Rote Learning and the Knowledge Deficit

Back in the day when I was studying chemical engineering, I had to do a third-year module in electrical engineering. The module was taught appallingly badly and at the end of it I was clueless about how motors and generators worked. I got a First in the exam! Like my classmates I rote-learned my way through.

There are two main reasons why rote learning occurs. The first occurs when we have not studied hard enough. A lot of learning is simply done by immersion and rather than having to ‘learn off’ facts, facts are incorporated into our long-term memories as we come across them again and again during study and practice. I am frequently asked by students if they have to ‘remember all the formulas’. I tell them that there are some formulae that are so fundamental to the subject that if the student has studied and practiced sufficiently hard, these equations will have become safely deposited in their long-term memory, ready to be used, in appropriate ways, as the starting point for the solution of all sorts of problems. The question of consciously ‘learning off’ these equations should not really arise. So, if they have not studied hard enough, they have no logical starting point for problem-solving, no experience of applying key knowledge and they rote learn to get through the exam.

The second area where rote learning occurs is when you simply do not understand what is going on – like me in my electrical engineering module. The reason I didn’t understand what was going on was because I did not have sufficient background knowledge of the fundamentals of electricity theory – something that the lecturer didn’t seem to appreciate. Without that background knowledge, there was no way I was ever going to understand material that represented the application of that knowledge. So, rote-learning was a very sensible approach to take.

The argument about students not studying hard enough has been made before – in this blog, for example, – but the contribution of a knowledge deficit to rote learning has received less coverage. In recent years, there has been a tendency to separate knowledge from so-called higher-order cognitive skills like problem-solving, creative thinking, innovation etc. Knowledge acquisition has been derided by many and unfairly equated with rote learning. But there is a growing band of cognitive scientists that is making the case that higher-order skills – often referred to (annoyingly!) as 21st century skills – are critically dependent on having knowledge. The idea that it is sufficient or even better to have knowledge acquisition skills, as opposed to your own easily accessed knowledge, has been thoroughly debunked in my view.

Today, I have just come off the truly depressing experience of reading almost 150 laboratory reports and I have been struck by the sheer awfulness of the level of writing displayed by third-year students. I have been trying to get my head around the idea that third level students cannot, it seems, present a coherent description of what they did in the laboratory, how they did it and what they discovered. I have imagined all sorts of reasons as to why this is so. I have blamed social media, poor work ethic, fatigue, lack of engagement – you name it. But having given it yet more thought, I think the key problem is that the students lack knowledge. When they hand me up incoherent reports, it seems to me that they simply do not see anything wrong with what they have written. They simply don’t know what they don’t know. They obviously know very little about the mechanics of writing in the English language and they have no benchmark against which to compare their own writing.

I find this lack of knowledge everywhere when I’m teaching. Third-year science students lack basic knowledge about molecular structure, about the laws of thermodynamics and thermodynamic equilibrium, about Newton’s laws of motion, about the rules of algebra, about the rules of calculus. It is inevitable that they struggle with what I teach them because their learning is not supported by the required framework of basic knowledge. For them, studying my material must seem like trying to read a book in a foreign language. They have no option but to rote learn.

Our students are getting through the education system – at all its levels – without accumulating the key mass of personal knowledge that they need to advance at each successive stage. Until we recognize this and do something to fix it, we are never going to create those highly creative and innovative graduates that we all desire.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to Rote Learning and the Knowledge Deficit

  1. Perhaps we need to change our teaching methodologies. Students learn better by doing. Project based and problem based education, discussion, collaborative learning, and metacognitive strategies might help to stimulate critical and creative thinking.

    • Greg Foley says:

      I would disagree. I think the evidence for the efficacy of problem-based and project-based learning is very week indeed. Everything I have learned in my teaching career and much of what I have read in the area of cognitive sciences suggests to me that the key problem nowadays is that students lack knowledge. Problem-based learning and all the other innovations that are very much in vogue dilute the amount of content in courses. This is fatal in my view because the idea that one can be a creative and critical thinker without broad and deep knowledge makes is nonsensical.

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