Why rote memorization is more important than you think

Modified on by Andrew Cohen

Why rote memorization is more important than you think

If you have spent any time reading blogs or papers on teaching strategies in the past few years, you have probably noticed a strong backlash against drill & practice, in favor of “constructivist” activities and “project-based learning.”

The actual memorizing of facts, many argue, is an outdated educational practice, since anyone could just Google a fact on-demand or look it up on Wikipedia nowadays. The mantra is that we should focus all school activities on the acquisition of skills as opposed to knowledge.

We disagree — and not just because we have created the most effective web and mobile “smart flashcards” app ever created. There is a way to improve student engagement. Here’s how.

The Value of Memorization

Learning by Rote is More Important Than You Think

There are numerous cases in which having knowledge immediately at the tip of your tongue can have tremendous social and professional value.

For example, last night at a networking event, when I casually asked a Nigerian entrepreneur how much of his business was conducted in English versus in his native Yoruba, he immediately became more engaged in our conversation. It was as if the simple fact that I knew that Yoruba was spoken in Nigeria seemed increase my social credibility, and therefore our rapport.

The same goes for professional settings. If I am a pharmaceutical salesman talking to a doctor about a specific digestion drug, and he asks if it has any effect on the process of peristalsis, it will look quite unprofessional if I have to pull out my medical dictionary to look up the word. Those facts need to be ingrained in my brain so I can access them immediately!

Most situations need more personalized learning. Of course, most constructivist educators will argue that real-life simulations, on-the-job training, and project-based learning are more effective at learning new concepts than rote memorization. The problem is that no single cost-effective constructivist activity will guarantee that you will be exposed to all the concepts you need – or that you will fully remember the facts that you are exposed to. If you actually want to acquire a full range of knowledge about a given topic, the most guaranteed and efficient way to do so is to study deliberately using the time-honored practice of repetition – specifically confidence-based repetition using a tool like Brainscape.

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .


Deane Alban 8 years ago

There's no getting around it - we all have to memorize a certain amount of material regardless of the fact that all the information in the world is at our fingertips. Memorization has been an important part of education since Cicero developed mnemonics, a technique still widely used today.

Ed 9 years ago

Thank you.

One of the reasons I'm not a teacher anymore is because of the insane love of constructivism, Bloom's taxonomy, etc. and positive avoidance of anything related to memory. 

It's really demoralizing knowing that all your performance reviews will be based on constructivist dogma that doesn't work.

Andrew Cohen 9 years ago

Amen Ed.  While constructivist teaching is important for developing students' self-reliance and collaborative project management skills for the real world, it should never be the sole means of evaluating teachers.  Skills aren't valuable unless you have developed the knowledge to back up those skills!  Any holistic teacher performance review should assess both constructivist and behaviorist success metrics.

诸葛孔明 5 years ago

Amen. I've found a brother in edu at last. Long live memorization. Down with the reign of the useless and incompetent "constructivism", "Bloom's tax" etc.

sarita 5 years ago

Completely agree with you Ed.

诸葛孔明 5 years ago

May Elohim bless you Andrew. You have hit the nail on the head. You have expressed the enormous dilemma I've seen in schools as a high school teacher in a western country under the so called constructivist approaches. You're right. Rote memorization through persistent repetition and self-discipline is the backbone to knowledge, learning and progress not "project-based" learning and "fun/engaging" activities. Everything uses memory, even Google and Facebook.

I have a 2 year old daughter who by memorization technique has managed to be able to answer her Times Tables from 2 - 8 Times Tables from 1 to 12. She started when she was 19 months old. If I continue this method of repeated listening and testing, she may be able to master the Times Tables up to 12 before she turns 3 year old which is to date pretty much unheard of. If you want proof, you can check out my FB page.

Long live memorization and thank Elohim for a healthy mind.

Grey 5 years ago

Incredible... your kid knows how to practice and repeat the times tables? Oh my? I did long division in kindergarten. Trust me, people "thought" I was smart, but I wasn't smart in the ways that they thought I was. And you may thinking the exact same thing about your child.

There's no need for proof... I'm glad you feel proud that your child is above average, but that doesn't equate to rote memorization being the backbone to knowledge and learning. lol

Miroslav1993 9 years ago

Rote memory is crap. Over time everything will be forgoten. This is a pedogostical mnemonic for simplified individuals. Check out Phenomenal Memory (pmemory.com). Thats the real deal.

Andrew Cohen 9 years ago

PMemory can certainly help you learn how to become a better memorizer of long strings of information like a book or poem.  Yet most of what we learn is based on cues and targets.  (What's the capital of Austria?  How do I say 'bathroom' in Spanish?  etc.)

Even if you've developed great memorization skills, you still need a tool that delivers you the information in a format that allows you to study the desired content in an efficient manner.  I don't care how amazing your memory is; repetition will always strengthen your memory.

Ines Hijazi 6 years ago

Do agree with it. Should keep in mind that rote memory is also the key of an efficient brain.

Babsonkate 9 years ago

What if your Nigerian entrepreneur had been Igbo?

Babsonkate 9 years ago

I actually didn't mean to be flip. Understanding Nigerian culture would likely keep you from making an embarrassing error. Memorizing dominant languages won't give you that understanding.

That said, I do agree that rote memorization can be very useful. I'm just not convinced by that particular example.

Andrew Cohen 9 years ago

Great point, Kate. I guess I got lucky. If I'd had good Brainscape flashcards for African languages, then I would have known that the three main dialects in Nigeria are Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. One day we'll have these flashcards on the Brainscape market!

