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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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When Rote Learning Makes Sense

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

As a youth, I remember feeling cheated out of rich content in my education when I listened to my mother in times of sorrow or tenderness, lovingly recite entire poems and passages from books she studied in high school.

We all know that practice makes perfect, but for some reason perfection is not one of the goals of learning in most schools. In today's classrooms, students practice plenty, but are not required to retain knowledge perfectly.

The M Word

Somewhere along the way, rote learning got a bad rap. Memorization (there, I said the M word) became anathema to learning. How this came to be, I am uncertain, but what I am certain is that this shift away from memorization has undermined the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process altering whole generations. Perhaps the misplaced angst against memorization has come from the notion that memorization is reserved for teachers as a teaching methodology.

The true nature of memorization, however, is not for the teachers at all, really. It is for the students. And it is the responsibility of teachers to teach students how to use it to help them in their educational career.

The total emphasis on critical thinking has it all wrong: Before students can think critically, they need to have something to think about in their brains. It is true that knowledge without comprehension is of little use, but comprehension requires knowledge and it takes time and effort to acquire.

Bloom's Taxonomy maintains that the highest order of thinking occurs at the evaluating and creating levels which infer that the thinkers must have knowledge, facts, data, or information in their brains to combine into something new, or with which to judge relative importance or value. Therefore, effective knowledge acquisition has to come first.

The Cognitive 411

Students deserve to know how to learn and teachers do them a disservice when they do not teach them useful learning skills. Here are some underlying concepts that need to be accepted before we can continue:

  • The brain is a learning tool. This might seem obvious, but the brain is not a passive sponge. It requires active effort to retain information in short-term memory and even more effort to get it into long-term memory.
  • Learners need to know that the longer an idea can be kept in short-term memory, the more chance it can be pushed into long-term memory. This is where practice makes perfect makes sense.
  • The body is another learning tool -- another often-ignored concept. The body is connected to the brain and if you engage the body, you are engaging the brain too.
  • Learners feel an addictive sense of accomplishment when something has been memorized completely.

Memory Games

With these concepts in mind, I would like to discuss some of the memorization learning methods that make it effective and enjoyable:

Learning Aloud

Just as we use our mouths to repeat a phone number over and over to retain it in short term memory, other things can be learned in the same way. One key point here to remember is that the cycle of repetition must be short and quick and no less than three times.

Another point is that if students cannot pronounce a word, there is no way they can remember it. When reviewing flash cards orally, for example, students need to do it quickly, pausing only a second or two for recall.

If it doesn't come, then they need to look at the answer and repeat it aloud, then go on. If done quickly, by the third or fourth iteration, most students can have 100 percent accuracy. The danger is when a student gets stuck on one card for too long, all of the other information in short term memory is lost, making the study ineffective.

One way to help students learn how to do this is to do the flash cards with them, modeling the speed and what happens if the student can't remember: let them look at the answer, but making sure that that student gets a chance to respond correctly again. If the students are in a line (or even better, several lines), the first student answers a card, and then goes back to the end of the line while the rest of the students in the line give their responses to the cards one by one.

Using Rhythm and Breath

Learning text is done at similar speeds, but since the order of learning the words is important there are some effective ways to chain them together. Learn the passage in breath groups, or what can be comfortably stated in one breath. Students using their mouths, because it is part of the body and a learning tool, repeat the breath group until it is firmly in short-term memory, then go on to the next breath group and do the same. When that is done, put both groups together and repeat them.

This is best taught to students using choral repetition. The key here is to be enthusiastic and energetic, praising the students as they practice. Printing the first letter of each word in the breath group can help students remember the words as they learn them.

Jigsaw Strategies

A creative teacher can have groups of students learn different parts of the passage and then switch parts, or stand up as they say their passage, or even move to a different part of the room with each phrase. Since the body is connected to the brain, it is effective to have students do a hand signal or body movement to symbolize the content of the breath group as they say it.

