Why Rote Learning Doesn’t Work — And What Does Work?

Why Rote Learning Doesn’t Work — And What Does Work?

Do you know Judy Willis? She’s a board certified neurologist, classroom teacher, and Edutopia blogger. According to Dr. Willis, rote memorization doesn’t work for students because there is no engaging pattern or effort made to relate the content to students’ lives. Another problem is that short term memory can only hold data for 20 minutes. What can help students remember better from Willis’ neurological perspective?

  1. Actively relate new knowledge to previous knowledge.
  2. Help students recognize patterns.
  3. Repeat activities. Have students do the science experiment again or re-read the chapter. “The more times one repeats an action (e.g., practice) or recalls the information, the more dendrites sprout to connect new memories to old, and the more efficient the brain becomes in its ability to retrieve that memory or repeat that action.”
  4. Have students concentrate on the meaning of words, not their surface appearance, when learning new vocabulary.
  5. Have students connect as many senses to the information as possible. “By stimulating several senses with the information, more brain connections are available when students need to recall that memory later on.” Judy Willis recounts an unforgettable learning experience which illustrates her point: “Decades ago, my high school chemistry teacher slowly released hydrogen sulfide (which produces a smell like rotten eggs) from a hidden container he opened just before we entered his classroom. A few minutes after we took our seats and he began his lecture, a foul odor permeated classroom. We groaned, laughed, looked around for the offending source. To an outside observer entering our class at that time, we would have appeared unfocused and definitely not learning anything. This demonstration, however, literally led me by the nose to follow my teacher’s description of the diffusion of gases through other gases. It is likely that during that class I created two or three pathways to the information about gas diffusion that I processed through my senses and ultimately stored in my long-term memory. Since then, that knowledge has been available for me to retrieve by thinking of an egg or by remembering the emotional responses as the class reacted to the odor permeating the room. Once I make the connection, I am able to recall the scientific facts linked to his demonstration.”
  6. Use novelty. Surprise lights up memory pathways. “Start a lesson with an unanticipated demonstration, or have something new/unusual in the classroom to spark student attention and curiosity. It can be anything, from playing a song as they enter to greeting them in a hat, cape, or costume.”
Judy Willis, PhD (Real Deal Neuroscientist and Teacher)

(Source: Willis, Judy (2007) “Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success.” Childhood Education.)

To keep up to date on neuroscience-based teaching practices, “brain blasts” teaching tactics, and new research on teaching and learning, receive Todd Brain’s Weekly Newsletter. Better than an iced Americano in July.

Edutopia Blogger & English Education Professor. Braining Strategies for Teaching and Learning — Check out Todd’s Brain Newsletter: http://bit.ly/T_BRAIN.

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