Thoughts on ‘Rote learning’

Examples of rote learning

A student writing “menagerie lion” while explaining what the equator is.

A student saying “5.cerivisiae” instead of “S.cerevisiae” when answering a question on yeast biology.

My late brother, Tony, singing “Where the streets have no name” by U2 and belting out “I want to feel some lead on my face”

Any Irish person saying the ‘Our Father’ in Irish.

Most Irish people singing the national anthem.

Chemical engineering students of my era solving any number of problems using the graphical techniques that were the go-to methods of the time.

Me solving induction motor problems in the electrical engineering module we had to endure in third year chemical engineering.


Examples of Fixed Learning

Memorising and understanding topics in isolation. Memorisation without understanding is almost impossible which is why most people don’t use random strings of letters and numbers for passwords. ‘Meaning’ is at the heart of successful memorisation and we need to remember if we are to think. Thinking involves using the information in your head to  solve problems or to understand a new topic or to make a discovery.

An example of fixed learning might be knowing Jane Austen’s Emma ‘inside-out’ but unable to connect it to the movie, Clueless. Or perhaps knowing lots about the histories of Israel and Northern Ireland but not noticing any parallels.

Only seeing the surface structure of a topic. For example, I teach two closely related subjects: heat transfer and mass transfer. Students can easily understand them separately but rarely see the deep connections between the two, especially the underlying mathematical similarities. This is a great example of students preferring to learn from the specific to the general whereas experts often like to teach from the general to specific because it is a more elegant, and more powerful (in their view), way to do things.

Flexible or Deep Learning

After many years of study or work experience, we see the connections between subjects. We are not distracted by the surface features of problems and ideas – we see the deeper structures; the underlying laws and principles rather than the specific context.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘Rote learning’

  1. A good post that distinguishes between memorization and rote learning.

    One thing I feel is important is that we all need to remember the things that we can do, and the things that we cannot do. For example, I know that I can solve quadratic equations. So when I’m doing a problem and I see a way to reduce the problem to a quadratic equation, then I say aha, I know that I have solved the problem. But if I didn’t know that I could solve quadratic equations, I might reduce the problem to a quadratic equation and still be stuck!

    On the other hand, I know that I can’t solve piggly wiggly equations. So if I’m doing a problem and it reduces to a piggly wiggly equation, then I know that this problem is hard and I probably can’t do it.

    Part of problem solving is remembering the problems you have already solved.

    At the risk of being compared to Rumsfeld,
    Know what you know, and know what you don’t know.


  2. “After many years of study or work experience, we see the connections between subjects.” Exactly.

    When we meet a new concept, a new idea, a new proposal, a new plan, we try to understand it. This could be in any workplace. A big part of understanding a new thing is relating it to what we already know and understand, things that we already know work or don’t work.
    How can one perform ‘critical thinking’ without ‘content knowledge’ and without remembering stuff?

    “Thinking involves using the information in your head to solve problems or to understand a new topic or to make a discovery.” You forgot the word ‘critical’ at the start of that sentence 🙂


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