Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rote learning is under-rated.

Occasionally when I teach students, you tell them to do certain things but they will counter by saying that they won't do it now but will remember to do it during exams. It's always those seemingly small and minute details like writing some key words in their answers, or writing a + or - sign before their answers. It seems that this minute details are so painful for them to do it on a routine basis that they will only do so in very rare and sanctified time like during exams.

It seldom work out this way. From what I see, if they forget to do so in routine practice, they will forget to do so in exams. Examination time doesn't immediately make the students aware of things that they always forget or neglect to do during practice time. But students don't see it, and no matter how often I remind them, they will use the same counter argument that they won't do it now, but will remember to do so during exams.

Okay, so I'll let them do what they want. But I'll give them a test and tell them to treat it as one, showing all that is necessary to secure the marks in their answers. 9 out of 10 will forget to do the things that I remind them about and that's the opportunity for me to come in and tell them that their counter arguments do NOT work and they are better off sticking to it even during routine practice. You can't just tell them straight away - you'll have to do better to convince them that their beliefs don't work. You have to show them the folly of their ways, so to speak.

When you tell people about rote learning, this is, more often that not, their reaction.

I believe that if you don't practice stuff all the time, when it comes to the real deal, and when you really need to use it, you'll fumble. There's value in repetition but alas, the youngsters these days believe only in efficiency and just-on-time delivery (meaning that they study just the day before the exams). 

We need to practice a thousand times so that when we really need to use it, we can snap our fingers and get right to the zone. You train so many times that your body and mind precedes your conscious thinking, thus building what they call 'muscle memory'. You do without thinking and you feel it. You think with your guts. Your instincts. So many phrases to describe a person operating in the zone but only one way to achieve it - just plain ol' practicing. 

This might sound old fashioned especially in these times, but I welcome rote learning. The ability to memorise chunks of texts in this fast paced world is not a disadvantage. There's value in sitting down and committing will power and discipline to practice the same questions again and again. However, some say this runs against the trend of creativity in the education domain. 

Nonsense. There is nothing to create when there is nothing in your mind. So how do we get stuff in your mind in the first place? Rote learning, of course.


My 15HWW said...

Hi LP,

I can empathise with you.

I also have a student that almost simply refuses my advice to use pencils when handling angles problems (P6 math), among many other things.

Rote learning the right stuff develops into positive habits and skills.

I was forced to memorise the multiplication time tables when I was young and I have never ever forgotten it. But many students struggle with basic calculations since they are "addicted" to calculators.

la papillion said...


Yea, plenty of such cases around :)

I think it's something that is widespread around. Many people think that rote learning is useless because in a fast changing world, information management is more impt than memorising chunks of text that you can easily retrieve it anyway.

But I still think that if certain things are not stored in your long term memory, you won't be able to assimilate it and use it in new situations. I'm not even talking about academic matters only. This applies to life.

It's unfortunate that in the promotion of learning smart, we forget to learn hard.

Richard Ng said...

Very true! After all, we all are habitual beings... keep going and don't lost hope on them (the kids) ;-)

la papillion said...

Hi Richard,

Nah, I won't lose hope so easily :) Thanks for the encouragement :)

sillyinvestor said...


Rote learning with understanding is underrated. Rote-learning without understanding is detrimental. The examples you quote are not rote learning.

No mastery of content, how to apply them? But is it a hierarchy up? Sometimes yes, but there are many opportunities for creativity, problem solving to be infused with acquiring of knowledge. That makes learning fun and purposeful.

Do I have time for such lessons? Once in a while, yes. For the sake of what u and I called efficiency, we used drill and practice. There are plenty of work waiting for me, just do a chalk and talk for this chapter...

If I am a founder of a school, I will do things quite differently. Curriculum rigour will be halved, but every pupils will learn more skills...

Back to earth and stop deluding... I can only give a balance of efficiency and pure form of learning as and when I can find pockets of opportunity ...

la papillion said...

Hi sillinvestor,

Someone mentioned something like what you said in fb. Let me define what I mean by rote learning: It's learning to do the things you might not like by repeating it again and again. It's repetitive.

In an ideal situation, students will come to me early, have good foundations and the all impt exams are far away. But practically every students who come to me are fundamentally weak and exams are just a stone's throw away. In order to get them up to exam standard, very often I've to force them to memorise. If they can't memorise, they've to do enough until they had memorised it. Fun is the last thing on my mind and the learning is all purposeful - for the sake of acing the exams.
2 hrs of tuition per week does not leave me with a lot of spare time, alas.

As you said so rightly, we can only give a pure form of learning as and when the opportunity arises. We'll have to contend with less than ideal outcomes of teaching.

gagmewithaspoon said...

hm, when you put it this way, it makes sense! people shy away from rote learning, thinking it dulls the senses. i think you need both. rote learning for the very basic levels - maths i.e. timetable, history -dates, geography - names of places. But once that layer is build, you need to use understanding to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of that particular subject. That's when things get more fun! so i do agree, if you can't get past the rote learning stage, you ain't getting very far in life.

la papillion said...


Haha, I wouldn't go so far as saying you won't go far in life..perhaps they haven't found the spark of motivation to do all that is necessary yet. Maybe the circumstances are not right yet.

Always reserve some hope :)