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Rote Memorization vs. Meaningful Learning — Is There a Place for Both?

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  • Teaching Strategies

To this day, rote memorization is still popular in schools throughout the world. However, rote learning has a negative reputation of hindering student's creativity and failing the learning process in developing critical thinking skills.

Modern teaching methods such as metacognition, associative learning, meaningful learning, and critical thinking have taken the place of rote memorization. Metacognition appears to make an impact on how students learn mathematics.

In contrast to remote learning, associative learning is defined as "a learning principle that states that ideas and experiences reinforce each other and can be mentally linked to one another.” Examples of associative learning include how swimming may be connected to someone's fear of drowning or a misbehaving student who does not get to take part in a class activity as punishment.

What is rote memorization?

Young girl rests her head on a book and looks into the camera.

Rote memorization requires the use of repetition to keep information in the brain. 

Two simple examples of rote learning include memorizing the alphabet and numbers. As students transition into higher grades, multiplication charts and times tables are frequently learned through memorization.

There are several rote memory techniques that may help your students to remember most or all of what they've attempted to memorize:

  • Tape flashcards throughout your home. Everywhere you turn, there are reminders posted in various sections of your home to help you remember key points.
  • Record your notes and play them back. Audio learners find this method of rote memorization easy to use. It can help them remember smaller details during exams.
  • Learning through the use of all five senses. Some students are visual learners, while others hold on to information better through audio means such as in-person lectures.
  • Breaking down information into smaller easier-to-digest chunks. The human brain is incapable of memorizing large amounts of data at once. However, if students attempt to memorize shorter passages and numbers, it helps them to recall the information at a later date.

Rote memorization and rote learning are interchangeable terms that mean the same thing.

Does rote memorization work?

Two children complete math worksheets.

Rote learning has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. It has been effective in helping students learn basic mathematics like multiplication tables because:

  • Purposeful rote learning tends to 'stick' more in students' minds vs. meaningless or random memorization
  • It's a type of brain exercise that enhances neuroplasticity, improves memory and changes the way your brain works
  • Rote learning has been shown to change the brain's structure and improve its ability to retain information for longer periods of time

Some educators believe memorization limits students' options and doesn't promote questioning and thinking. More disadvantages associated with rote memorization include:

  • Easy loss of focus
  • No use of social skills during rote learning
  • Promotes short-term memory instead of long-term recall
  • It's repetitive and tedious. Students may lose interest after a time
  • It doesn't encourage students to grow, explore, and think out of the box
  • Critical thinking skills do not have the chance to develop with memorization

Educators should incorporate some rote learning with other teaching methods to help their students remember valuable information. 

The benefits of rote memorization

Rote memorization has several key benefits that could help students expand their learning capabilities. Students often feel a sense of accomplishment when they remember everything they memorized, whether it's poetry or multiplication tables.

Consider these benefits of rote learning:

  • Memorized data stays within the student's short-term memory. However, the longer they keep this information in their mind, the greater the chance it will become part of their long-term memory.
  • Rote learning is a type of "mental training" that helps students with future learning opportunities as they progress through subsequent grades. This level of training helps boost memory-retention capability.
  • Students who discover rote memorization study strategies may find that they'll be able to increase the speed at which they're able to remember and hold information.

Playing new memory games such as picture bingo or ten-card memory recall may also help students strengthen their rote memorization skills. Older students can play Sudoku or Memorado — both are free to try.

The disadvantages of rote memorization

A high school student sits next to several piles of books and touches her temples as she struggles with rote memorization.

Cramming large amounts of specific details and facts may quickly become a laborious task for many students. The question remains — are they actually learning something or simply memorizing it to pass an exam?

  • Rote memorization takes the fun out of learning something new.
  • Students must use memory games and techniques to make the repetition stay put in their mind.
  • There's no bridge between old and new concepts. In fact, knowledge-building is non-existent.
  • Some students may find information retention difficult to master, whereas others will excel in this area.
  • Social interaction is unlikely to occur between students because they'll be focused on memorization instead of working together.
  • Students lose the ability to think for themselves because they're accustomed to following instructions. They cannot build leadership skills.
  • Rote memorization does not promote critical thinking. Critical thinking skills could fall by the wayside if rote learning becomes your primary teaching method.

Many educators agree there is a place for rote memorization in the school system. However, most teachers have opted for other methods geared toward improving students' long-term memory and creating a more significant way to learn the course material.

What is meaningful learning?

A young teacher reads a story to a group of students sitting on the ground.

Meaningful learning is defined as a method of gaining foundational knowledge and critical thinking by building on top of what was previously learned. Students make connections between the new information and older lessons.

