Rote Learning vs. Conceptual Learning

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There are many different ways to learn, but not all types of learning will benefit you in the long run. In this article, we go over everything needed to understand rote learning vs. conceptual learning.

If you’re interested in learning more about which type of learning approach works better for you, then you’ve come to the right place.

This article will explain the difference between two types of learning approaches— rote learning and conceptual learning. We will discuss conceptual and rote learning advantages and disadvantages, the effects of rote learning with rote learning examples, and introduce you to conceptual learning. We will also discuss performance learning and concept-based learning to give you a broader understanding of what strategies you can use for better school outcomes.

What is Conceptual Learning?

What is Conceptual Learning?

What is Conceptual Learning?

First, let’s define conceptual learning.

Conceptual learning refers to a type of learning that cultivates your full understanding about a particular subject matter by focusing on the bigger picture. With conceptual learning, you apply your prior knowledge or what you already know about something to better understand it in this new context. Many sources suggest that conceptual learning is the most effective strategy for success in meeting your educational goals.

Conceptual learning allows students to engage with their existing understanding of a topic or concept. This active form of engagement is really what builds long-lasting knowledge and understanding. Conceptual learning requires students to base decisions off of what they already know in application of new knowledge.

Because of these active forms of engagement and decision-making processes, students who apply conceptual learning are more often critical thinkers, critically assessing new ideas and situations as they appear. They also tend to be creative problem solvers because their cognitive thinking has been trained to perceive all perspectives of an issue or topic to find a solution.

Some examples of conceptual learning might include critical writing projects that require students to compare and contrast ideas or concepts, formulating cohesive arguments for debates that can critically assess all perspectives, and other types of projects that really require you to challenge your own perspective, while also considering your existing knowledge and understanding.

Some schools and programs apply conceptual learning with specific paradigms, including performance learning or concept-based learning. Both of these curriculums are based on the idea of conceptual learning, with an emphasis on fostering critical thinking and understanding through inquiry or application of a new skill or knowledge.

Performance learning is a type of conceptual learning approach that requires students to carry out a task that applies a particular new idea or knowledge. If you are a high school student, you may have seen elective courses that have applied performance learning, such as driver’s ed or cooking.

Let’s do an example of performance learning with cooking a new recipe for the first time.

If we are introducing students to a new hobby—cooking—then, we would have students read about what cooking entails.

Students would be required to read a new recipe and make sure to memorize the details of that recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Then, students would need to learn more about which tools to use for the application of the recipe. Once that’s done, students are expected to then actively carry out the baking by applying their newfound knowledge.

The goals of performance learning are focused on application of new knowledge, which seems to work really well for a significant group of people in a variety of areas, including job trainings, role playing internships, law school, etc.

Concept-based learning is another type of conceptual learning approach that focuses on multiple aspects of an idea or topic, rather than focusing on it as a single subject. For instance, a curriculum that uses concept-based learning teaches students about the overarching idea by applying a topic to its broader implications.

Let’s take the example of Native American history.

With concept-based learning, students would be asked to identify true events that represent the history of Native Americans in Michigan. Then, students would be asked to compare and contrast these true historical events to false narratives represented in common North American holidays. Students would then perhaps discuss how power impacts truth and how there are multiple perspectives to all stories in history.

So, the idea of concept-based learning is to think beyond the subject and connect the subject to the bigger picture. In the example we provided, the bigger picture was the idea of power driving narratives—social groups with more power get their story told more often than those with less power.

What is Rote Learning?

What is Rote Learning?

What is Rote Learning?

Another type of learning that can be used is rote learning.

Now, what exactly is rote learning?

Rote learning is very different from conceptual learning. Rote learning refers to a type of learning that uses memorization techniques to learn basic facts or rules. Rote learning is essentially a quick and easy approach to recall and store straightforward information.

One example of rote learning can be cramming all your readings before class or before a big exam. You will probably be able to recall other examples of rote learning in your earlier school years, including recitation of the alphabet, multiplication table, division rules, phonics, and counting numbers. In this case, rote learning was the best approach in helping you memorize basic, essential facts that you would eventually build even more complex ideas on.

Other rote learning examples where this technique might be most appropriate for include learning subjects that have a lot of basic facts or rules, such as chemistry, math, history, or geology. Think about topics that don’t really require much understanding, but basic factual details about the concept being portrayed.

Rote learning might sound like a great idea because it’s quick and easy; but, it’s not necessarily the best option you have. Rote learning is certainly an appropriate option for specific purposes, but if you’re trying to gain an in-depth understanding of content, then you might want to consider other learning approaches, such as performance learning or concept based learning.

What’s the Difference Between Rote Learning vs. Conceptual Learning?

What’s the Difference Between Rote Learning vs. Conceptual Learning?

What’s the Difference Between Rote Learning vs. Conceptual Learning?

Now that we’ve introduced you to rote learning and conceptual learning, let’s discuss the differences between each one to decide on the best approach for a given outcome.


The main difference between the two is that the effects of rote learning are not as successful as conceptual learning. That is, conceptual learning will certainly lead you to broader awareness and understanding about a topic, whereas, rote learning will only leave you with basic details to quickly recall.

Because of these implications in outcomes, you’ll find that conceptual learning is more often used in higher education and challenging course work. Teachers generally select conceptual learning over rote learning because of the distinction in outcomes and learning goals.

Please note that we also consider these outcomes in a continuum. It may be the case that rote learning is first required to familiarize yourself with some basic learning outcomes and then proceed to conceptual learning about the same topic for more in-depth understanding.

