Commentary 1: Is Rote Learning Valuable Today?

Rote Learning
Photo posted on Flickr by Terr-Bo

The main purpose of rote learning is to memorize information such as basic math skills, dates, poetry, spelling words etc. As we become more dependent on mobile devices it seems like there is less of a need to rely on memorization since knowledge is stored at our fingertips. Technology allows us to “free the mind for more original, more abstract thought” (Ong, 2002, p. 24). This begs the question, “Is there a place for rote learning and memorization in our current education system?”

I believe rote learning should not be a primary source of learning in the classroom. Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive objectives lists memorizing under knowledge which is the lowest level in the cognitive domain (as cited by Issacs, 1996). Evaluation is listed as the highest cognitive level, described as “making judgements about the value of materials or methods” Issacs, 1996, p. 2). Evaluation shares many of the same values as the popular learning theory called constructivism. Constructivist learning is active, contextual, meaningful, self-directed, inquiry-based and social (Driscoll, 2005). Learning activities that highlight constructivist learning and Bloom’s highest level of taxonomy would include analysis of real life situations that require students to investigate a topic in order to make an informed decision. For example, a high school class may seek to answer and support the question, “Should the government cut NASA funding?”

Current research is divided on what type of learning is retained longer, memorization or in-depth evaluation. A recent study (Fata-Hartley, 2011) of 75 college students taking an introductory cell and molecular biology course found that students were able to recall the concepts taught through cooperative learning and problem solving tasks more so than the concepts they were simply told “to know”. However, Hummel (2010) found that rote learning of English vocabulary was more effective than active and contextual translation in 191 second language learners.

Educators need to determine what type of learning is best for their context. Some students may prefer or learn better from rote learning so it is up to the teacher to tailor his/her lessons to his/her students’ learning styles. Certain learning tasks may lend themselves more towards rote learning like the periodic table or the alphabet. Students who have learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder or behaviour issues may not be able to function in an open, collaborative environment where they are expected to pursue their own learning goals.  Abadzi (2006) posits that constructivism may not be suitable to students in the third world due to the lack of resources and time. Jonassen, Mayes & McAleese (as cited in Tynjala, 1999, p. 366) suggest that the constructive approach to learning is most appropriate for advanced learners, that is, university students and adults.

Those who indeed benefit from constructivist learning still need to be cautious about depending completely on technology for facts and formulas. What happens if one’s laptop, ipad, phone etc. breaks down? Students should be able to recall factual information even if they usually turn to technology for answers. What about the digital divide? If we do away with rote learning in school, students who can not afford computers and/or hand held devices will be at an even greater disadvantage. Or, what if you simply forgot your phone (with calculator) when you need it?

As society progresses, we can not avoid the influence of technology on our daily life Sparrow, Liu and Wegner (2011) found that today’s students often memorize where and how to find information on the Internet or computer hard drive rather than the information itself. In their study, memory recall of trivia decreased when participants were told they would have access to a computer to look up the answer. Considering these results, educators need to emphasize what is important for students to memorize and what is not. Furthermore, educators need to teach students how to discriminate between accurate and unreliable resources available to them because of the prevalence of Internet use for information searches.

The debate over the ability of technology to act as an external memory storage is not new. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Theuth presented his invention of writing to the God Thamus as an achievement that “will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians” (as cited by Postman, 1992, p. 4). To which Thamus disagreed, “Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources” (as cited by Postman, 1992, p. 4). In fact, both Thamus and Theuth are correct. Modern technology, like writing in Plato’s Phaedrus, has the potential to both aid and hinder our thought processes. The accessibility of information through technology should be used as a support system to our daily life, freeing us to focus on more complex constructivist problem solving. However, we should still practice rote learning so that we can function without technology if needed. Our goal, as educators, is to integrate new and old teaching philosophies and technologies in the best ways that suit the needs of our students.


Abadzi, H. (2006). Efficient learning for the poor: Insights from the frontier of cognitive neuroscience. Retrieved from:

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Constructivism. In Psychology of Learning for Instruction (pp. 384-407). Toronto, ON: Pearson.

Fata-Hartley, C. (2011). Resisting rote: The importance of active learning for all course learning objectives. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40(3). Retrieved from:

Hummel, K. (2010). Translation and short-term L2 vocabulary retention: Hindrance or help? Language Teaching Research, 14(1), 61–74. doi: 10.1177/1362168809346497

Issacs, G. (1996). Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Retrieved from:

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Routledge.

Postman, N. (1992). The judgement of Thamus. In Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology (Chapter 1). Retrieved from:

Sparrow, B., Liu, D., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Retrieved from: 2011-Sparrow-776-8.pdf

Tynjala, P. (1999). Towards expert knowledge? A comparison between a constructivist and a traditional learning environment in the university. International Journal of Educational Research, 31, 357- 442. doi=

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