Rote Learning: A Discussion on Its Role in Student Education

student engaging in rote learning in the classroom

Published: April 12th, 2024

“Three times seven is 21. Four times seven is 28. Five times seven is 35…” 

When imagining a traditional classroom, rote learning is one of the first teaching methods that springs to mind. For centuries, it’s been the go-to method for educators attempting to teach facts and figures to an entire classroom of children. Indeed, according to research from the University of Hertfordshire, a whole class standing up and chanting multiplication tables out loud was standard British educational practice as recently as the 1960s. 

However, the education sector has changed enormously in recent decades, especially as technology has come to play an increasingly significant part in the classroom and wider learning experience. Is there still a place for rote learning in the education of the 21st century, when tech access and capabilities can take care of pretty much everything? Or is it the case that the old ways are still the best? 

What is rote learning?

Rote learning is an education method that involves repeating a piece of information many times to embed it in a person’s memory. Although rote learning’s definition may not sound appealing, it’s one of the simplest and oldest teaching methods. It is generally applied to basic facts or information that is highly structured. Examples of information which can be taught through the rote method of teaching includes spellings, multiplication tables, countries and capitals, historical dates, scientific equations, language translations, and more. 

Generally speaking, rote learning does not involve developing a deeper understanding of the facts involved and merely ensures that the facts and answers are remembered. 

Common rote learning techniques

The classic image of a classroom full of students collectively reciting the multiplication tables is just one of many types of rote learning. Ultimately, the rote learning method is all about getting information stored within a student’s memory, and many different rote skills can be leveraged to achieve this. These include: 

Memory games

Games are an excellent way to encourage more student participation, and ensure that their mind is more active and open to new information. This could be something like a spelling bee, where students are challenged to spell increasingly long and complex words, or completing a range of sums within a set time limit. 

Written repetition 

Asking students to repeatedly write out the facts involved, such as spellings or sums, can encourage stronger memory as they have to think about the subject matter involved for a longer period of time. 

Songs and music

For early-years students, the alphabet song is still as valid and relevant today as ever. Associating the facts with a musical rhythm or lyrics can form a strong association within the brain and make the recall of those facts much easier in the future. 

Multi-sensory experiences 

The same principle of using music as an association can be applied to visual aids, too. If facts are connected to an image, a colour, a person or an experience, then there is more for the student to remember when they come to recall the subject matter in question. 

Spaced repetition

An alternative rote learning method is to space out the repetition over a long period of time and gradually increase the intervals between each repetition. This can foster better ‘baking in’ of the information into the mind, and help it stick in the long-term. 

Where is rote teaching best applied?

The classic examples of rote memorisation are generally around simple fact-learning for primary school children. However, there can be far more to it than that: the rote knowledge meaning can also be applied in many other ways, and far beyond simple early-years teaching: 

  • Complex subject matter: rote repetition can be applied even for secondary students, for example in remembering the elements of the Periodic Table, or verb conjugation in foreign languages. 
  • Revision: repeating key information can be vital in helping students focus their revision efforts, and ensure they commit key information to memory that they may rely on in an exam – especially when reference texts are not allowed.  
  • Learning speeches and scripts: for adults and children, memorising a speech or learning lines for a play or amateur production requires many rounds of rehearsals, where the text is recited in full repeatedly until it can be done without reference to the written version. 

Rote learning pros and cons 

As with any teaching method, there are rote learning advantages and disadvantages, many of which vary depending on the subject matter being taught: 

Rote learning advantages

  • Fast recall: rote learning techniques constitute some of the quickest ways for students to memorise and then recall information. This is especially the case for long lists of information which would be hard to effectively remember simply through reading or conversation. 
  • Boosts memory skills: encouraging more use of a student’s memory through rote learning can help expand their brain power and sharpen their memory skills. Becoming more familiar with memorising information will help students become more comfortable doing so in the future with more complex subject matter. 
  • A solid foundation of knowledge: rote learning often delivers the building blocks of detailed learning. For example, being able to remember the multiplication tables can make it much faster and easier for students to deal with more complicated mathematical equations. 
  • Efficient method of teaching: a collaborative approach to rote learning involving the whole class is perhaps the most time-efficient way of imparting information to a large number of students simultaneously. It also helps teachers instantly identify students who are struggling and may need more focused help and attention. q 
  • Builds confidence: being able to remember key facts through rote memory, or recall entire speeches or scripts, can help anyone feel more comfortable and confident with the subject matter in question. This can be a real game-changer in helping overcome stresses such as preparing for exams or speaking in public. 

Rote learning disadvantages

  • Lack of long-term retention: it’s often the case that rote learning enables good memorisation in the short-term, but does not always encourage retention of the information in the long-term. This can be harmful to a student’s education, given the foundational nature of many typical rote learning subjects. 
  • Lack of understanding: rote learning does not provide any opportunity to develop an understanding of a subject; instead of exploring the ‘why’ or the ‘how’, it simply deals with the ‘what’, the ‘where’ or the ‘when’. This can make it difficult to put information into its proper context. 
  • Lack of engagement: the act of repeating the same information over and over again can quickly get boring for students of any age, leading them to disengage with the subject matter. Once students have stopped listening to or engaging with the subject matter through tedium, it can be extremely difficult to reinvolve them and reopen their minds to the information. 
  • Limited practical application: some students struggle to make the connection between the information they’ve obtained through rote learning and how it can be applied to real-world situations. This can be a major contributor to the lack of engagement mentioned above if students feel that a particular piece of rote learning is not only boring, but also a waste of time. 
  • Limited scope for creativity: the repetition of rote learning is very rigid in terms of its structure and format, and there is little if any scope for creativity or problem-solving skills along the way. Without that creativity, the ability for the information to sink in may be limited. 
  • Limited critical thinking: similar to the previous point, there is also very little scope to develop any critical thinking within the rote learning method. It solely focuses on the ingestion of the information, rather than any analysis or dissection of it. 

Is the rote learning method still suitable for modern education?

The short answer is yes. Rote learning techniques still have a valuable part to play in modern education and will continue to do so in the future. For foundational knowledge and highly structured facts and figures, rote practice remains one of the most effective, efficient ways to impart information to students in memorable ways. 

Furthermore, rather than being seen as a replacement for rote learning, technology can be used as a complement to it. Solutions such as interactive displays are ideal for helping students visualise information and build a deeper connection to it: being able to read and engage with the facts and figures involved can make rote learning even more effective. 

However, it’s important to note that rote learning is not the be-all and end-all of teaching. It should ideally be used in conjunction with several other methods, such as associative learning and metacognition. Only through a combination of all of these methods, each used appropriately, can students get the rounded and comprehensive learning experience they deserve. 

Promethean interactive displays can help take your rote learning techniques to the next level. Get in touch with the team to find out more or schedule a demonstration. 

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