Rote Learning: Bad Technique or Secret Weapon?

Rote Learning: Bad Technique or Secret Weapon?

Rote learning has a bad reputation. But perhaps that’s because people misunderstand its true purpose. Uncover the reason why rote learning is still in use today and its impact on memory retention in the brain. If you think rote learning is just for children, then reading this article might change your mind.

What is Rote Learning?

Rote learning is the acquisition of knowledge through mechanical or habitual repetition. It is a form of learning that involves repeating information until one can recite or know it by heart. Known as a traditional learning method, rote learning is often compared (usually unfavourably) to more “modern” learning methods such as meaningful learning. The effectiveness of rote learning is a subject of debate, though it continues to be widely used in academic institutions.

Rote Learning Examples

Examples of rote learning include:

  • The use of the ABC song to learn the alphabet
  • Verbally reciting numbers (i.e., counting aloud) to distinguish between numbers and learn number sequencing
  • Repeated writing or recitation (times table chanting, etc.) to learn multiplication tables
  • Vocabulary practice to learn foreign languages

While it can be argued that these examples of rote learning don’t directly contribute to a deeper understanding of the materials, rote learning is not intended to do so.

student studying using rote memory

History of Rote Learning

The “discovery” of rote learning is primarily associated with Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist whose findings include the famous Forgetting Curve. However, it would be more accurate to say that Ebbinghaus pioneered the study of rote learning, rather than having discovered it. The use of rote learning is as ancient as writing itself, with Mesopotamian scribes learning cuneiform through copying and memorising.

Regarding the study of rote learning by Ebbinghaus, he used nonsense syllables or consonant-vowel-consonant combinations without any inherent meaning. His experiments revealed that it is possible to learn something that is impossible to understand. Therefore, it can be theorised that rote learning is best applied to concepts which are too difficult for the learner to comprehend at the time of studying.

Rote Learning Theory

Rote learning theory proposes that:

  1. You can acquire knowledge through repetition.
  2. Pupils need to learn basic facts before they can proceed with more complex ideas.
  3. Having a strong foundation (or knowing the basics very well) is essential to forming expertise later on.
  4. Pupils can learn basic facts or begin building a strong foundation through rote learning.

The theory proposes that rote learning is a viable option if you want to proceed with more complex ideas and eventually develop expertise. But, as mentioned previously, the case for the effectiveness and continued use of rote learning is debated.

Published in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, an article by Dr. Michael Kainose Mhlolo defended the inclusion of rote learning in mathematics curricula. He states that “rote learning is a necessary first step in the appropriation of mathematical meaning thereof.”

Rote Memorisation and Rote Memory

Rote memorisation is the process of committing information to memory through repetition. Memorisation plays a key role in rote learning. However, rote learning does not necessarily require memorisation. Rote memorisation can be seen as a by-product of rote learning since repetition naturally leads to memorisation.

Meanwhile, rote memory can be described as habitual or automatic memory. It can also be described as the memory created from or related to rote memorisation.

Rote memory is similar to muscle memory, though the latter is associated with physical actions. As the cognitive counterpart to muscle memory, rote memory is expressed through effortlessly or mechanically recalling information.

Rote Rehearsal Method

According to an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, rote rehearsal is a method that people use to maintain information for only short periods of time. It refers to the rote or cyclic repetition of information, usually subvocally (i.e., muttering to oneself).

On the other hand, an article published in BioMed Central (BMC) Neuroscience states that rote rehearsal is “a common method by which small amounts of information can be transferred from short-term to long-term memory.” According to the article, it refers to the repeated rehearsal of verbal material.

Therefore, rote rehearsal can:

  • Involve subvocal repetition (i.e. moving your lips but not really saying anything out loud)
  • Involve repetition of specifically verbal material (i.e. words to be said out loud or spoken)
  • Be used to maintain information for short periods of time only
  • Be used to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory

student trying to memorise information

Neurological Perspective

The article published in BMC Neuroscience revealed that “prolonged rote learning produces delayed memory facilitation and metabolic changes in the hippocampus of the ageing brain.”

