Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it. Some of the alternatives to rote learning include meaningful learning, associative learning, and active learning.
Rote learning vs. critical thinking
Rote methods are routinely used when quick memorization is required, such as learning one's lines in a play or memorizing a telephone number.
Rote learning is widely used in the mastery of foundational knowledge. Examples of school topics where rote learning is frequently used include phonics in reading, the periodic table in chemistry, multiplication tables in mathematics, anatomy in medicine, cases or statutes in law, basic formulae in any science, etc. By definition, rote learning eschews comprehension, so by itself it is an ineffective tool in mastering any complex subject at an advanced level. For instance, one illustration of Rote learning can be observed in preparing quickly for exams, a technique which may be colloquially referred to as "cramming".
Rote learning is sometimes disparaged with the derogative terms parrot fashion, regurgitation, cramming, or mugging because one who engages in rote learning may give the wrong impression of having understood what they have written or said. It is strongly discouraged by many new curriculum standards. For example, science and mathematics standards in the United States specifically emphasize the importance of deep understanding over the mere recall of facts, which is seen to be less important, although advocates of traditional education have criticized the new American standards as slighting learning basic facts and elementary arithmetic, and replacing content with process-based skills.
- "When calculators can do multidigit long division in a microsecond, graph complicated functions at the push of a button, and instantaneously calculate derivatives and integrals, serious questions arise about what is important in the mathematics curriculum and what it means to learn mathematics. More than ever, mathematics must include the mastery of concepts instead of mere memorization and the following of procedures. More than ever, school mathematics must include an understanding of how to use technology to arrive meaningfully at solutions to problems instead of endless attention to increasingly outdated computational tedium."
- -National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Commonsense Facts to Clear the Air
In math and science, rote methods are often used, for example to memorize formulas. There is greater understanding if students commit a formula to memory through exercises that use the formula rather than through rote repetition of the formula. Newer standards often recommend that students derive formulas themselves to achieve the best understanding. Nothing is faster than rote learning if a formula must be learned quickly for an imminent test and rote methods can be helpful for committing an understood fact to memory. However, students who learn with understanding are able to transfer their knowledge to tasks requiring problem-solving with greater success than those who learn only by rote.
Eugène Ionesco commented upon rote learning in his play "The Lesson": On the other side, those who disagree with the inquiry-based philosophy maintain that students must first develop computational skills before they can understand concepts of mathematics. These skills should be memorized and practiced, using time-tested traditional methods until they become automatic. Time is better spent practicing skills rather than in investigations inventing alternatives, or justifying more than one correct answer or method. In this view, estimating answers is insufficient and, in fact, is considered to be dependent on strong foundational skills. Learning abstract concepts of mathematics is perceived to depend on a solid base of knowledge of the tools of the subject and believe that rote learning is an important part of the learning process.
Rote learning as a tool
With some material, rote learning is an effective method to learn it in a short time; for example, when learning the Greek alphabet or lists of vocabulary words. Similarly, when learning the conjugation of foreign irregular verbs, the morphology is often too subtle to be learned explicitly in a short time. However, as in the alphabet example, learning where the alphabet came from may help one to grasp the concept of it and therefore memorize it. (Native speakers and speakers with a lot of experience usually get an intuitive grasp of those subtle rules and are able to conjugate even irregular verbs that they have never heard before.)
The source transmission could be auditory or visual, and is usually in the form of short bits such as rhyming phrases (but rhyming is not a prerequisite), rather than chunks of text large enough to make lengthy paragraphs. Brevity is not always the case with rote learning. For example, many Americans can recite their National Anthem, or even the much more lengthy Preamble to the United States Constitution. Their ability to do so can be attributed, at least in some part, to having been assimilated by rote learning. The repeated stimulus of hearing it recited in public, on TV, at a sporting event, etc. has caused the mere sound of the phrasing of the words and inflections to be "written", as if hammer-to-stone, into the long-term memory. Excessive repetition within a limited time frame can actually be counter-productive to learning, through an effect termed semantic satiation.
By nation and culture
The system is widely practiced in schools across Brazil, which Richard Feynman sharply criticized, China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Romania, Italy, Turkey, Malta, and Greece. Some of these nations are admired for their high test scores in international comparisons while some of these nations regularly rank near the bottom on international tests. Xiaping Li (2006) has studied the effects of rote learning in second language learning in Taiwan. He notes Chinese learners hold high the tradition of rote learning as being an integral part of their culture.
In the United States
New curriculum standards from the NCTM and NSES (National Science Education Standards) call for more emphasis on active learning, critical thinking and communication over recall of facts. In many fields such as mathematics and science it is still a matter of controversy as to whether rote memorization of facts such as the multiplication table or boiling point of water is still necessary. Progressive reforms, such as outcomes-based education, which have put an emphasis on eliminating rote learning in favor of deep understanding have produced controversy among those favoring traditional rote methods. Some American texts such as the K-5 mathematics curriculum Investigations in Number, Data, and Space of TERC omit rote memorization in favor of conceptual learning.
In the United Nations Arab human development report for 2004 the Arab researchers claim that rote learning is a major contributing factor to the lack of progress in science and research & development in the Arab countries. Asian nations, though scoring well on skill tests, are also studying standards of nations such as the United States to increase innovation and creativity.
