Why Rote Memory Doesn’t Help You Learn

Updated September 18, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

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Rote memory has been used in primary and secondary education for over a century, and it is still the primary way that many subjects are taught in Western and Eastern schools. China places a large emphasis on memorization and rote memory, but they do not use only this method of learning. Even in China, it is recognized that rote memory doesn't help you learn advanced concepts.

If you need evidence that rote memory doesn't help you learn, try helping a child with their homework. You will quickly discover that you do not remember the information that they are trying to memorize or learn. You know you must have learned this information in school, so why can you no longer remember it? Rote memory does not allow for long-term memory of information and concepts.

There are a lot of reasons that rote memory doesn't help you learn. To understand why it doesn't help you learn, you first have to understand what rote memory is and how it works.

What Is Rote Memory?

Rote memory is a technique for learning in which one repeats facts or figures over and over again to instill them in their memory banks. Some examples of rote learning include writing vocabulary words over and over again, repeating state capitals in a litany, or doing constant spelling or mathematics drills. These are all examples of how rote learning is continually used in schools to promote learning.

How Rote Memory Works

Rote memory works primarily with short-term memory. When you repeat information again and again to memorize it, you are committing it into your short-term memory banks. To retain this information for longer than a few hours, you will have to commit the memory to long-term memory banks. Rote memory can be used to commit to long-term memory, but this doesn't mean that you will remember it forever.

The problem with rote memory is that it must continually be repeated or used to maintain the memory for any length of time. You may use rote memory to cram for a test and remember the information for the few days it takes to take the test, but you will not be likely to remember that information a week or a month later.

The only way to keep information in your long-term memory that has been learned by rote is to use the information consistently. The more you access and retrieve the information from your memory, the more likely it will be that you will remember it long term. However, in most cases in primary and secondary education, once you pass the test, you do not access that information again for some time. You may find that you need it in several months or a year as you build on previous concepts, but by that time you will not be able to remember it.

This is one reason why teachers spend the first few weeks of each school year doing a review of the previous year's material. Teachers, although they rely heavily on rote memory, understand that during the summer months students are not accessing that information, and as such by the beginning of the new school term they have forgotten entirely what they have learned. Since the new year's material builds on the previous year, it is important to review that material before moving forward.

Rote Memory Use In Education

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Rote memory is often used in primary and secondary education. This can be a problem because rote memory will not allow a student to learn complex concepts. In primary and secondary education, you are learning building blocks, small pieces of facts and figures that you will expand upon when you go on to higher education. Rote memory will work to memorize these facts and figures, but once you move on to higher education, you will be unable to learn complex concepts in this fashion.

Devaluing Rote Memory

Researchers now agree that the value of rote memory is not what it was once believed to be. While there is an appropriate use for rote memory, researchers have discovered that it is not an effective way to learn information and complex concepts in a way that will allow for long-term retention. Unfortunately, this devaluing of rote memory by psychologists and scientists has not yet reached the public education system.

Rote Memory Doesn't Prepare You

One of the biggest problems with the use of rote memory in primary and secondary education is that it doesn't prepare you for higher learning or on the job memory applications. One study found that the most common learning disability among undergraduates is incomplete comprehension. This is a direct result of using rote memory to memorize base facts without being able to understand or learn the complexities of the subject matter.

Rote memory allows for the memorization of base information, but it doesn't put that information into any sort of context. The lack of context for complex subjects means that the student has not learned anything about what they are studying. When using rote memory alone, a student may be able to pass a high school trigonometry class by memorizing how to operate tangents, but fail a university trigonometry class because they have no comprehension of how the operation functions.

Likewise, young adults are finding it difficult to function in the working world because they are relying so much on rote memory. An employee might be able to memorize a list of features of a product, but be unable to sell it effectively because they are not putting those features into a context that can be easily explained as benefits to the consumer.

