Rote Learning vs. Meaningful Learning

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How you learn material can vary by subject and by purpose! In this article, we go over everything needed to understand rote learning vs. meaningful learning.

There are many different approaches to learning, such as rote learning and meaningful learning, that can result in different outcomes. One of these approaches can provide more in-depth learning than the other.

Not sure how to tell the difference?

You’ve come to the right place! This article will discuss the effects of rote learning and the effects of meaningful learning. We will provide you with an introduction of meaningful learning techniques, along with a discussion on rote learning examples to be able to discern rote learning advantages and disadvantages.

What is Rote Learning?

What is Rote Learning?

What is Rote Learning?

Now, this might be the first time you ever hear the term, rote learning.

What does it mean?

Rote learning is actually a form of learning that involves memorization of material through repetitive actions. You memorize material without actually learning facts about the rules or relationships related to the content.

If you’re a college student, you are likely more familiar with the term, cramming, where you review all your content right before the exam. Rote learning is that very same technique, where you try to memorize as much material as possible within a quick timespan. It generally serves the purpose to remember something basic very quickly.

While the association of rote learning to cramming may not sound as appealing, we’re going to discuss when rote learning strategies would be most appropriate and help. We can apply rote learning in a variety of essential subjects, such as mathematics, vocabulary, counting numbers, and even reciting the alphabet. Usually, your purpose in doing this is to be able to recall basic facts at a quick pace.

For instance, a teacher might have students memorize the alphabet so that they can build basic skills in recognizing letters to eventually put together coherent words or sentences. So, rote learning can serve an essential purpose to build basic foundational skills in recognition.

Here are some other rote learning examples to get a more concrete idea on what rote learning entails and when it might be useful.

  • Learning basic colors
  • Learning the alphabet
  • Learning your multiplication table
  • Counting numbers
  • Learning about History
  • Learning topics in Geology
  • Memorizing elements in Chemistry

What is Meaningful Learning?

What is Meaningful Learning?

What is Meaningful Learning?

Another type of learning that can be used for different topics and purpose is meaningful learning.

What exactly is meaningful learning?

You can consider meaningful learning as the complete opposite of rote learning.

Meaningful learning is a form of in-depth learning, where knowledge is gained by understanding various aspects of the concept as a whole. That is, you’re trying to understand the various components that make up this idea to understand how it all fits together.

In using meaningful learning, you build on earlier concepts (e.g., prior knowledge) to learn about new ideas. Some teachers also refer this to relational learning because you’re associating new ideas with something you either already know or understand.

Here are some concrete examples of using meaningful learning styles

  • Advanced courses in social sciences, poetry, or literature
  • Complex ideas and theories in mathematics or chemistry
  • Compare and contrasts of events, facts, or other type of material
  • Developing coherent arguments to support main ideas
  • Writing critical essays

Meaningful learning has three essential qualities that lead to long-term learning:

1. constructive assessment of concepts

2. long-lasting memory

3. active engagement with the learning process

Meaningful learning can teach you cognitive skills that are essential for your ongoing development as a learner. Students who apply this learning approach typically tend to be critical thinkers with strong problem-solving skills. We will go into more detail on this in the section, memo

What's the Difference Between Rote Learning vs. Meaningful Learning?

What's the Difference Between Rote Learning vs. Meaningful Learning?

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

Now,  we’ve given you an overview on what rote learning and meaningful learning entail with examples. The two learning styles are both useful and appropriate learning tools, but the “when and why” you should apply them will vary and depend on the material, why you want to learn it, and what you expect to get out of learning it.

This leads us to our next question—what is the difference between rote learning and meaningful learning?

There are very distinct differences between rote learning vs. meaningful learning. However, each one serves its purpose within the right circumstances.

What are the main differences?

Time

Rote learning is much quicker to recall content easier; meaningful learning takes much more time because you’re engaging with the material and fully learning about the concept. So, if you’re studying for a math exam on multiplication, it might be more helpful to memorize formulas (e.g., rote learning), rather than learn about the origin of the formula and any other details about how the formula was created (e.g., meaningful learning).

Engagement

Rote learning is heavily focused on routinized memorization of material, rather than any form of engagement. Meaningful learning is the complete opposite, applying active learning techniques that have students reflect on the material, connect concepts to their personal experiences, and build on prior knowledge. So, these two strategies vary by extent of engagement with the material you’re learning.

Distinct Outcomes

The outcomes for each learning approach are also very different. When applying rote learning, you should expect to have memorized concepts without gaining any in-depth understanding of the concept.

However, the opposite is true for meaningful learning. When applying meaningful learning, you should expect to know more aspects about the topic because you have decided to engage with the learning process and learn more about several components that encircle the topic.

Long term vs. short term memory

What you learn from using rote learning does not last very long in your memory; you’ll likely remember this for only as long as you use it. Meaningful learning, on the other hand, is a longer-term learning process that you will likely apply to build on more complex ideas by referring to your prior knowledge. There is evidence to support that meaningful learning will stay in your memory longer due to the active learning put in place.

Duration of use

The effects of rote learning are not considered very sustainable in long-term use. So, it can only be used under certain circumstances for very basic facts. Meaningful learning, however, can be applied with a variety of ideas and concepts across levels of difficulty (basic to complex). This relates back to your expectations—whether you’re interested in learning meaningful to advance your cognition or interested in just memorizing something for the sake of an exam or build basic skills.

Different subjects

Different subjects call for a different type of learning. For instance, rote learning is excellent for mathematics, chemistry and courses in geology. However, for higher level coursework that requires critical assessments or writing, you’ll certainly want to apply meaningful learning strategies to grasp the material fully for a cohesive discussion.

