Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rote Learning - Good or bad?

Do you recognise the "Times Tables" from your primary school days? This chart is printed on the back of exercise books for the benefit of struggling school students.

Much of the learning I did in primary school was through rote learning. This is a common memory technique where the material is repeated again and again until is is drilled into long term memory.

Do you remember learning the alphabet and using songs and rhymes to help you remember the sequence of letters? Maybe you used to sing the alphabet song:

A - B - C - D - E - F - G
H - I - J - K - L - M - N - O - P
Q - R - S - T - U and V,
W - X - Y and Z
Now I know my A - B - C's
Next time won't you sing with me?

The idea of rote learning is that if you repeat it often enough, you will recall it. I'm sure you can recite the alphabet from A to Z. But what you learnt was reciting it in the forward direction. Here is an experiment: Time yourself reciting the alphabet from A to Z, then try it again from Z to A. What you learnt was a chain of associations from A to B, B to C and so on util Y to Z. You didn't learn the alphabet in reverse so the recall is much more challenging.

The "times table" was probably the biggest learning challenge in primary school along with learning the spelling of words. I think rote learning is necessary in the early stages of learning anything as the foundation of knowledge is not present. Mathematics often requires learning things "by rote" with understanding coming later. Regular revision and games helps reinforce the memory and systems such as Kumon and Mathletics (used in my daughter's school).

Rote learning can be fun when it is made into a game or competition. Learning to spell words is a matter of repetion and revision, and a Spelling Bee is a popular way of proving one's spelling memory. I am proud to say that both my daughters did very well at spelling in primary school and won awards for spelling.

My daughter's school put on the "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" musical in 2009. She played cello in the band, and I must say the production was magnificent and the music most enjoyable. Have a look at the online game: as well as reading more about spelling bees at Wikipedia.

Rote Learning is sometimes referred to as learning "
parrot fashion", or learning "off by heart". It does work, but the problem is the material is not assimilated with other knowledge or it can be distorted. Try learning a phone number, long quotation or poem "off by heart" then test your recall a few days later. Your recall won't be as strong as using memory techniques (mnemonics) based on association, location and imagination.

When I was in high school I decided to learn the Greek alphabet "off by heart" and was able to recite "Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta.... through to Omega". More recently I learnt the upper case and lower case Greek letters. Considering these letters are used in mathematics I thought it is useful to know the names and shapes of these letters.

I taught myself the Katakana and Hiragana Japanese syllabaries by rote learning and it was a long, painful process. When my older daughter learnt Japanese at school she had a book that taught these characters using visual mnemonics. If only I had this book when I first started. Hiragana and Katakana are just the beginning to reading Japanese. There are thousands of Kanji characters to learn and I continue to be amazed that Japanese school children learn to read and write these characters.

We remember a lot of material as a result of hearing it repeatedly. For example, songs and their lyrics, especially the National Anthem. Many pieces of information get imprinted in our memory as "trivia" - information that has no practical purpose or relevance in our lives, but extremely valuable in Trivia contests and Pub Quiz nights.

A useful way of revising material learnt by rote-learning is to use flash cards. These are cards with the question written on one side and the answer on another. I regularly use flash cards (3 x 5 inch index cards) or software to do the job. The advantage of using the computer is that the program remembers which cards you got correct, which cards should be shown in the near future as well as shuffling the cards.

Therefore rote learning is a memory technique that sometimes has to be used, but more advanced memory techniques should be used once the foundation knowledge is established.

Please tell me about your rote learning experiences in the comments below then read
more on Rote Learning at Wikipedia


  1. Any ideas how to memorise songs especially long winded ones.

    I am finding it very difficult to remember them.

    Kind regards


  2. I have this in a background cover of my notebook.

    Laby[zoot suit]