Sometimes it is helpful to start at the end and add phrases in reverse order known as reverse chaining. I have seen seventh graders use this method to learn the complex logical operations and high school students learning chemistry through a chemical reactions dance.

As a Spanish teacher, I found it effective to have the students perform the action of the words they were trying to learn as they told a story, know as Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS). It was exciting to see students enjoying themselves while acting out and stating from memory the words to Caperucita Roja ("Little Red Riding Hood").

Memorization is not a bad thing. Students have to memorize the alphabet, sight words, vocabulary, times tables, and many other things and have fun doing it.

There's countless ways to help students learn how to memorize quickly, efficiently, and enjoyably. You can use music, song, dance, rhythms, patterns, competitions, and games. Once they know how to learn, or memorize, then students can acquire knowledge about anything they want to learn, which is in direction opposition to what critics say about rote memorization.

What are your thoughts on this post? Please share your own stories about learning through memorization.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Iqtedar Iqbal's picture

Rote learning is viewed negatively in education nowadays but it is a tried and tested technique. The information gets retained in long-term memory, it provides a solid foundation for the higher learning skills making it essential, and it prevents dependency on technological tools. Rote learning should not be disregarded altogether. Those who are against rote learning altogether are doing a great disservice. It should be seen as complementary to other methods of learning. In our school, we have specified what information must be committed to memory, which can all be described as basics/essentials, and what information is not necessary to apply rote learning to.

School Science's picture
School Science
Ed.M. in Mind, Brain, and Education at HGSE

Hi Ben,

Thanks for this most excellent post! I really appreciate two things:
1) How you draw the line between critical thinking and the requisite knowledge to do the thinking about;
and
2) How you draw the line between disembodied "rote" memorization and multiple-modality memorization that connects the concept to be memorized with bodily movements and visual and auditory sensations. With our brains set up to remember information that is connected to a variety of other concepts and experiences, it is clear that it is not memorization itself that is ineffective, but the methods we use to get information to stick.

Have you heard of a book called Made To Stick? It's by two Stanford Business professors and has somewhat of a business/presentation slant, but it does a great job explaining, in brain terms, what causes an idea to 'stick' in memory, and what does not - what ideas are accessible with what prerequisite knowledge. Here's the link to reviews if you'd like to check it out:
http://www.amazon.com/Made-Stick-Ideas-Survive-Others/dp/1400064287

Colin's picture

Hi all, I believe full-heartedly in the article. I have been school in Singapore and that of the west. Memory is like a muscle. The more you use it, the better it gets. If you want to know why kids here do well in Science, Maths and English literacy scores, is because we accept the fact that memorization is important. Over the years though, it has given way somewhat. We here are also trying our western counterparts ways. To me, memory work is best done when children are young and done in a meaningful and interesting way. That way, they will not grow up renouncing this essential skill for life! Cheers!

Andrew Vivian's picture
Andrew Vivian
Consultant

An interesting post Ben. For me, "rote learning" conjures up images of a class droning on after the teacher, so I would prefer something like "Memorisation" as the title. I realise, of course, that "Rote Learning" is a better hook.

From some of the previous comments, who is against kids remembering things? Memory, as Bloom, and others, pointed out is the foundation of understanding. I am against teacher-directed classes in which every student does the same thing at the same time, and repetition is confused with learning. That is not the same as being against memorisation.

As you point out, there are myriad ways of making memorisation memorable - flash cards, mind maps, games, fun competitions, etc. Harvard's Project Zero has a number of excellent visual thinking tools for making connections between these facts. As a former teacher of Japanese, the "Hiragana in 48 minutes" is a wonderful example of "hanging" the memory of something new on something familiar.

Getting students to remember facts is easy, and fast, and has a place in any good classroom. In great classrooms, it is simply a foundation for higher orders of thinking for students as they work, at their own pace, through well-structured inquiry.

