, and distractions are involved, finding the information is even harder. Instead, effective memorization involves categorization of the information and sections within sections of the filing cabinet.

Memory is not a strong indicator of intelligence. Instead, it is linked to interaction of environmental factors and training.

Why rote learning is useful

As an alternative approach to subject areas that require memorization with disdain and conflict, teachers can build higher-level critical thinking skills with a rote learning as the foundation. That’s not to say that there aren’t some problems with rote learning. Obviously, rote learning is not beneficial for the student and promotes disengagement in the classroom.

Not all rote learning has to be approached with a sheet of loose leaf and writing the same word or mathematical equation over and over again until the student’s hand cramps. This can result in a loss of focus where the student starts to challenge themselves on how quickly they can get it over with or how legible their handwriting is. This is probably not the goal that the teacher had in mind.

When trying to teach something as fundamental as basic math and literacy and the lesson turns into boredom and dread, then something has gone wrong.

When is there a problem with rote learning?

Rote memorization becomes a problem when it’s the main focus of the classroom.. When the majority of the student’s day is spent on repetition, the foundation for learning becomes shaky.

When the role of rote memorization is an end in itself, instead of a means to an end, rote memorization fails as a building block to critical thinking.

Of course in the early stages, the stage of actually memorizing the material, it is an end in itself. The end being that the students gets the information memorized so that they can move into concepts and application. The longer view is that the information acquired by rote, is the house of higher-level learning.

Once students have these down and memorized, they can more easily combine them and use them in their thinking. Otherwise, they just have to pause and use a calculator or computer, which will really slows things down–not to mention disengages and distracts the student.

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This section is devoted to information for improving student academic achievement with resources devoted to research development and curriculum implementation. Articles will direct you to online resources that will help students inside--and outside—the classroom. The relationship between “what to teach’ (curriculum) and “how to teach” (instruction) is also explored.

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