Rote learning is a memory method that involves repeating information over and over again. Also known as drilling, or more officially as distributed practice, it has been used in classrooms around the world to teach young children basics such as the alphabet and multiplication tables. Older learners use rote to encode a range of facts as diverse as the elements on the periodic table and the titles and creators of great works of art. Rote learning can be used to form permanent foundations upon which further learning is based, or to temporarily “cram” information for a test that will quickly fade from memory because it is only accessed once.
Because rote memory is imprinted through repetition rather than through a learning process, it is often compared and contrasted unfavorably to methods that use association and comprehension such as meaningful or active learning. When applied well, rote is a useful method of permanently learning building block information that requires no understanding, but it is less useful for situations requiring comprehension of complex theories or in areas that require higher level thought.
What is the Rote Method?
The rote method of learning involves simple storage of data in the brain, without any need or attempt at understanding. The theory behind rote memorization is that the more that a piece of information is repeated, the more easily and automatically it can be recalled without any need for thought. This provides what is considered a foundational basis of knowledge that is reliably available for application in higher level learning. This is in direct contrast to conceptual learning, which illustrates the facts that rote memorization stores in order to ensure that their meaning is understood, as well as the reason why knowing the information is helpful.
An example of the difference between the rote method and conceptual learning can be found in how the multiplication tables are learned. Though students can effectively memorize the multiplication tables by drilling them, in order for them to gain an understanding of how multiplication works and can be applied, it is better to provide them with real life examples to which they can relate.
Limitations of the Rote Method
The rote method uses repetition. Flashcards, rereading text and drilling are the most common methods of committing the information to memory. Though this methodology works for straightforward and unchanging facts such as names of cities or the words to a poem, it may be less helpful in areas that require understanding or associations. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine found that the more the brain is exposed to information that can be interpreted, the more likely it is that non-factual details will shift, get added or subtracted. This is because the part of the brain in which our memories are based can try to create new, different or false memories out of existing memories that are similar. This may be because every time the memory is recalled, the brain focuses on a slightly different aspect of it. With memories like multiplication tables that have no mutable details, this is not a problem, but where understanding is required rote memorization is limited by this phenomenon. As a result, it can be used as a foundation but needs to be supported through associative or conceptual learning. (Open Colleges)
Remembering Vs. Understanding
The controversy over the rote method of memorization is a question of whether the goal is to remember or to understand. If the goal of memorization is simple retention of information, the rote method can be extremely effective, but if the goal is to transfer what is learned in order to solve new problems, then rote learning can only be useful as an initial step. Rote methodology provides the ability to remember and relies upon the cognitive processes of recognizing or identifying and recalling. By contrast, understanding provides the ability to transfer what has been memorized and to add cognitive processes such as interpreting, classifying, inferring, comparing, evaluating and explaining. (MIT)
Rote Learning and Brain Development
A study conducted at Stanford University School of Medicine has suggested that rote memorization may actually have an impact on brain development in young children. Brain scans done on children as they progress from simple skills such as counting on their fingers to memorizing multiplication tables have shown that with the shift in ability come physical changes in the hippocampus. The structure, which is responsible for memory, takes on increased responsibility from the area responsible for higher order reasoning (the pre-frontal parietal cortex). This shift represents the brain reorganizing to accommodate the need for greater complexity and the elimination on reliance of less efficient methodologies for learning and problem solving. This suggests that the reliance on the rote method for acquiring knowledge such as the alphabet or math may be an important foundation for higher reasoning and learning strategies. According to the study’s authors, the increased role that the hippocampus takes as this type of strategic thinking develops “is consistent with its known role in learning and memory for encoding and retrieval of facts and events, and matches our observation of greater reliance on memory-based retrieval of addition facts.” The authors also indicate that the important role that rote learning plays is “time limited” and that knowledge of basic math and language eventually consolidate in other areas of the brain. (National Post)
Rote Learning and Improving Brain Health in the Elderly
Though the rote method has become a controversial and increasingly frowned-upon method in the educational community, it may offer significant memory benefits to older adults. A study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in 2006 showed that older adults may be able to improve their verbal recall and memory by engaging in a period of intensive rote learning followed by an equally long rest period.
The research was led by Jonathan McNulty of the University College Dublin in Ireland’s School of Medicine and Medical Science. He and his collaborators studied a group of 24 healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 70 for a six-week period, asking them each to memorize either a newspaper article or a 500-word poem. Following the intensive memorization, they rested for six weeks and were then tested for memory improvement. Explaining their findings, McNulty says, “We didn’t see an immediate improvement following the intensive memorization period. However, after a six-week rest, the volunteers manifested both metabolic changes in the brain and improved memory performance.” In addition to taking extensive memory and learning tests before and after the learning period, the group also submitted to magnetic resonance spectroscopy before and after the learning and after the six-week rest period. Though there were no changes in brain metabolism or memory performance immediately after the learning session, there were improvements on both the tests and the scans after the rest period. Each participant was better able to recall events and remember and repeat lists of words or short stories, and each exhibited metabolic change in the left posterior hippocampus, the memory-related part of the brain.