Kelle Campbell 9 years ago

I have to agree with you. Last year, I gave a short presentation on the similarities between music and spoken language. I did the research, wrote the speech (which even included examples) and gave my presentation. But now I have to think hard to dredge up even a single fact from that relatively recent presentation.

I can recall Christopher Columbus' three ships (Nina, Pinta & Santa Maria) much more quickly, and I learned that by rote memorization decades ago.

Project-based learning is just one tool in the instructional toolkit, and memorization shouldn't be discarded.

Amanda Moritz 9 years ago

Great Example!

Your presentation on music and language sounds interesting too :) It's funny
that for both music and language, rote memorization are important tools.
I'll never forget how much I hated studying my scales, but I thank my
teacher now, years later, for hammering them into my fingers/brain.

Jeff 9 years ago

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I'm so happy to see some people still get it. The educational system in our country has gone insane! I've talked a length with numerous elementary school teachers about this. None of them get it! That's because not a single one has had to take foundational material to get their degree and teach. None of them has taken a class in "Learning and Memory" (or they did very poorly in it). Half the nonsense ideas they spout are from "on the job training" and completely contradicts how we actually learn. This is a double example that "on the job" training may not be accurate, so you can't rely on that to get your education in the foundations of your field. And educators in general don't even know how their students learn, but they invent all these methods that are supposed to be more effective than simply memorizing and learning.

My least favorite one is scrapping timed math fact sheets (doing 100 simple additions/subtractions/multiplications/divisions in a minute) in favor of using dominoes to do fast calculations. I hated timed math fact sheets!! But they were such an amazing tool to get you to memorize 3+8=11 or whatever. When I heard about the dominoes, I was like do you even know what you are teaching them?! They could be memorizing blue and yellow makes 10. They could be memorizing square and full one makes 13. Are they going to be able to tell you what 4+7 is? No! Because that's not what you are practicing with them -- they are seeing shapes and colors and spitting out a number. Sure dominoes are more fun, but it isn't drilling them in the correct context.

I like the example of learning a language without memorizing anything. You have to memorize something! What are you going to say or write or read if you don't have any piece of the language memorized? Sure rote memorization isn't everything, and no one is saying it is, but it cannot ever be abandoned.

Andrew Cohen 9 years ago

Thanks, Jeff! I feel like there are a huge number of people who appreciate the timeless value of learning & memory in education like we do, but they are afraid to speak out because of the growing (and important) movement toward "constructivism." We need to keep reminding people about the important value of drill and practice - as much as students might think it's a pain in the ass.

The key is to find the right way to incorporate drill & practice into the curriculum without obscuring the real-world value and skills application component. It's an art as much as it is a science . . . .

Yolanda 7 years ago

"It's an art as much as it is a science."

Brilliant and succinct!

D. Mehta 8 years ago

Agreed to a certain extent. But this cannot be said that rote learning is the only and best method. After all, how much can you keep and retain? You will surely remember that 3+8=11, but how long if you never understood how it happened? If you won't practice or come across 3+8-11 for 10 years, you might have to calculate that again. There are infinite things to rote but much, much less amount of concepts to learn.
P.S.: Nobody teaches blue + yellow = 10! If you think that is happening, you perhaps didn't dwell deep into the 'Why' part or perhaps you don't know what is being taught.

Mistareez 7 years ago

Actually, D. Mehta, they DO teach blue+yellow=10. In the first grade I moved from a "math facts sheet" sort of school system to a constructivist district. The first day in math class the teacher said it was time to do addition and subtraction, and told the students to go get their "rods." I had no idea what she was talking about, but dutifully followed the other students to a shelf to collect a plastic carton filled with rectangular blocks of varying lengths and colors. Oblivious to the purpose, I set about completing the sheet of math problems. Just before I finished, the girl next to me said she did not have enough "reds" to do problem 10, could she borrow one. It was at that time I noticed that my classmates were carefully laying out the "rods" in combinations. I finished the sheet and spent the rest of the time building a magnificent structure from my "rods," while the others used them to solve the math problems. It was 20 years later that I learned that those were "math manipulatives" and probably cost the school a small fortune. But yes, there were children all around me adding three greens and a blue to get the answer to the math problems.

JB fairness 5 years ago

Memorization and Learning are required. If only one is used then the productive work in society declines.

Margaret Nahmias 8 years ago

Rote memorization without application is equally as useless especially with language. However, with vocabualry some there is no other way.

Rolandbacon64 7 years ago

I agree that somehow rote memorization is highly important, even more if it's given by spaced repetition; nevertheless, I strongly recommend you to check this website http://www.scotthyoung.com that gives a better way of learning. He has an amazing book that teaches potential skills that may lead to great success, part of his book can be seen in http://www.scotthyoung.com/..., that is based on -induction-, associations and holistic view. (intuition) MBTI system 1 + system 2

Yan Minis 5 years ago

I use some rote memorization in my medical studies. I just wanted to let you know that I liked your article so much that I actually linked to it within my latest blog post: http://mentathlete.com/how-... :)

Grey 5 years ago

It can't be solely based upon rote memory, which is what my school(s) promoted.

I'm not going to reread who King Henry blah blah blah is our what King William was about because who the hell needs to know that shit. If they wanted to teach us "rote" memory, then they should teach us how to do so effectively. Not just employ methods that require rote memory to learn about subjects/topics that we'll never again need to know.

You can reread something all you want, but not everyone is the same. Someone who doesn't get it, may not have the potential to "get" it simply through means of rereading.

Rote memory stifles the learning capacity of creative students, and where they may have succeeded on par with or above others, they tend to fall short (I'm speaking from direct experience).

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