Why Rote Memory Doesn’t Help You Learn

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 27, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Learning, or the act of acquiring knowledge, is often the primary avenue through which a child absorbs and understands their environment as they grow. Most children attend school, where they are usually taught general concepts like reading, writing, mathematics, and science. While there can be several different ways to promote learning in children, one method can be to teach major ideas and lessons through rote memorization. While retaining information can be imperative to the learning process, rote memorization may not be the ideal method to process and understand new material. When you memorize information, you may be able to recall important details, but you may also lack the understanding to apply that knowledge. One way to improve your learning skills and capabilities may be to work with a therapist online or in your local area. 

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What is rote memory?

Rote memory or rote memorization can be a technique for learning in which one repeats facts or figures to instill them in their memory banks. Some examples of rote learning can include writing spelling words repeatedly, repeating state capitals in a litany, or doing constant spelling or mathematics drills. Rote memorization is often used in schools to promote learning, and it can emphasize the memorization of a subject without understanding the actual material.

How rote memory and rote learning work

When you engage in rote learning, you are generally repeating information again and again to memorize it, which can mean you are committing it to your short-term memory bank. To retain this information for longer than a few hours, you may have to commit it to your long-term memory. Rote memory can be used to commit information to long-term memory, but this does not necessarily mean you will remember it forever.

The problem with rote memory may be 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, but you likely won’t remember that information a week or a month later.

The only way to keep information in your long-term memory may be to use the information consistently. You may find that you need the information you memorized in several months or a year as you build on previous concepts, but by that time, you may not be able to remember it unless you’ve used it consistently.

This can be one reason why teachers usually spend the first few weeks of each school year doing a review of the previous year's material. Since the new year's material typically builds on that of the previous year, it can be important to review that material before moving forward.

Rote memory and rote learning: Use in education

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Rote memory and learning are often used in primary and secondary education, especially to achieve quick results and improve test scores. However, the focus on memorization as opposed to comprehension does not always enable students to learn complex concepts. In primary and secondary education, you are generally learning building blocks or small pieces of facts and figures that you may later expand upon when you go on to higher education. Rote memory may work to temporarily store these facts and figures, but it’s not always possible to learn complex concepts in this fashion.

Disadvantages of rote learning

There can be many disadvantages of using rote memory to learn. One of the primary disadvantages of rote memory can be that it does not usually allow for a deeper understanding of the material. Only the bare facts of a subject, such as vocabulary or multiplication tables, may be memorized or understood. 

Rote learning does not typically allow for complex connections between previous and new knowledge. It can be very difficult to understand a concept using rote memorization.

Today, many are of the opinion that the value of rote memory and rote learning may not be what it was once believed to be. While there can be appropriate uses for rote memory, researchers often suggest that it may not be an effective way to learn information and complex concepts that should be retained long-term.

Rote learning may not prepare you for higher education

One of the biggest problems with the use of rote memorization in primary and secondary education may be that it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for higher learning or on-the-job memory applications. Many undergraduates may live with incomplete comprehension skills as a direct result of memorizing facts without being able to understand or learn the complexities of the subject matter.

Rote memory can allow for the memorization of base information, but it doesn't usually put that information into any sort of context. The lack of context for complex subjects can mean 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 may have no comprehension of how the operation functions.

Some adults may find it difficult to function in the workplace because they tend to rely 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 may not put those features into a context that can be easily translated into benefits for the consumer.

Rote learning does not usually build knowledge

Rote memory does not usually give you knowledge, which can be defined as the awareness or familiarity gained by the experience of a situation. Rote memory can give you basic facts and figures that you may remember for a short time, but you may be likely to forget these with disuse. To truly learn something, you must generally be able to make connections to your past experiences and the world around you. Without that context, the facts you are memorizing may remain just facts, dates, vocabulary, or numbers. They may not represent true knowledge.

Rote memory and test cramming

Rote memorization 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 typically placed on basic concepts that can easily be memorized for a brief time with rote memory, so 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. Advanced-level college education frequently requires that students understand complex theories and comprehension of subject matter in-depth, beyond memorizing facts. 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 or rote learning

There are some cases when rote memory may be appropriate. When you need to memorize something verbatim rather than understanding a concept, rote memory can be the best method. There may be many examples of instances in which 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 may be likely to forget it eventually.

Rote memory in learning

Rote memorization can be extremely effective in teaching basic math concepts. This strategy is perhaps the most effective way for primary students to learn counting, addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables. Rote memory can also be effective for learning basic vocabulary and spelling.

Rote memory can be a beneficial method for learning lists of information that do not require any context, such as state capitals or the states themselves. Rote memory can also be vital for memorizing anything verbatim, such as being able to recite a poem or memorize lines for a play.

Rote memory in daily life

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

Alternative methods to rote learning

Despite its prevalence in primary and secondary education, there can be alternatives to rote learning. When you need to learn complex concepts and deeper subject matter, these methods are often much preferred over rote memory. 

An example of an alternate method is generally known as meaningful learning, or the acquisition of knowledge by relating what you are currently learning to what you have already learned. This can be the method most often employed by tutors for primary and secondary students and in university courses for higher education students. Rote memory may be good for memorizing lists of facts and figures, but when it comes to deeper concepts, alternative methods can be more effective and enriching.

The best way to learn a concept may be to connect the material to your personal experience or knowledge of the world around you. When you connect information with things you already know, it can provide context for the information. This context and connection with previous knowledge often make it easier for the information to be stored in long-term memory, which usually offers more advantages than rote learning.

Meaningful learning is a learning strategy that usually gives deeper meaning to concepts and subject matter. The more meaning that is given to information, the more likely it may be that you will remember that information long-term. Information learned through meaningful learning is often remembered for years.

Meaningful learning typically promotes understanding over memorization, which can help with overall comprehension. It can relate new information to prior knowledge and encourage active learning techniques. 

If you’ve noticed that learning and remembering information is challenging for you, working with a licensed mental health professional may be helpful.

Benefits of online therapy

Many people are so busy with their education and careers that they may struggle to find time for regular therapy sessions, even if they would be beneficial. Online therapy can simplify the therapy process by empowering you to attend therapy from any location with an internet connection at a time that fits into your existing schedule.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Not much research currently focuses on investigating the efficacy of online therapy for improving learning and memory skills. However, a growing body of evidence generally suggests that online therapy is as effective as its in-person counterpart.

Read below for counselor reviews from those who have sought help for similar challenges in the past. 

Counselor reviews

“I worked with another counselor for over 6 months before working with Arielle Ballard. In one 30-minute session, I got more accomplished in terms of structuring goals, building coping mechanisms, and recognizing thought patterns, than I had in the 6 months of working with the other counselor. I'm pleased with my progress and am very grateful to Arielle.”

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“Hanon is great at digging deeper and bringing structure into conversations and thought patterns that can often be abstract for me. I really like the way she can tie in cognitive and scientific reasoning for why our brains work in certain ways and bring that knowledge into normal day-to-day happenings. And of course, she is very understanding, thoughtful, and non-judgmental.”

Hanon Rinke (More Reviews)

Takeaway

Rote memorization may have its uses, but it may not enable you to contextualize the facts you’re learning and commit them to long-term memory. This type of learning may not prepare students for higher education, and it does not usually build meaningful knowledge. Although it’s often used in schools, there can be other methods, such as meaningful learning and connecting information to experiences, that can be better for remembering concepts in the long term. If you’re interested in expanding your capacity to learn and remember information, working with a licensed therapist may be helpful.
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