ValerietheFair's picture

I've recently taken over as the lead teacher in a preschool classroom (ages 3 to kindergarten entrance) after teaching two-year-olds for the past few years. A week into my new teaching position, I was observed and evaluated by an outside agency. This afternoon I met with the representative from the agency and among my weak spots, I was criticized (not in a harsh way, but enough to make me really step back) for implementing what the reviewer said was 99.9% rote instruction. I was taken aback because I really embrace discovery in my classroom and have done my best to fix the horrible state the classroom was left in thanks to some teachers who were way too overwhelmed to focus on very much actual teaching. I had no idea that what I was doing was so taboo! I don't use flashcards. I don't "quiz" the children. We do have an element of Biblical teaching at our facility, so we are working on the big bad M word when it comes to learning Bible verses. I did ask the children to review what we'd been talking about in our classroom thus far. Could that be why I scored so poorly in the HOTS area?!
My real dilemma is that I obviously don't want to drill these kiddos and I obviously want them to make discoveries on their own. But my thought is that they *do* need some foundation work. I have a couple of children who have diagnosed learning delays and they do not follow more than one-step instructions. When I do ask questions to encourage critical thinking, these students are passed by their peers in terms of responses and often cannot follow where the conversation is heading. Do you have any advice for achieving a balance between rote learning and critical thinking, especially in terms of group time?
Any help would be awesome because I'm really taking this personally. :-/

Tempe Laver's picture

How refreshing to finally see an educator speak some common sense. I have 2 children in primary school in Australia and they have just introduced the new National Curriculum. While our school has relied on rote/memory learning for things like sight words if you even dare to use that word on educational forums the teachers and many parents recoil in horror. They don't see it has any value only complex thinking is highly valued. I was confused as I couldn't work out how a student, without the knowledge/facts could progress to higher level thinking unless they had learnt something first? I don't know if teachers here in Australia are simply brainwashed or just afraid to admit there is a place for rote learning. I think that place is very important and gives the students confidence. This new fashion learning seems to have put the cart before the horse and I scratch my head as to how teachers are meant to teach and students learn. All I know is that many parents from the State system now send their kids to tutoring schools because they have not learnt the fundamentals at school and these centres use rote learning! Time for educators to reassess their position in my view.

Sandra Warren's picture

This has been my stance for some time! I feel like I am fighting the 'anti-rote' community. I would like to share my research on the topic here.

IN MEMORY OF ROTE : By Sandre Warren, MSEd www.TheTimesTable.com

Memorization: education, brain research, and suggestions for improved classrooms

Focus Questions

With the marked shift in education from rote to teaching for high level learning, are educators neglecting to help students memorize?
Does this affect student potential for higher levels of learning?
What does brain research tell us about memorization?
What specific memorization strategies work best?
As educators how might we improve our classrooms?

