Rote learning

From Teflpedia

Rote learning (/rəʊt lɜ:nɪŋg/ ) is a learning technique based on repetition and memorisation and is the basis for drills. By definition, it eschews comprehension and is consequently not a very effective tool for practising communicative language. It is the antithesis of meaningful learning.

In fact, the Merriam-Webster dictionary is even more categorical and, giving the etymology from 14th century Middle English, goes on to provide the following meanings:[1]

  • 1: the use of memory usually with little intelligence: "learn by rote"
  • 2: mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition.

Traditionally associated with learning lists "by heart" and passing exams, if exam papers are not well designed, it's possible for someone with good memorization techniques to pass without any meaningful comprehension of the subject.

Much research on rote learning and memory was carried out by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) who devised 2,300 three-letter nonsense syllables for measuring the formation of mental associations.[2] Ebbinghaus reported his findings, including the well-known “forgetting curve”,[3] in Über das Gedächtnis (1885; Memory).[4]

Eugène Ionesco commented on rote learning in his "Theatre of the Absurd" play The Lesson (1951):

  • Pupil: In India many good students (with proper reasoning) die as they are criticised for not being good rote learners.
  • Professor: [...] unless you can comprehend the primary elements, how do you expect to be able to calculate mentally [...]? How much, for example, are three billion seven hundred fifty-five million nine hundred ninety-eight thousand two hundred fifty one, multiplied by five billion one hundred sixty-two million three hundred and three thousand five hundred and eight?
  • Pupil [very quickly]: That makes nineteen quintillion three hundred eighty-nine quadrillion six hundred and two trillion nine hundred forty-seven billion one hundred seventy-nine million one hundred sixty-four thousand five hundred and eight [...]
  • Professor [stupefied]: But how did you know that, if you don't know the principles of arithmetical reasoning?
  • Pupil: It's easy. Not being able to rely on my reasoning, I've memorized all the products of all possible multiplications.

Notwithstanding its inappropriateness in many teaching situations, there will be some things that learners - perhaps especially new learners - will simply have to learn by heart until such time as they have a sufficient base to start making logical connections.