This means that:

  • Middle-aged to senior adults will be able to recall information learned through prolonged rote learning even after some time has passed.
  • Prolonged rote learning produces metabolic changes such as increased N-acetylaspartate (NAA)/Choline and creatine + phosphocreatine (tCr) ratio in the hippocampus of middle-aged to senior adults.

Rote Learning Advantages and Disadvantages

Now that you know all about rote learning, it’s time to go into its advantages and disadvantages:

Rote Learning Advantages

The article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition revealed that:

  • The retrieval of words learned via elaborative rehearsal is more disrupted by time pressure during recognition than are the memorial products of rote rehearsal.
  • The time pressure at retrieval allows for full retrieval of memories for items processed via rote rehearsal but only incomplete retrieval of those processed via elaborative rehearsal.

Though it’s in comparison to elaborative rehearsal (connecting new information to existing long-term memories), this shows that rote learning is an effective learning strategy when there is time pressure.

Other advantages of rote learning include:

  • Value in Academic Settings: One of the reasons why rote learning is so popular among students is that it can be used to achieve good scores in standardised testing.
  • Use in Learning New or Difficult Information: As discussed previously, rote learning serves as a building block that makes approaching foreign concepts easier.

Rote Learning Disadvantages

A comparative study of rote rehearsal and loci methods in learning vocabulary within the context of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) revealed that the rote method was not as effective in the retention and recalling of lexical items.

In a comparison of rote memorisation and semantic mapping, a journal article showed that rote memorisation was not as effective in improving retrieval of the target vocabulary words.

An article from Advances in Medical Education and Practice stated that rote learning has “limitations given the breadth and depth of knowledge medical students are required to recall.” These limitations include the inability of rote learning to achieve true understanding. Understanding is essential to the application of knowledge. Therefore, rote learning may not be suitable for when knowledge has to be applied.

Alternatives to Rote Learning

Depending on your situation and the inherent disadvantages of rote learning, it is worthwhile to consider the alternatives.

Rote Learning vs Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning is considered to be the opposite of rote learning since it emphasises understanding. In rote learning, pupils acquire knowledge through repetition. In meaningful learning, pupils acquire knowledge through the creation of meaning. It is best used for when pupils already have strong foundational knowledge and need to understand advanced concepts.

Rote Learning vs Active Learning

Active learning is the acquisition of knowledge through action. Essentially, it is learning by doing. When using active learning, you learn concepts by performing actions that are relevant to those concepts. When using rote learning, you learn concepts by repeating them either verbally or in writing. Active learning is best used for when knowledge has to be applied.

Rote Learning vs Social Learning

Social learning is acquiring knowledge through social observation or interaction. While rote learning largely focuses on an individual’s internal cognitive processes, the presence of other people is a crucial element in social learning. Therefore, social learning is best used for when knowledge can only be acquired in social contexts or via other people.

Real World Situations

This section analyses the use of rote learning in the real world.

Rote Learning in Education

Rote learning is a well-known “traditional” method of learning. Since it has been around for quite some time, rote learning has played a huge role in shaping our current educational systems. Its use is especially prevalent in early childhood education, such as when learning the alphabet, numbers, and multiplication tables.

Rote Learning in Workplace Skills

Though some may argue that rote learning has no place in workplace skills training, it can still be used to introduce learners to concepts or skills that are entirely new to them. While employees generally have prior knowledge of or experience in a particular skill, this might not be the case for “emerging” skills (i.e. skills that are tied to emerging technologies or disciplines).

Other Learning Theories

If you want to explore more about learning and the world of theories & methodologies that are available, Cloud Assess has a wide range of learning topics that we discuss. Check out some of these popular topics:


Rote learning has advantages and disadvantages, just like other forms of learning. That being said, rote learning cannot be used for the entire learning journey. As stated in a previous section, rote learning is a necessary first step. It is critical in the initial stages of learning when the learner is just a beginner or novice. In the later stages which require deeper understanding of complex and interrelated concepts, rote learning is simply not suitable. That’s why it’s important to use a variety of learning methods and not just rote learning.

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