Introduction

Blooms Taxonomy Rose
Educational Psychologist Benjamin Bloom's contributions to education, to the process of teaching and learning, are significant with his most recognized contribution being his model of learning called Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This model has been taught around the world primarily presented to university students in textbooks as they prepare to become teachers.
The model has solidly stood since its conception in 1956 with relatively few changes. A revision in the 1990's, spearheaded by one of the original members of the team that helped Bloom construct the model, changed the model's terminology from nouns to verbs. This update was seen as keeping with the current trend to view learning as activity or action that can be measured. We now see verbs tied to learning wherever we look: our classroom plans, student and teacher textbooks, state standards, and more; so it is fitting that we tailor our learning models in this fashion.
So now instead of knowledge we have remembering as the base of Bloom's hierarchy. We then have understanding, analyzing, and applying instead of comprehension, analysis, and application. At the top of the hierarchy we have evaluation and creating instead of synthesis and evaluation. (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001 pp 67-68).
Whether one follows the old model or the revised model, it is clear that the foundation of the model is about memorizing facts. When Bloom first unveiled his model how did he image the world would view it? Would others understand it significance? Would they view it he did?
Shift From Rote to Higher Level Learning
Benjamin Bloom's 1956 unveiling of his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (bring to other site?) likely began the major shift in American education from a strong emphasis on rote memorization to teaching for higher-level learning. The shift is education is significant as it benefits our students by helping them to be active thinkers instead of passive vessels; however we must not let this shift in education diminish the importance of teaching our students to memorize essential facts. We must continue to seek a holistic approach to teaching and learning, providing student with instructional strategies at all levels of learning.
Much evidence abounds indicating educators are snubbing memorization calling it 'bottom of the barrel' or low-level learning. Memorization, which is often, termed rote, especially when being described as low-level learning, is spoken in hushed tones, swept over quickly in the educational text books, deemed antiquated, a waste of time, or obsolete.
"We really need to educate our parents so that they will understand what we value. We must have them realize that we're really expecting more of their children. We've raised the level from the lowest of Bloom's Taxonomy, rote recall, to the higher level of application," declares 11-year veteran teacher and Educational Consultant for the SC Department of Education. It is important to note here that 'rote' was never used by Bloom in his knowledge/recall learning objectives.
Certainly we must direct our students toward applying knowledge is meaningful ways, however, are we to 'raise the level' like a limbo stick and have students jump right into application. What is it, exactly, that they are they going to apply? How can students build a structure of higher learning without the bricks and mortar known as facts?
Strategies to help students memorize this fact base are minimal in text books; the same text books which are jammed packed with scaffolding ideas and instructional strategies to help students reach higher learning levels. One University text Pathways to Understanding, for example, provides numerous classroom practices to help students problem solve, organize, assess, analyze, synthesize, and create. The text does not elaborate on memorization strategies. As educators should we not provide instructional strategies to help students in all areas of learning?

Teaching the Child Holistically
The memorization nose snubbing we see and hear about was never Bloom's intent. Bloom's goal was to help educators teach students holistically by looking toward a plethora of possible educational goals or objectives. He classified these learning objectives into three domains; the cognitive, the affective and the psychomotor. In the cognitive domain he wanted educators to understand the various objectives or goals that could be applied to cognitive processes in learning. Bloom's taxonomy is hierarchical; meaning that each objective, or level, builds upon the other. Success at the higher levels is dependent on first having success at the lower levels. (Orlich, et al. 2004).

When Bloom created his taxonomy he did not present one objective as more important than the other. Sometimes his taxonomy is presented as a wheel or rose indicating balance and equilibrium. (Insert Bloom;s Taxonomy rose) All are to be viewed as reasonable education goals and objectives. Certainly the objectives as they move up the hierarchy require increasingly complex thought processes, but each has its place in our classrooms. Regarding the objective 'remembering' or 'knowledge' we could use lesson-plan terms such as list, describe, recite, recall, and define. No matter what terminology or activity we choose for demonstrating student success, we must understand that the process requires memorization.

Memorization is a necessary component to learning at higher levels.
According to Teaching Strategies, A Guide to Effective Instruction, on page 84: "Effective schooling studies provide evidence that attention to lower-level skills helps students learn higher-order skills more effectively (Rosenshine and Stevens 1986)".
We must, however, ponder before stuffing knowledge-level objectives in a lesson/curriculum. As educators we must evaluate or predict if the information will later be used by the student to reach higher level learning objectives. Memorizing bit and facts simply for the sake of memorizing is useless and I offer no support to this practice. I do, however, give my full support to purposeful memorization with the intent to build a solid knowledge base from which students can then manipulate in order to construct higher-level meaning.

Brain Research and Memory
Memorization is the mental process by which we store, retrieve and recall information. Memory is divided into three components; short term, long term and working. Short-term memory is used to hold the fleeting thoughts or plans while one is in process of another thought or activity. Working memory is the brain's ability to connect and loop pathways so that we that we can, for example, work on two memory activities simultaneously such as a visual and an auditory activity.

