Lesson 20: Memorising Meaningfully vs. Rote Learning

To have any chance of obtaining full marks in an exam, you need to have the entire content of the syllabus stored perfectly inside your memory. This is a tough task, but it is not impossible. Memorisation is a pain, I agree, but it is necessary. Since you can’t carry your notes in the exam, you won’t be able to perform well if you don’t have all the required information in your head.


So, it’s crucial to memorise things properly. Unfortunately, most students often confuse memorisation with rote learning.


What is Rote Learning?


Rote learning means memorising things via repetition. For example, you keep reciting your notes before a test to commit them to memory. Also, remember when you were learning the alphabet and numbers in primary (or pre-primary) school? That too was rote learning.


Why do we Rote Learn?


Rote learning has its advantages. It helps you recall simple things, like definitions quickly. It can also enable you to gain a basic understanding of a topic.


Is Rote Learning good for you?


Yes, but it is not enough, by itself. To become a Laureate, you not only need to know everything by heart, but you also need to have a thorough understanding of everything in your syllabus! Unfortunately, rote learning, on its own, does not enable you to gain a deep understanding of a topic. For instance, it might not always help you understand how various concepts are linked together. It also does very little to help you think critically, analyse information, and solve advanced or unseen problems. This is potentially dangerous because if you don’t understand a topic well enough, you might misunderstand it entirely. Moreover, it’s hard to maintain focus or stay motivated during rote learning, because by its very nature, the process is very repetitive, i.e., boring.


Meaningful Memorisation


Should you ditch rote learning? Of course not! You only need to upgrade it to meaningful memorisation, which I define as:


Committing a topic to memory once you have FULLY understood it.

From the previous lesson, you can claim that you have fully understood a topic only when you can explain it clearly and concisely to a 10-year old kid. Based upon this, I now declare that


Meaningful memorisation of a topic has been achieved when you can FULLY explain it to a 10-year old kid, without looking at your notes.

Meaningful memorisation of an entire subject involves understanding all aspects of all the topics in the syllabus and the way they link to each other. Once you’ve meaningfully memorised the entire contents of your curriculum, you’ll be able to tackle advanced or new problems that come up in the exams. In other words, nothing will surprise you! While rote learning might help you for a short class test, it is only meaningful memorisation that will help you in your exams.


As a quick recap, you now understand the uses and limitations of rote learning and the benefits of memorising meaningfully. Below, you’ll find some strategies to help you remember things effectively. Remember that every student is unique and has his/her own learning style. So, you don’t need to adopt all these strategies. You only need to find out which ones work for you and implement them accordingly.


Strategy 1: Make summaries of everything


Each time you’ve mastered a topic, summarise the most significant bits. It would be best if you aimed to have entire topics compressed on 1-2 pages. For instance, for Mathematics, you could write all the important formulae of a chapter on a sheet of paper and include a brief description of each. For General Paper, after you’ve completed an essay, you could summarise it by listing the main ideas.


Why are summaries useful? Simply because it’s easier to memorise a single line/word instead of an entire paragraph. You could also make summaries of your summaries. Flashcards and mnemonics can be useful for that. For example, you could use SohCahToa to remember how Sine, Cosine and Tangent work, or use “Add Sugar To Coffee” to remember the ASTC quadrant. The funnier/more grotesque it is, the easier it will be to remember them. (P.S. There are more colourful versions of the ASTC mnemonic on the internet! Find them out!)


You can rote learn your summaries, on the condition that you can spontaneously develop them into detailed and coherent answers/paragraphs using your own words (and without looking at your notes).


Being able to write from memory is crucial if you want to become a Laureate.

Strategy 2: Engage as many senses as you can


We tend to remember things more easily when we associate our senses with them. So, use your senses of sight, touch, hearing, and even smell, whenever possible. As examples:


  • Drawing mindmaps or flowcharts engage your sense of sight due to the visual effect of the diagrams. They also engage your sense of touch when you are drawing and writing information on them.

  • Reading things out loud, engage your voice and ears. Recording yourself is even better as you can listen to your summaries or notes as often as you like, especially in your idle time.

  • If you want to go crazy with engaging your senses, you could add different perfumes to different summaries or flashcards.


Strategy 3: Spaced Repetition


According to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, we forget more than 50% of things we memorise within one hour. After one week, we forget about 80% of them. To overcome this issue, you should leave some space between your recitations. For example, if you’ve got a test in 24 hours, you could perform four repetitions as follows:


  1. First repetition – Now

  2. Second repetition – 15 minutes later

  3. Third repetition – A few hours later

  4. Fourth repetition – One or two hours before the test


This technique will enable you to memorise a lot of information quickly. However, it is only a short-term strategy. If you want to remember things for a long time, you should make adopt a more long-term process, such as:


  1. First repetition – Now

  2. Second repetition – Half an hour later

  3. Third repetition – One or two days later

  4. Fourth repetition – A few weeks later (but less than a month)

  5. Fifth repetition – A few months later (usually 2-4, depending on how much time you have)

  6. Sixth repetition – One month before the exam

  7. Seventh repetition – One week before the exam


These are the Top Three strategies that I recommend. However, as I have said, you must find what works for you. I suggest doing some research on your own to find out.


It’s important to memorise, but it’s even more important to know how to memorise correctly. Thus, the Key Takeaway is:


Memorise like a pro, but don’t rely solely on rote learning.


Do you have any questions or comments? Post them below!

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