Why Rote Memorization Doesn’t Work (And What to Do Instead)

| Learning

Rote Learning Feature ImageSome people swear by rote learning.

Others dislike this approach to learning with a vengeance.

They even get dramatic, calling rote repetition…

“Drill and kill.”

What gives? 

And how specifically is learning by this deadly form of repetition defined? 

We’ll get into everything on this page so that you can make an informed decision about how to learn based on science, not opinion.

Plus, I’ll share with you an alternative approach to learning that never feels boring.

Sound good?

Let’s get started!

What Is Rote Learning?

Rote learning is exposing yourself to information repetitively until it enters your long term memory.

It definitely works, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands.

Typically, people use rote learning because it’s the main learning technique they’ve been taught. It has applications in music, for example. Rote memorization can also happen on autopilot in a certain way. For example, when you learn to ride a bike, your procedural memory uses the repetition to form deep neural pathways that ensure you’ll remember the skill for life.

Examples of rote learning include:

I also repeated my TEDx Talk several times for practice giving the speech. This is a great example of when a small amoutn of rote repetition makes sense. 

Why Rote Memorization Is Terrible

For thousands of years, many people have sought out memory techniques as an alternative to rote learning for a few reasons:

  • Rote is almost always boring and discouraging
  • It takes more time than people want to spend
  • It’s not nearly as effective as alternatives like active recall, a technique that engages all the senses.

If rote memorization is truly this terrible, why do so many people use it instead of mnemonics?

According to Carla Hannaford in Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, part of the success of the drug ritalin is easily explained. It helps students put up with the tedious nature of repeating information without any kind of multi-sensory engagement.

repeat stickers on white wall

In other words, societies have preferred drugging children instead of tackling the real problem of making learning fun.

But is repetition itself bad? 

Absolutely not.

Again, let’s take the music example. It’s really important to repeat songs if you want to commit lyrics to memory. Repetition is also a huge part of ear training, and general instrumentation a form of rehearsal musicians sometimes call “dedicated practice.”

a woman is listening songs

Rote repetition can be good for ear training.

However, even in music, even practice forms of repetition can be quite brutal in how they create boredom, I.C. McManus and Peter Richards call any memory gains they create “incidental learning.”

In each case, there are alternatives. For one thing, you can use interleaving to spice things up, which basically involves switching between topics or skills that you’re studying.

There are many other disadvantages to rote learning, most of which are easily avoided. 

First, rote learning usually does not ask you to think about what you’re learning. It’s focused entirely on repetition itself. 

This focus on repetition-for-the-sake-of-repetition not only makes the learning process boring. You also lose out on the benefits of thinking you could receive by engaging with the information in a deeper way.

Rote learning also treats the brain as if it were a “linear library.” As a result, you miss the benefits of what I often call the “rhizomatic effect” you experience when using a Memory Palace Network to produce new knowledge based on information you’ve engaged with deeply.

library with dim light

Your mind is not a library. Avoid treating your memory in a linear fashion.

You also lose tons of time that could have been spent enjoying using your mind and imagination.

Finally, rote repetition prevents you from experiencing the benefits of having memorable conversations with others.

What To Do Instead Of Rote Memorization

I suggest you start using mnemonics to help you commit information faster.

One place to begin your journey with memory techniques is the pegword method. To use this mnemonic approach, you simply assign a dynamic shape or figure to each letter of the alphabet. For example, every time you think of the letter C, you also think of a favorite cat.

Having a simple set of associations like this makes learning spelling much more fun and interesting. And it follows the rules of active recall I mentioned above because you have personalized each letter of the alphabet.

You can develop a similar set of personalized images for numbers as well. For this, I suggest you learn the Major System and combine it with rhyming or story and the method of loci to make learning the entire set engaging and immersive.

Is there proof that it works?


In language learning, Dr. Richard Atkinson has shown just how poorly rote learning works in comparison to the mnemonic strategies shared on this blog. Many of my students have shared their incredible results and my podcast has hosted over a dozen of the best memory athletes as quests.

a girl is struggling with learning

Rote repetition is normally a source of frustration. It doesn’t work well because the lack of multi-sensory engagement with personalized points of reference fails to stimulate enough of the brain.

Here’s something interesting: In experiments that have been successfully repeated by scientists around the world, Atkinson demonstrated that rote learners were successfully able to recall vocabulary from lists at a rate of 28%.

By contrast, those who used techniques like the Memory Palace showed a retention rate of 88% or better. Dr. David Reser and Tyson Yunkaporta recently showed even better results by incorporating some Aboriginal memory techniques into a follow-up experiment.

Lynne Kelly, one of Australia’s leading memory experts and author of The Memory Code recently become a member of the Order of Australia based on her research in memory. That’s a big deal.

So now that you’ve seen some of the evidence, what would you prefer?

Sticking with rote learning and recalling only around 28% of what you learned correctly?