Long-term memory is the area this paper is concerned with. While short-term memory encodes information acoustically, long-term memory encodes it semantically (Baddeley 1966). This means that short-term memory is held briefly in the dorsolateral prefrotal cortex of the brains, whereby long-term memory is encoded creating perminat changes in the brain's pathways.

The most important part of the brain regarding long-term tmemory is the hippocampus as it helps to shift the information from short-term to long-term memory. This is important news for educators becaue the hyppocampus need suffienct rest in order to work effectively, thus our students memorize best when they are rested.

Research on Memorization Strategies
Facts, which make up the framework of knowledge, can be taught though no other means than memorization. Educators that recognize that memorization is an important component to learning will often provide for their students strategies such as mnemonic devises, games, songs. And other creative scaffolds. Before an educator chooses a memorization strategy to present to her students it is best to get an overview of the research.

Researchers tell us that there are a variety of memorization strategies, some that work better than others. Most strategies are 'self-selected' meaning that the learner comes up with them on his or her own. According to a 2006 study using MRI to study brain activity, the best memorization strategies are two-fold. They include a combination of "A visual inspection strategy in which participants carefully studied the visual appearance of objects and a verbal elaboration - or word-based strategy - in which individuals constructed sentences about the objects to remember them" (Kirchhoff 2006, July 19).

This correlates with several other studies that show that memory increases when we are able to link the new information with information we already have stored in our brains (Carnegie Mellon University, 2006, July 19). The correlation I see is that in Kerchief's study participants constructed their own sentences about the objects to remember them. The sentences resembled brief stories that included people, places and things the participants were already familiar with. Thus, this supports the Carnegie Mellon study, as well as the bulk of the research, that memorization is facilitated when we can create a link from the new information to previously stored information.

The two-fold visual/word-based component is very important. Numerous studies support that a multi-sensory approach works best for all phases of learning including memorization.

Improving our classrooms
What strategies can we present to our student in the classrooms to increase their memorization skills? One of the best middle-school strategies that I have seen is called the interactive notebook (see samples before bibliography). My son used this strategy in his 8th grade science class. Students use a standard notebook. They write classroom notes on the right-hand pages only. The corresponding left-hand pages are used for students to illustrate, highlight, color, number, doodle, and write poetry, raps, rhymes, songs, games, phrases, stories, acronyms, mnemonics, Venn diagrams, brain maps, sequential maps and other advanced organizers. I believe this process, when guided by the teacher, improves memorization as well as other levels of learning. Unfortunately, I could locate no research or studies on the interactive notebook. However, studies on individual components or strategies used in the interactive notebook are readily available.

Looking through my child's notebook, talking with him as well as his teacher, I could see that my son was not only finding successful and efficient ways to memorize but was also learning to organize the information to aid in comprehension as well as higher learning levels. This is important because good teaching practices include teaching/learning content and process simultaneously (Orch. 2004).

The interactive notebook also helps students to learn "how to learn" so that they can become independent learners. The interactive notebook combines the visual/word-based strategies as described above with students encouraged to find a personal way or view of the material in order to link or connect it with what they already know. Since individuals have unique learning styles some tend to memorize with a slant on visual strategies, while others may memorize better with auditory or word based strategies, where by others would fare better creating diagrams. All students benefit, however, from a multi-sensory approach.

Diagrams and models, including outlining key concepts of a unit, are one of the many ways learners can help organize and integrate information and link it to previously stored information. Teachers could begin by providing examples of diagrams and models and then encourage students to create them on their own as this independent work would help students transfer the information more efficiently into long-term memory (Higbee, K.L. 1993).