Meaningful process

The two learning approaches also vary in their extent of meaningful process.

What do we mean by this?

Rote learning is really systematic, rigid, and can be done without much thought. Essentially, it only requires repetition. Conceptual learning, on the other hand, is very thorough, requires thoughtful considerations to topics and ideas, and can even cultivate new ideas to build on.

Longer term memory

Conceptual learning will be also stored in your longer-term memory more than rote learning.


Because conceptual learning requires you to refer to your prior knowledge and understanding about a topic or concept. In doing this, you are associating the new ideas with something you already know. This is extremely helpful for longer memory retention.

Varied applications

Rote learning and conceptual learning also differ by their application. That is, rote learning is more useful for foundational coursework, learning about basic facts in chemistry (e.g., formulas), biology (e.g., body parts or functions), and math (equations, counting).

Conceptual learning, on the other hand, should be applied for more complex and thoughtful tasks. We encourage you to apply conceptual learning when you write, when you critically assess an idea to identify its advantages or disadvantages, when you need to make informed decisions or problem solve issues.

Both types of learning are essential to everyday life, but you’ll need to really understand when it is appropriate to apply each one.

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Conceptual Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Conceptual Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Conceptual Learning?

We’ve touted abut conceptual learning throughout this article, but now we’ll let you decide on what’s best for your learning goals by providing you with a list of advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Conceptual Learning

  • Conceptual learning strengthens your understanding about a topic
  • With conceptual learning, you are applying prior knowledge to new concepts, which allows you to engage more with the new information.
  • Because of this form of engagement, conceptual learning tends to be retained in your memory for a long time, especially if you are continuing to build on these same concepts with newer details.
  • Conceptual learning can be applied for a variety of school subjects. Conceptual learning in math is essential for problem solving skills or design of independent research projects. Conceptual learning in writing is essential for critical assessments or building arguments.

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Rote Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Rote Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Rote Learning?

Now, we are going to focus on the advantages and disadvantages of rote learning.

Advantages of Rote Learning

  • Rote learning is a quick process that requires little time commitment and minimal effort through repetition.
  • Rote learning is a great strategy for obtaining foundational and basic knowledge that you need to refer to quickly for more complex concepts (i.e., math equations).
  • Rote learning serves an important function by providing you with the pre-learning requisites for anything that is more challenging or complex in the future. For instance, you can now recognize letters through rote learning techniques, which allows you to write essays.
  • If you are in some kind of a class pinch and need to recall information quickly, then you have the option of using rote learning to cram for that exam, especially if it’s a subject that requires memorization of basic concepts for a multiple-choice exam. For instance, memorizing organs for biology or foundational theories in calculus.
  • Rote learning also serves the advantage of preparing you cognitively to speed up the learning process for other learning opportunities.

Disadvantages of Rote Learning

As for the disadvantages, we have already touched up on quite a few, but let’s create a more cohesive list here.

  • Rote learning is not a sustainable learning technique! Don’t expect to live your life cultivating new ideas and creativity through repetition. The effects of rote learning are minimal and not the best approach for broadening your learning and understanding of topics and concepts.
  • Rote learning is not very engaging since it requires mere repetition. You’ll likely only be able to tolerate only when it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Rote learning is only helpful for basic, foundational information; it is not efficient for complex ideas or critical assessments of different ideas all together.
  • Because you’re only memorizing content, you might not be able to catch mistakes when you use rote learning. So, there is a chance that you may actually memorize material that is incorrect.

Before ending this section, we want to emphasize how there is a time and place for rote learning. Rote learning, while mechanical, is still very valuable. Rote learning serves an essential function in providing you with the basics that are needed to obtain even more complex information.

In essence, rote learning is on the lower end of a continuum of learning, with conceptual learning as your end goal.

What Type of Learning is Each Style Better For?

What Type of Learning is Each Style Better For?

What Type of Learning is Each Style Better For?

Now that we’ve discussed the advantages and disadvantages of rote learning and conceptual learning in more detail, it’s important to also consider which type of style is best for each approach.

For rote learning, we encourage you to use it to obtain foundational knowledge, basic facts, and other quick details that will help you recollect and apply quickly. For conceptual learning, we encourage you to use this as your primary learning technique and as often as possible. In using conceptual learning, you will understand ideas better and understand the sum of its parts, as well.

Let’s use the subject of math as an example. We previously mentioned how rote learning can be applied in recalling basic foundational knowledge, such as the multiplication table. The ability to recall this quickly is extremely important for you to be able to calculate other challenging equations or coursework.

Conceptual learning in math is more applicable for problem solving techniques needed to solve math problems. For instance, you’ll need to really grasp the application and justification for solving a problem with multiplication.

If you find yourself working very slowly on these because you can’t recall the multiplication table quickly, which then leads to you not finishing exams on time, then you should definitely apply rote learning techniques. If, on the other hand, you are having trouble to understand what the math problem needs to be solved, then apply conceptual learning to improve your critical thinking skills.

Wrapping Things Up: Rote Learning vs. Conceptual Learning

You’ve reached the end of this article! We’ve discussed the difference between rote learning and conceptual learning, and the effects of rote learning in comparison to conceptual learning. The most important takeaway is that both types of learning are valuable, but each varies by purpose, outcome, and goal.

Make sure to apply our list of advantages and disadvantages to each learning approach to decide what is best for your learning goals!

Did you find this post helpful? Then you may also like our post on Rote Learning vs. Meaningful Learning here.

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Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

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