There are five characteristics that make meaningful learning an effective teaching method: active, collaborative, constructive, authentic and goal-directed.

  • Active learning involves students independently using technology regularly or self-directed.
  • Collaborative learning means students team up while using conventional digital tools to complete assignments.
  • Constructive learning focuses on using technology to build new information on top of knowledge received in the past.
  • Authentic learning entails using digital tools to connect activities outside of the classroom setting.
  • Goal-directed learning incorporates goals and activities with monitored tasks to finish homework assignments.  

The primary goal of meaningful learning is to build cognitive skills that students will use for a lifetime. It is an effective means for students to engage in conceptual learning and build new skill foundations.

The benefits of meaningful learning

For meaningful learning to be effective, it's necessary for teachers to take into consideration students' previous knowledge. This type of learning benefits students tremendously:

  • Teachers can focus on actual learning instead of memorizing content
  • Learners build a deeper connection between new and old knowledge
  • Students have a stronger ability to store knowledge in their long-term memory
  • Kids have a better sense of purpose, motivation and achievement through meaningful learning
  • Active learning involves getting new knowledge, problem-solving skills and critical thinking

To make good use of this technique, teachers can use examples, group activities and debates to create an environment conducive to learning.

The disadvantages of meaningful learning

While meaningful learning has significant benefits, there are several disadvantages for educators to think about before selecting this teaching strategy. The biggest downside is the requirement to build on a foundation of prior knowledge. 

There are other disadvantages that teachers should consider:

  • This technique does not work for information that needs to be recalled, such as phone numbers or historical data.
  • Since this process requires effort, some students won't be interested in putting forth the time and energy into meaningful learning.
  • If students do not find the new and old knowledge relatable, they won't be able to connect the two together. It may lead to frustration and loss of interest.

 Educators may want to combine the use of rote memorization, meaningful learning, and other teaching methods to enhance students' ability to understand the course material.

How to create meaningful learning in the classroom

Students sit at desks and work on math assignments in the classroom.

Teachers can create meaningful learning so that students retain the lessons delivered in the classroom. Challenges include maintaining kids' interest and helping their knowledge 'stick'.

When educators adopt a student-centered approach to learning techniques, kids develop a connection to daily lessons. How can you connect students’ real-life experiences to your lesson plan? Reflect on the creative arts and storytelling that your students find relatable and exciting. It can also help them remember what they learned in class.

So what are other ways that teachers can help their students to recall what they've learned?

Linking content

A helpful way to get students to remember information is to connect their personal experiences to new concepts taught in class. Using students' relevant experiences and showing them how to link the two together enables them to remember details about what they learned in class.  

Allowing students to figure out problems

Offer students feedback and positive encouragement when they make errors. They'll improve their ability to learn and hang onto knowledge gained in school. It's critical to their development to understand where they made mistakes and how to make corrections. If kids see mistakes pointed out to them without offering support or encouraging problem-solving, they may perceive this to be negative instead of something positive.

Giving students a chance to figure out problems on their own builds their confidence, self-worth and independence. It's a learning strategy worth exploring for your class.

Encouraging self-testing

Support your students by encouraging them to test their own knowledge. They'll build confidence in their own problem-solving abilities and reduce test anxiety. Provide study guides and quizzes so students can self-test their knowledge and feel assured they're improving their learning process.

It may be worthwhile for educators to incorporate surveys to determine how much knowledge their students retained.

Frequent assessments

Formative assessments can monitor and show evidence of students' learning. Kids benefit from improved long-term memory and develop a keen interest in whether they understood the course material.

The frequency of low-stakes assessments may ease "exam stress" and help students achieve mastery of the content they learned in class. When kids are exposed to regular testing, they become accustomed to receiving tests and feel less anxious.

Educators can take a bird's-eye view of whether their lessons are effective in getting students to understand each lesson. For example, if a teacher instructs their students in complex algebraic equations and a subsequent quiz reveals a lower-than-expected average, the teacher may want to adjust and simplify the content.

Frequent assessments help students and teachers gauge progress and correct any mistakes that occur throughout the school year. If a student lags in their understanding of the material, teachers can offer help before student comprehension declines.

Ongoing support with Prodigy

Want to move beyond rote memorization in your classroom? Try Prodigy Math Game!

Prodigy Math Game transforms math practice into an epic adventure, where students answer questions to earn rewards, complete quests and challenge friends. Prodigy’s adaptive algorithm makes sure students are always learning at a level that’s right for them, and encourages them to keep practicing relevant skills!

Free teacher tools help you easily send differentiated assignments, align in-game questions to your lesson plan and track student progress.

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