From Rote Learning to Meaningful Learning | Rote To Real Learning

"Understanding is more important than memorization! Schools should teach the students how to understand, think, doubt, and question. They should be made open to imagination and creativity."
—Richard Feynman, 1965 Nobel Prize winner in Physics

What is Rote Learning?

Rote learning is defined as the memorization of information or knowledge based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the material the more one repeats it. One example of rote learning is in preparing quickly for exams, a technique colloquially called “cramming”. It is also sometimes called derogatively as parroting, mugging, or regurgitation because in rote learning one gives the wrong impression that one has understood what one is saying or writing.

Rote learning is used particularly for mastering foundational knowledge. In school, rote learning is often used to learn the alphabet, periodic table, multiplication tables, anatomy, cases or statutes, basic formulae, etc. Since rote learning does not encompass understanding, it is not a suitable method for learning advanced material. It is strongly discouraged by many new curriculum standards.

For example, in the US, science and mathematics standards specifically emphasize the importance of deep understanding over the mere recall of facts. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics stated that “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of how to use technology to arrive meaningfully at solutions to problems instead of endless attention to increasingly outdated computational tedium” (Wikipedia contributors, 2019).

The main role for rote learning is that to engage in higher level thinking, students must first memorize the basic material so that they can refer to it later on when dealing with more advanced lessons and learning. For example, knowledge of the correct spelling of common English words appropriate to a given grade level is necessary if a student is to master writing an essay (Mayer, 2002).

Advantages of Rote Learning (Oxford Learning Centre, 2017)

Benefits of rote learning include:

• Quick recall of basic facts
• Develops foundational knowledge

Disadvantages of Rote Learning (Oxford Learning Centre, 2017)

The disadvantages of rote learning include:

• Repetitive, so can lose focus
• Doesn’t lead to deeper understanding of a subject
• Doesn’t engage social skills
• Does not link new and previous knowledge
• Gives false impression of understanding something
• Creativity in students is stunted and suppressed, and students do not learn how to think, analyze or solve problems (The Room 241 Team, 2012).

What is Meaningful Learning? (Oxford Learning Centre, 2017)

Increasingly, rote learning is being abandoned for newer techniques such as meaningful learning, associative learning, meta cognition, and critical thinking.
Meaningful learning happens when you can use knowledge to solve problems, understand new concepts, and transfer that knowledge to new problems and new learning situations. Relating what you learned to something in your own life not only makes the topic more interesting, encouraging further research and learning, but it also makes it easier to remember. Meaningful learning can incorporate many different techniques, such as concept mapping, hands-on tasks, and so on.

When you learn with understanding, you learn how all the pieces of an entire concept fit together. The knowledge gained thus transfers to new learning situations. This type of learning goes into one’s long-term memory and stays with students lifelong.

The two important goals of learning, that is, retention and transfer are achieved with meaningful learning. “Retention” is the ability to remember the material at a later time in much the same way it was taught. “Transfer” is the ability to use prior knowledge to solve new problems, answer new questions, or facilitate learning new subject matter.

For example, after reading a lesson on Ohm’s Law, a retention test might ask students to write down the formula for Ohm’s Law. Whereas, a transfer test might ask the students to rearrange an electrical circuit to maximize the rate of electron flow (Mayer, 2002).

Advantages of Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning helps students achieve success in the classroom by:

• Facilitating understanding
• Promoting active learning techniques
• Paying attention to the outcome of the learning process
• Showing the relation between new information and previous knowledge

Disadvantages of Meaningful Learning

The drawbacks of meaningful learning include:

• Takes more time to accomplish
• Different types of learners need different approaches to it

Some students may face challenges because meaningful learning requires building off prior knowledge. Hence, teachers and tutors should ensure that students keep understanding the concepts as and when they are introduced so that meaningful learning can continue to happen.

Moving from Rote Learning to Meaningful Learning (Mayer, 2002)

When meaningful learning is the goal, then remembering becomes a means to an end, rather than the end itself. As Wikipedia puts it, “the Internet has been a major factor in meaningful learning. Web 2.0 technologies, such as Wikipedia, blogs, and YouTube, have made learning easier and more accessible for students. Students are able to develop their interests with free and easy access to these online tools, and therefore are able to learn the material meaningfully. Interest development is one of the goals of meaningful learning, as students who are interested generally learn more effectively.”

The teacher must guide the transfer of knowledge to other contexts and tasks. Asking the student to use the same mathematical operation in different assignments, subjects, and physical settings, helps the student to generalize this learning, and through repetition, he or she stores it in the student’s long-term memory. The teacher can assist meaningful learning by (Vandekar, 2015):

1. Teaching the same concept, procedure or attitude using various methodologies, in different tasks, subjects, and physical settings.
2. Help students find similarities between school context and the scientific, cultural or social context when it comes to applying knowledge.
3. Focus teaching on the understanding of abstract concepts and processes, rather than memorizing data.
4. Bring up genuine problems of the students from their daily environment, in which it is necessary to apply knowledge.

To further promote meaningful learning, students have to be taught to do the following.

1. Understand

Students are said to understand when they can derive meaning from material presented during lectures, in books, or on computer monitors. Students understand when they can make connections between the new knowledge to be gained and their prior knowledge. That is, the incoming knowledge is integrated with existing schemas and frameworks. Understanding involves interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, and explaining.

Interpreting (also called clarifying, paraphrasing, representing, or translating) occurs when a student is able to convert information from one form of representation to another.
Exemplifying (also called illustrating or instantiating) occurs when a student finds a specific example or instance of a general concept or principle.
Classifying (also called categorizing or subsuming) occurs when a student determines that something (e.g., a particular instance or example) belongs to a certain category (e.g., concept or principle).
Summarizing (also called abstracting or generalizing) occurs when a student produces a short statement that represents presented information or abstracts a general theme.
Inferring (also called concluding, extrapolating, interpolating, or predicting) involves drawing a logical conclusion from presented information.
Comparing (also called contrasting, mapping, or matching) involves detecting similarities and differences between two or more objects, events, ideas, problems, or situations.
Explaining (also called constructing models) occurs when a student mentally constructs and uses a cause-and-effect model of a system or series.

2. Apply

Applying involves using procedures to perform exercises or solve problems. It comprises: executing—when the task is an exercise (i.e., familiar to the learner), and implementing—when the task is a problem (i.e., unfamiliar to the learner).

Executing (also called carrying out) occurs when a student applies a procedure to a familiar task.
Implementing (also called using) occurs when a student applies one or more procedures to an unfamiliar task.

Call To Action

The whole philosophy and methodology of Butterfly Fields is based on moving students from rote learning to meaningful learning. We do this through our innovative models and tools mapped to the curriculum. Most of it is through hands-on learning-by-doing. So, please feel free to call us in for a discussion and demonstration of what we can offer you to help you make your students learn through understanding.


Mayer, R. E., 2002. Rote Versus Meaningful Learning. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 28 Dec 2019].
Oxford Learning Centre, 2017. The difference between rote learning and meaningful learning. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 28 Dec 2019].
The Room 241 Team, 2012. What is Rote Learning—and is it Effective? A Battle Between Memory and Intelligence. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 28 Dec 2019].
Vandekar, K., 2015. How to create meaningful learning in the classroom. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 28 Dec 2019].
Wikipedia contributors, 2019. Rote learning. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 28 Dec 2019].

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