Is there a role for rote learning?

So here we are, then, back to work here in Maynooth for the last week of teaching. Or, to be precise, the last four days – yesterday was a Bank Holiday. With university and school examinations looming, it is no surprise to find an article griping about the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations and the fact that teachers seem to encourage students to approach them by by rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen – especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right. I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text. I’m sure this applies to many other subjects. No doubt a good memory is a great benefit to a budding lawyer, for example,  but the ability to reason logically must surely be necessary too.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in  a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

But while rote learning has a role, it should not be all there is and my worry is that the teaching-to-the-test approach is diminishing the ability of educators to develop other aspects of intelligence. There has to be a better way to encourage the development of the creative imagination, especially in the context of problem-solving. Future generations are going to have to face many extremely serious problems in the very near future, and they won’t be able to solve them simply by remembering the past.

3 Responses to “Is there a role for rote learning?”

  1. An inability to learn things by rote (me!) means that you have to develop better logic and deeper understanding.
    I blame the exam setters anyway: stop asking questions that could be answered by anyone with books; make your exams at third level open book for a start.

  2. I have to preface this by admitting I have no experience in the study of how people learn. I’ve taught some courses and that’s all.

    But … mm. It feels to me like there are some places for rote learning. Like, when you’ve found a new topic to be fascinating there’s this infatuation phase where it’s easy to go about learning discrete little facts. They’re really more trivia than knowledge, because you don’t have the understanding of the core concepts to make these things relate to one another. But it’s this time where you like picking up, like, stories about the number 1,729.

    But that’s rote-learning as a side effect and I’m not sure it’s properly speaking rote if you’re looking forward to doing it.

    And I feel like you’re right that memorizing little discrete facts makes it easier to learn how to do the interesting things. Like, if you’re proficient enough in (say) adding numbers, you have a chance of noticing something is a sequence of triangular numbers or something else that might be important, or interesting, or at least worth further study. But that’s lousy motivation. Putting aside that someone might not care if they ever notice triangular numbers, there’s no way to use that to say why one topic is more worth study than another.

    But, like, you can’t do any sport well unless you can do all the little technical parts well. And a lot of those are boring, if they’re not part of a game. It seems like a lot of rote learning is kind of like that sort of drill.

  3. Snogubbe Says:

    I’m currently sitting A-levels, actually sitting my second physics paper tomorrow morning. There is, I feel, too much rote learning in some ways and too little in others.

    I recall being given a question about an electron entering at right angles to a magnetic field and being asked what would happen. That’s a really cool problem to someone a week past Fleming’s Left Hand rule and it was a fun pairing different ideas you’d learned together.
    It was the same with “velocity selectors” where perpendicular magnetic and electric fields would only allow electrons moving at certain velocities to pass through into a beam.
    The problem with these two, and a lot of other parts of the A-level, is that they get drilled and repeated over and over again. e^i*theta isn’t mind blowing the hundredth time you’ve seen it and neither are these fun problems in physics. We get explicitly taught how to solve specific types of problems and then do exactly that in the exam.
    The new, linear A-levels are slightly better but since there’s still so much rote learning of specific problems, rather than pulling together interesting questions they often choose to add complexity. I’ve nothing against that – we obviously should be comfortable taking other factors into consideration when solving a real world prbolem, but it’s not as fun or interesting as it could be had they not forced us to memorise certain problems.
    All this while some students struggle with the idea of lograithms.

    A level maths is another good example – turning the sum of a sine and cosine function into a compound function would be a really neat, and difficult by modern standards, problem. It would also be cool in that it would tidy up SHM.
    But instead we get taught explicitly how to solve these problems.
    All while some students don’t understand how to solve x” + x = 0

    We need rote. We need to be comfortable using the tools we’ve encountered. You don’t want to be constantly worrying if that actually is what the dot product calculates, you should be thinking at a somewhat further level about how to tackle the problem and how to relate the information you have to the information you need to get.

    Sorry if this comes across as elitist – I don’t think I’m better than anyone and don’t have any understanding of theories of education or how things are best taught. I just feel like right now the curriculum is letting our students down.

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