Or do you prefer what more meaningful learning and comprehension techniques offer? If you’d like more resources, get this free course now:

Free Memory Improvement Course

Benefits Of Rote Learning

So far, everything we’ve said makes rote learning look pretty bad. 

However, we’ve already seen that rote practice is a must in areas of learning like music, giving speeches and spiritual goals.

a woman is learning music

When used in the correct context, rote can help learners achieve incredible goals. Playing a musical instrument is one such example.

Although rote learning reduces critical thinking when required of children, there may be some contexts where it can be helpful for certain types of adults. 

For example, Po Li Tan’s research has suggested that adults who grew up as rote learners might still benefit from it.

Other research has shown that individualized learning plans can themselves fall into rote that has not benefited students in places like Sweden.

At the end of the day, each individual has to decide what is right for them and cultivate radical honesty. Sometimes engaging in rote learning gives you the benefit that you’re engaged in some kind of activity. 

But if the activity of what some people call “over-learning” doesn’t actually lead to accomplishment, then the benefit of doing something for the sake of doing something is an illusion. 

Rote Learning Vs. Meaningful Learning

You might be wondering why the scientific success rates I mentioned above matter so much. After all, it sounds like it really only comes down to time spent. 

Looking only through the lens of time, you might conclude that if you only get 28% correct, all you have to do is go back and spend more time on the material.

Not so.

You’re also losing out on critical thinking benefits by doubling-down on rote memorization. 

As Linda Jakobson has shown in her book, Innovation with Chinese Characteristics: High-Tech Research in China, societies that grow up with rote recall tend to have poor critical thinking skills.

art chinese characters

Although it’s common for children to learn Chinese characters by rote, this learning practice has been shown to stunt critical thinking abilities.

This is tragic because problem solving requires the ability to “mentally rotate” information through multiple angles. 

The absence of rote repetition in other cultures may be one reason why places like parts of Europe and the United States thrive and promote individualism and freedom. 

Historically, a learning technique called Ars Combinatoria was much more prevalent. This approach promoted a form of learning sometimes called “inner writing,” a means of “creative repetition” that relied upon deep and meaningful engagement for the learner.

Meaningful learning might include tactics like:

  • Guided discovery
  • Sensory learning
  • Physical engagement with learning materials (such as through mind mapping)
  • Social experiences
  • Combining writing with speaking
  • Combining listening with speaking, such as through debate
  • Developing highly personalized learning plans

A Powerful Example Of The Alternative To Rote Learning

Is rote learning effective?

To a certain extent, yes. 

And in some areas, rote rehearsal is absolutely necessary, including when you’re using memory techniques.

However, repetition should always be “creative repetition.” 

A simple way to reduce the amount of repetition needed and always ensure that you deeply immerse yourself in what you’re learning is to use KAVE COGS or what we call the Magnetic Modes in the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass.

To take a simple example of how I learned something very quickly with a minimum of repetition, let me refer to my Sanskrit meditation project. 

In learning a word pronounced like “tesham,” which means “unto them” or “for those,” I didn’t repeat it over and over again.


Instead I looked at the “tes” part of the word and imagined Nikola Tesla driving a Tesla over a Christmas ham. He did it for those who are always devoted to reality itself, which is the main meaning of the entire line I was learning. 

Telsa car driving over ham rote learning alternative mnemonic example

A simple, but engaging mnemonic image like a Tesla driving over ham makes memorizing a word fast, easy and less likely to need rote repetition.

Then, I went through KAVE COGS to drive home the sound and meaning:

  • Kinesthetic – Feeling myself driving the car as if I were Tesla
  • Auditory – Hearing the sound of the engine roaring
  • Visual – Imagining what this scene looked like
  • Emotional – Experiencing Tesla’s intention to help the devoted
  • Conceptual – Reflecting on the meaning of the text and who Tesla was
  • Olfactory – Smelling the ham
  • Gustatory – Tasting the ham
  • Spatial – Thinking about the size of the car and the ham

By engaging deeply with the word in this way, I learned it immediately and never forgot it after one pass. 

I’ve memorized more Sanskrit than I ever thought possible doing this, the same technique I learned to use when memorizing the names of all my students within minutes when I was a professor. 

In sum, rote learning is boring. By contrast, memory techniques are scientifically proven and indescribably fun. All you have to do is get started.

So what do you say?

Are you ready to rev the engine of your mind and get some real learning done for a change? 

6 Responses to " Why Rote Memorization Doesn’t Work (And What to Do Instead) "

  1. John says:

    I understand and agree with everything you wrote. Still, I’m having difficulty kicking the Anki habit. It’s easy to create flashcards, and I can go through them all in about 10 minutes a day. Time is important to me with my career and family.

    Perhaps I’ll experiment with kicking the bad SRS habit. Thanks Anthony.

    • Thanks for stopping by, John.

      In a short while, I’ll have a post about Anki coming out on the site.

      You actually can use the software without following into rote. You just need to use it to make yourself do some of the memory-beneficial work rather than feeding yourself the information.