Different types of exams

In regard to exams, rote learning might be more practical for objective examinations; whereas, meaningful learning would be more useful and relevant for critical essays, report writing, or critical arguments of ideas on standardized examinations, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.

Notably, some educators see rote learning and meaningful learning on a continuum, viewing the two approaches as the same only at different levels of learning. So, rote learning may be the pre-requisite stage of learning; whereas, meaningful learning would be farther along on the spectrum.

Here is a great example of how the two connect—imagine yourself writing a paper (e.g., meaningful learning) without ever using rote learning to memorize the alphabet. While both learning strategies are distinct, they are also very much connected.

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Rote Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Rote Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Rote Learning?

While rote learning isn’t necessarily the best approach to learning new material, there are certain advantages to its use.

Let’s go into more detail on rote learning advantages and disadvantages below.

Advantages of Rote Learning

  • Rote learning allows you to learn material fast;
  • With rote learning, you’ll be able to recall and develop foundational ideas and concepts easily (i.e., multiplication table, alphabet). This is particularly important for very basic details that are needed to build on more complex concepts.
  • If you are looking for immediate learning goals, then rote learning is definitely the best approach. With rote learning, you’ll grasp basic facts long enough for an exam, but don’t expect to remember it in the long-run!

Disadvantages of Rote Learning

  • Rote learning is very repetitive, so it can be challenging to stay focused on the material.
  • When applying rote learning, you aren’t building or connecting newer concepts to earlier concepts; it just becomes another memorization process to be able to apply the more complex content.
  • Because rote learning is only focused on memorizing material, you can actually memorize something incorrectly without actually realizing it. You might also just understand something for the entirely wrong reasons because you’re not going in-depth about the concepts.
  • Rote learning is typically not very inspiring, so you don’t necessarily cultivate your comprehension of the subject itself, but simply the basic facts.

Now, while rote learning may not necessarily have the best impact on your understanding of concepts, it serves a basic function that accumulates your basic knowledge. This, in turn, is what helps improve your understanding for more meaningful learning because you need to refer to your prior knowledge to apply to new knowledge.

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Meaningful Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Meaningful Learning?

What are Advantages and Disadvantages of Meaningful Learning?

Now, what the advantages and disadvantages of meaningful learning?

Let’s create a similar list as the prior section.

Advantages of Meaningful Learning

  • Meaningful learning applies active learning techniques, which allows the student to engage with their material
  • Meaningful learning builds on prior knowledge, allowing for connections to other ideas that facilitate the learning process
  • Meaningful learning fosters one’s understanding on the overall concept rather than a single aspect about it.
  • Meaningful learning is also designed for the actual learning process; so, in using this approach, you are definitely going to see changes in how much you’ve learned about a particular topic.
  • With meaningful learning, you can also expect to free up some cognitive resources.
  • Meaningful learning provides a process that can cultivate students’ interests in a particular topic—the greater the interest, the more willing you are to actively engage with the material.
  • Meaningful learning builds on students’ critical thinking skills, providing you with a space to express ideas, arguments, or opinions in a manner that is constructive rather than argumentative.
  • In applying meaningful learning more frequently, you are essentially teaching yourself how to learn. This can guide your cognition so that you are prepared to integrate new knowledge or more complex ideas.

Disadvantages of Meaningful Learning

  • Meaningful learning takes more time and commitment because learning about multiple aspects of a concept obviously takes longer than a single aspect.
  • Sometimes, the foundational concepts that some ideas build on aren’t necessarily the same across students; so meaningful learning fails to consider context and differences that students may bring from their individualized experiences.
  • Building on the prior bullet, meaningful learning needs to be presented in a way that the student can relate to (e.g., language, reading level, and prior knowledge); otherwise, it doesn’t produce the same learning outcomes.
  • Meaningful learning is bidirectional, influenced by both the actions of the student and teacher. The downside to this is that you cannot force a student to engage in meaning learning processes, it has to be initiated on their own accord.

What Type of Learner is Each Style Better For?

What Type of Learner is Each Style Better For?

What Type of Learner is Each Style Better For?

Instead of viewing this question at an individual level, we encourage you to think about the material you’re interested in learning and your ultimate goals in learning them. These are mainly the factors that will determine which type of learning is better for you.

What Type of Learner May Like Meaningful Learning?

In terms of individual styles and personal characteristics, these learning styles may not work for everyone.

Meaningful learning is designed for a student who is dedicated to their learning. It takes a lot of “self learning” because you’re the one putting in the time, effort and commitment to engage with your learning materials meaningfully.

Some personal characteristics that might make the meaningful learning process easier would likely include well-organization, emotionally committed to the idea of learning, ability to apply new concepts to what has already been learned. So, if you are someone who is inflexible on ideas and aren’t willing to change what you know now based on what you learn about later, then this is definitely not the best type of learning style for you.

What Type of Learner May Like Rote Learning?

Rote learning, on the other hand, might work better for someone who can work under pressure and doesn’t necessarily have to refer back to prior knowledge for any concepts or ideas. There are plenty of people who don’t engage in any meaningful learning later on in their adult life, but these can present dangers in accepting beliefs without critical assessment of the consequences.

Wrapping Things Up: Rote Learning vs. Meaningful Learning

There are many different ways of learning with each learning style serving a unique purpose. At this point, you have learned how to distinguish between rote learning and meaningful learning. You should have a firm understanding on an introduction to meaningful learning, rote learning advantages and disadvantages, and effects of rote learning.

The most important thing to remember is that in depth learning serves you more advantages in the long run, especially if you’re interested in learning a concept to its fullest extent. However, the two are not exclusive of one another and both help you learn more about new ideas.

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

Professor Conquer
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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