Disadvantages Of Rote Learning

There are many disadvantages to trying to use rote memory to learn. One of the primary disadvantages to rote memory is that it doesn't allow for a deeper understanding of the subject. Only the bare facts of a subject such as a vocabulary or multiplication tables are memorized or understood. Rote learning also does not allow for complex connections between previous and new knowledge. It can also be very difficult to understand a concept by only using rote memory truly.

Rote Memory Doesn't Give You Knowledge

Rote memory doesn't give you knowledge. Rote memory will give you base facts and figures that you may remember for a short time but are likely to forget with disuse. To truly learn something, you must be able to make connections to your past experiences and the world around you. Without that context, the facts that you are memorizing are just facts, dates, vocabulary, or numbers. They do not represent true knowledge.

Rote Memory And Test Cramming

It is true that rote memory can be used in cramming sessions to pass a test successfully. However, this is often less true in university courses than it is in primary and secondary education. In primary and secondary education, the emphasis is placed on basic concepts that can easily be memorized for a brief time through the use of rote memory, and the student can successfully pass the test.

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However, in university courses, examinations often delve much deeper into a subject than simple facts and figures. For university examinations, the emphasis is placed on being able to understand the complexity of the subject matter truly. This comprehension cannot be memorized through rote memory. Therefore, students who succeed in high school by using rote memory may find that they are unable to be successful in university courses.

Acceptable Uses For Rote Memory

There are some cases when rote memory is appropriate. When you need to memorize something verbatim rather than understanding a concept, rote memory is the best method. There are many examples when rote memory can be used to memorize information successfully. However, keep in mind that if you do not use the information for a long period, you are likely to forget what you learned by rote eventually.

In Learning

Rote memory has been found to be extremely effective in teaching basic math concepts. Studies have shown that rote memory is perhaps the most effective way for primary students to learn counting, addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables. Rote memory is also effective for learning basic vocabulary and spelling.

Rote memory is also good for learning lists of information that does not require any context, such as the state capitals or the states themselves. Rote memory is also vital for memorizing anything verbatim, such as being able to remember a poem for reciting in a class or memorizing lines for a play.

In Daily Life

In daily life, rote memory also has its place. You can memorize phone numbers by using rote memory, as well as other numbers such as your credit card number, social security number, or drivers license number. You could also use rote memory to memorize your grocery list before going to the store or memorizing addresses of people you need to send mail to.

Alternative Methods To Rote Learning

There are many great alternatives to rote learning. The rote memory may be good for memorizing lists of facts and figures, but when it comes to deeper concepts, it just won't cut it. When you need to learn complex concepts and deeper subject matter, these methods are much preferred over rote memory. These are the method most often employed by tutors for primary and secondary students, and in university courses for higher education students.

Connecting Information To Experience

The best way to learn a concept is to connect the material to personal experience or knowledge of the world around you. When you connect information with things that you already know, it provides a context for the information. This context and connection with previous knowledge make it easier for the information to be stored in the long-term memory banks.

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Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning is a learning strategy that gives deeper meaning to concepts and subject matter. Studies have found that the more meaning that is given to information, the more likely it is that you will remember that information long term. Information that is learned through meaningful learning is often remembered for years rather than only months such as with rote memory.

Meaningful learning also promotes understanding over memorization, which helps with overall comprehension. It relates new information to prior knowledge and encourages active learning techniques. All of these points are proven to help one remember the information for years to come.

Getting Help With Memory

If you are trying to remember things using rote memory and are unable to do so, it may be that you need to try a different approach. However, if you have other problems with memory as well, it might be a sign that something is wrong. If you are unable to remember a phone number for more than a few minutes, it may be that you are having an issue with your short-term memory.

If you are concerned about your memory failing, you should contact a psychologist right away. These professionals can give you a memory test to determine if you have a memory deficit or if it is simply aging or another problem. If there is a memory deficit, they can help you get additional testing and diagnosis. When it comes to memory disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's, early detection is extremely important. If you are having memory problems, contact a professional today.


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