      As we see in the research, going through them by rote can lead to some absorption. But imagine what you can achieve in ten minutes if you have 88% accuracy in your recall compared to something much lower.

      Where would you say you’re currently at in terms of accurate recall? Do you mind sharing the nature of the information you’re working with?

      I ask because there will sometimes be variations in what and how to use Anki in a better way. It would be great to know for the post on using the software I’m putting together as we speak.

      • John says:

        > Where would you say you’re currently at in terms of accurate recall? Do you mind sharing the nature of the information you’re working with?

        I just checked today’s stats. I had a success rate of 92.75%. out of 138 cards.
        Most of the cards are mature though, so I’ve seen them before. And there are often cards I get wrong again and again, despite my attempts to use memory techniques (i.e. action-imagery) to connect them.

        I have a deck of facts specific to my career, a deck for a IT certification I am working towards, a French deck, a general computing deck, a deck on Magnetic Memory Method (for example, I have the Major system in there), random facts I wish to remember, all the countries and capitals of the world, and a few others.

        • That’s a solid rate. I guess the next questions would be:

          1) How long did it take for the information on those cards to “mature” (great term, by the way)?

          2) How “honest” are you in the reporting process and how do you measure a win vs. something partially remembered or not at all?

          3) Are there any patterns in the cards you continue to get wrong, and patterns or clues in the ones you tend to get right?

          4) Were these 138 cards in just one deck, or is this score representative of cards from the different decks?

          It’s interesting that you have a deck for the Major System. That is one of the examples I am putting together for the Anki post I’m writing.

          For the French deck and the countries/capitals deck, did you build them yourself?

          One interesting thing to consider is the difference between decks you build for yourself and those that are downloaded from others. The differences might be minimal or they might be profound, depending on the individual learner.

          Ultimately, to add a mnemonic element, we will always ultimately make them our own through elaborative encoding, but the argument for making them ourselves is that we can put in the mnemonic elements from the get-go.

          • John says:

            1) How long did it take for the information on those cards to “mature” ?

            Anki defines “mature” cards as having an interval of 21 days or more. So I got them correct enough times to not have to review them again within 21 days. Some of them I may have gotten correct each time, others may be very old but I still get wrong sometimes when they float up. (I started in 2014 but only study a subset of my decks today)

            2) How “honest” are you in the reporting process and how do you measure a win vs. something partially remembered or not at all?

            I always answer honestly. If I get less than 100% right, I mark it ‘wrong’ (sometimes this means a card needs to be re-written for clarity). if I get the answer correct, but have to stop and ponder for a minute, I mark it ‘hard’. If I get it without having to think for even a second, it’s ‘easy’. Most are marked ‘good’ (average difficulty).

            3) Are there any patterns in the cards you continue to get wrong, and patterns or clues in the ones you tend to get right?

            I have difficulty with cards where I can’t create a sufficient connection between the question/answer (I usually use cloze actually which is like “My dog’s name is ____”). Language cards are often like that, or the geography cards. Memorizing computing commands can also be tricky because they often aren’t very descriptive to what they do.

            Using MMM methods have really upped my Anki game though. For example for a long time I had difficulty identifying the Caribbean Island of St. Barthelomy until one day I decided it looked like a butterfly (similar to Barthelomy), now it’s easy as pie. Also I always remember the capitals of the Central Asian countries but mix up what countries they belong to, so I did some imagery of a football player making a touchdown (TD=Tajikistan/Dushanbe), an old 512kb floppy disk (KB=Kyrgyzstan/Bishkek), etc.

            I’ll even try to look at the shapes of the letters of the questions/answers and try to make a story out of it.

            When I get a card wrong, this is generally what I try to do, but it’s sometimes harder to make connections.

            4) Were these 138 cards in just one deck, or is this score representative of cards from the different decks?

            138 cards cumulatively from 12 decks.

            For the French deck and the countries/capitals deck, did you build them yourself?

            I built all my own decks except for the geography one.

            Thanks for you interest Anthony. While Anki really did improve my performance in school compared to pre-Anki, these days when I really want to memorize something I build a memory palace or use the Major system or something. I have so many Anki cards and so little time that I’ll let them fade slowly most likely rather than convert the knowledge.

          • This is all wonderful to know, John. Thanks kindly for taking the time to share these insights.

            It’s great that you’re answering honestly. I’ve talked with many people who say that they often don’t, which is obviously going to pollute the results.

            The interesting thing about having things spread across multiple decks is that it will possibly create something of the effect one gets from interleaving. I predict in robust tests, switching between Memory Palace Networks would give better results – but that all depends on the ways of the user.

            I think it’s great that you’re building your own decks as well.

            The point about converting them into knowledge is key. I would suggest writing down everything, ideally in the form of summaries and also speaking information out loud so you get another level of elaborative encoding and multi sensory decoding involved.

            Thanks again for all your interaction. Much appreciated!

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