Analogies are another useful organizational tool, which can help student memorize as well as understand ideas, theories and concepts. For example, I recently explained the renewal process of the ocean floor in an 8th grade science class describing it as a conveyor belt. The students could imagine this and set the process to memory as well as understood it. Students could be directed to create their own analogies, for example, of cell organelles compared to the infrastructure of a city. They could use both word and illustrations (again the visual/verbal strategy) to increase memorization.

Mnemonic devices are also an excellent tool for helping students memorize. For example, when I begin a lesson on the metric system I first write on the white board in big letters; King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk! Within 1 minute the entire class has memorized the order of the metric units of measurement. When we have a list of words, or terms, or the phases of mitosis, I ask students to create their own mnemonic devices to share with the class. Again, we are using a visual or verbal strategy to create a link to aid memorization.

Two years ago I taught elementary math with much frustration as students had difficulty remembering basic multiplication facts such as 8x8, or 7x6. Over and over they would forget. I created a visual/verbal strategy. I created illustrated rhymes for each number set. I had the students clap and sing the rhymes because I am aware of the benefits of music, as it activates several areas of the brain making it more efficient. As an added kinesthetic activity I created trace and color workbooks depicting the illustrated rhymes. This multi-sensory strategy has worked so well that the school where I teach has adopted it as a supplement to their elementary math program.

There are endless opportunities to help students learn at all levels. We must guide them toward memorization strategies that work. We must be sure to use a multi-strategy approach which both reaches all learner styles as well as help individuals form links more quickly and more effectively.

Conclusion
We don't need to fear the lowest rung of Bloom's taxonomy, because we understand that a fact base will assist student onto higher-level learning. We should embrace the memorization of relevant information because the more stored memory we have on a topic the easier it is to integrate and link related information. As well the stronger the knowledge base, the more agility we will have shaping and molding and looping information into the higher realms of learning.

As educators we must continue to grow and learn; seeking and studying the current research, observing best practices in schools and classrooms. We must continue on a path of improved teaching and improved student learning, always with the whole child in mind.

Bibliography
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of educational objectives: Complete edition, New York : Longman.
Carnegie Mellon University (2006, July 19). Carnegie Mellon Study Offers New Clues About Memory.

Caine, R. M, Caine, G., McClintic, C. & Klimek, K. (2005). 12 Brain/mind learning
principles in action: The field book for making connections, teaching and the
human brain. California: Corwin Press.
Higbee, K.L. (1993). Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It. (2nd Ed.) New York: Paragon House.

Kirchhoff, B.A.& Buckner R.L., Functional-Anatomic Correlations of Individual Differences in Memory, Neuron 51, 263-274, July 20, 2006.

Ludewig, B. (2009). Reading strategies: Scaffolding students learning with texts.
Retrieved March 7, 2009 from http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ela/6-
12/Reading/Reading%20Strategies/interactivenotebook.htm
Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. (1999). Pathways to understanding: Patterns and practices in the learning-focused classroom. (2nd ed) Guildford, VT: Pathways Publishing.
Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J., & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works:
Science Daily. Retrieved March 8, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2006/07/060719092800.htm

Further Reading:
Check out a recently published New York Times Bestseller: Moonwalking With Einstien by Joshua Foer for an enlightening view on memorization.

ramkumar p s's picture

I do not agree with this article.
Reason: Information taken into the brain must be reachable through links. Otherwise, it is impossible to apply them to solve problems or even recollect them. If all we are doing is store new information by repetition, we are just building a huge syntactic search engine inside our brains. It just makes links and indices based on the letters and the number of pages. First and foremost, however, the temperament of the learner must be calm to be able to understand stuff and be able to think in a bottom-up manner rather than just hearing and by-heart stuff.

Laurie Atanasio's picture

Interesting that I read this article about a year ago and thought that I might like to meet and talk with this person. . . Good to see you, Dr. Johnson. As I read through your blog posts, I see that you and I actually have a lot (theoretically) in common. I am enjoying working with you and look forward to seeing just how closely our thoughts and values actually align. . .

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