Many religions contain vast amount of scriptures, commentaries, and even commentaries on classical commentaries. Rote learning is prevalent in many religious schools throughout the world. This is partly because most major religions appeared before the emergence of print.
Most Dharmic religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism initially transmitted their scriptural knowledge through oral transmission without resort to text. This was done by a combination of memorization techniques including converting verse into chant and repeating it to commit to memory. In Abrahamic religions, Jewish yeshivot or chadarim (plural of cheder) use rote learning when teaching Torah; Muslim madrasas utilize it in memorizing Qur'an. A person who has memorized the entire Quran is known as Hafiz. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, memorization techniques were known as Method of loci, mainly practiced in monasteries and universities, where divinity was taught. These skills were highly praised and they were known to be extensive allies of memorization technique such as the memory palace.
After the emergence of the printing press, the memorization of the entire scriptures was no longer an essential requirement of being a religious teacher. Rote learning is still used in various degrees, especially by young children, the main purpose being to memorize and retain as much textual material as possible, to prepare a student for a more analytical learning in the future.
Rote learning in mathematics
Rote learning or memorization is a common element in mathematics education, for instance in memorization of multiplication tables. While complex problems can be broken down into simpler multiplications, the answers to these basic operations themselves are essential for more complex mathematical operations. It is believed, therefore, that having them at hand mentally will facilitate not only these operations (which are of use directly), but also more progress to more advanced concepts. Acquisition of basic skills typically involves rote learning, but also may include understanding of why the concept works. It is believed also that practice in using mathematics can precede a solid knowledge as to why equations are able to be solved in the ways being learned, with learning of these reasons actually being facilitated by rote-knowledge of the results of the concept. This combination of mathematical properties and theorems and enhanced memory through rote learning and practice that are believed to be important in mastering mathematics. To others, Rote learning is considered a major role in the better learning of concepts, especially critics of math education reform, which include many mathematicians. As an example of the pros of rote learning, to add two fractions we must first find their respective least common denominator. To do so we have to change the denominators to a different number until they are both the same. We do this by multiplying the numerator and denominator of one of the fractions by the same number. This is possible because any number divided by itself is just one (4/4 = 1/1 = 1). Once this is done to both fractions and we ensure that the denominators are the same, we can then proceed to add the numerators. This is something that is accomplished almost entirely by drilling on fraction problems. In college mathematics, when students start an introductory course in linear algebra, abstract algebra, or topology, they require rote learning of primitive notions and axioms to tackle their course requirements. Similarly, high school students that rote learn the definitions and axioms of Euclidean geometry will be better prepared to construct the proofs characteristic of that course.
This term can also refer to learning music by ear as opposed to musical notation interpretation. Many music teachers make a clear distinction between the two approaches. Specialised forms of rote learning have also been used in Vedic chanting to preserve the intonation and lexical accuracy of texts by oral tradition. Rote learning music is also used in music where notation isn't sufficient to tell how it should be played (polymetric music, and others). Also this technique is commonly used in jazz, as a method of getting the musician to think about the piece played in another way.
The Suzuki method and rote learning
As outlined in Edward Kreitman's book "Teaching From The Balance Point", there is a clear difference between rote learning and learning by ear, which is in fact the more important skill developed by the Suzuki method. In chapter two, "Rote Versus Note", this difference is explained:
...I believe that we need to examine three different approaches to learning.
Learning by rote: Using a specific set of instructions to produce the desired result
Learning by reading: Using symbolism on the printed page to learn the sequence of notes
Learning by ear: Using the "mind's ear", together with a few simple skills and a basic understanding of the logic of the instrument, to figure out any piece
An illustration of these three approaches, and how they relate to learning music, follows. The author shows that rote learning is not in fact the principal means upon which the Suzuki method relies.
Learning methods for school
- Understanding the Revised NCTM Standards: Arithmetic is Still Missing!
- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "Principles and Standards for School Mathematics". Retrieved 6 May 2011.
- Hilgard, Ernest R.; Irvine; Whipple (October 1953). "Rote memorization, understanding, and transfer: an extension of Katona's card-trick experiments". Journal of Experimental Psychology 46 (4): 288–292. doi:10.1037/h0062072.
- Ionesco, Eugène. The Bald Soprano & Other Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1958.[page needed]
- Preliminary Report, National Mathematics Advisory Panel, January, 2007
- Feynman, Richard; Leighton, Ralph (1985). Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-7861-7728-4.
- Jones, Dorian (2007-03-021). "Turkey: Revolutionizing The Classroom". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 2008-08-12.
- PISA 2006 results - Excel table
- Xiuping Li (2007).  An Analysis Of Chinese EFL Learners' Beliefs About The Role Of Rote Learning In Vocabulary Learning Strategies]
- Kreitman, Edward. Teaching From The Balance Point. Western Springs, Illinois: Western Springs School of Talent Education, 1998 p.13-23
- Preston, Ralph (1959). Teaching Study Habits and Skills, Rinehart. Original from the University of Maryland digitized August 7, 2006.
- Cohn, Marvin (1979). Helping Your Teen-Age Student: What Parents Can Do to Improve Reading and Study Skills, Dutton, ISBN 978-0-525-93065-5.
- Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, Teacher’s College, Columbia University (English edition).
- Schunk, Dale H. (2008). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-010850-2.