Rote Memorization and Learning Techniques

2+2 is…

There are two types of cells: _____ and ______.

The states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas…

As you pull up this information in your head, you might be singing songs. You might be thinking back to a flashcard that you used in grade school before a quiz. The goal of these exercises and study games became to memorize the information. 

You probably repeated these exercises, quizzes, and other study techniques over and over again. During this time, you were engaging in a practice called rote memorization. 

In this video, I’ll talk about rote memorization, why it’s highly debated among educators, and how you can use it effectively. Rote memorization alone will not make you a genius, but it can help to set a solid foundation for evaluation, creation, and other high-level thinking skills. 

What is rote memorization?

Rote memorization, or rote learning, is the process of learning through repetition and memorization. The goal of rote memorization is to be able to instantly recall information once it is presented to you. 

2+2 is… 

Four! You probably didn’t have to think about the answer. But this is only after years and years of hearing your parents, teachers, or characters on television tell you that 2+2 is 4. This is a successful case of rote memorization. 

Examples

Throughout this video, I’ve mentioned a few ways that we learn through rote memorization. Everyone also has their own special tricks. You have also probably used a handful of these at the suggestion of teachers, parents, or study buddies:

  • Flashcards

  • Using mnemonic devices

  • Singing songs to learn information

  • Repeatedly solving the problem (spelling the same word over and over, taking many multiplication tests, etc.) 

Rote memorization vs critical thinking (difference between memory and intelligence)

I get a lot of questions about learning strategies. I never get asked what rote memorization is, but whether or not rote memorization is an effective strategy. Rote memorization has gotten a lot of slack in the world of education recently, especially as standardized tests have taken over the way that we measure a student’s ability to do well in school or succeed in college. 

When you memorize a list of definitions and answers on a standardized test, can you really say you know the information? 

Educators believe that rote memorization should not be the primary strategy for students to use when learning new information. When teachers spend time on “teaching to the test,” they take away from time that could be used to develop critical thinking skills. Think about it. Memorizing 12 x 12 is not exactly as “useful” as understanding how to multiply numbers. Being able to recite all 50 states isn’t as enriching as the experience of visiting all 50 states. When you get out into the workplace and are asked to solve problems, simply spouting off facts won’t exactly get you to a solution that you probably have to create or discover through trial and error. 

When is rote learning useful? (short time frame or foundational information)

Rote memorization is just one strategy for learning something new. Critics of rote memorization say that it doesn’t set students up for success in the way that experiential learning or project-based learning does. Some people pit “rote learning” against “meaningful learning,” a term that does not make rote learning sound very useful. 

But rote learning is not an “old” or “outdated” strategy. It’s still very effective when you put it to use at the right times. 

Building a Foundation 

In 1956, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom created a hierarchy that classified higher-level and lower-level thinking. The hierarchy was built as a framework to help educators classify their goals for teaching students. 

At the top of the hierarchy is “synthesis,” which has since been revised by psychologists to “creation.” Creation includes all of the higher-level skills that you might expect: generating new ideas, planning a strategy, etc. Alongside creation is “evaluation.” 

At the bottom of the hierarchy is “knowledge,” or “remembering.” The skills required to display this level of thinking include the ability to recall facts, recognize and describe patterns, and memorize information. 

Like most hierarchies, the top cannot exist without the bottom. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we cannot obtain self-actualization if we are deprived of physical needs like food and shelter. The same principle applies to this hierarchy. Without the ability to memorize and recall facts, we cannot evaluate and transform them into something new. 

It’s difficult to think about taking a calculus class without the ability to know basic multiplication tables. Even if you did know how to use a calculator to add, divide, and subtract, higher-level math classes would be frustrating and tedious without the knowledge of 2+2. 

It’s also difficult to think about writing a letter in a second language without, at first, singing the songs that you learned to conjugate verbs. Rote memorization serves as the building blocks for the knowledge that you will eventually use to evaluate and create. Without it, your pyramid of knowledge stands on shaky ground.

Learning in a Short Time Frame 

Rote memorization is the fastest way to learn something. Period. If you want to ensure that the capital of Japan will be memorized by tomorrow’s test, memorize it. Experiencing the culture of Japan or understanding the ways in which you can find the capital of Japan are great strategies, but unless you can Google the capital of Japan during your test tomorrow, you probably won’t be able to recall it. 

The important lesson to take away from this video is that it’s important to strike a balance between simply memorizing information and applying it to higher-level learning strategies. Rote memorization will help you build a foundation fast, but simply recalling facts doesn’t show you know too much about a subject. In order to be an expert on Tokyo, you will have to do a lot more than just knowing that it’s the capital of Japan. 

When you sit down to learn a subject, think about your goals. What do you need to know? What skills do you need to possess to get there? And what strategies will help you best retain what you need to learn? 

Theodore
 

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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