On the importance of rote learning

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    On the Importance of Rote Learning Rubin Battino Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio 45435

    Sheldon Kopp wrote a wonderful book entitled If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! (1). What he meant by the title and the thesis of the book is that we must be perpetually on the lookout to defend ourselves from well-meaning people who try to "teach" us and "ex- plain" to us the meaning of life.

    Consider Your Audience In the teaching of chemistry and other subjects, the un-

    derstanding of chemical phenomena has been put on the atomic and molecular level, and this choice has been put on a pedestal and made a sacred cow. We try to teach critical thinking and reasoning, and we go to great lengths to make the subject understandable. But, is all of this effort necessary or warranted?

    It has been more than two decades since Dudley Herron introduced the findinm of developmental psychology to chemistry teachers. ~ i v e we forgotten that,depending on the college, 20-90% of freshmen are still a t the concrete operational level of thinking? Studies done on people whose ages were as high as 65 years have shown that more than 50% of the adult population never reach the formal operational level of thinking. For whom are we teaching?

    Consider Your Students' Objectives I use rote methods in much of my teaching in my fresh-

    man chemistry classes. I have asked my classes -How many of you can drive a car?" They all can. Then I ask "How many of you have heard of the Otto Cycle or know what it is?" None of them have heard of the Otto Cycle. This means that they can aU do something useful like drive a car without understanding the fundamental thermody- namic cycle that describes the operation of a standard au- tomobile heat engine. If we were to apply so-called ad- vanced pedagogical thinking to the driving of cars, we would have to require that car dealers not sell a car until the customer passes a written test on the thermodynamics of heat engines-not to mention the mechanics of engines and moving objects, etc.

    Does a person need to know set theory, number theory, and analytical geometry to learn how to do the simple arithmetic operations they need to make change and bal- ance a checkbook? These mathematical operations can be learned by rote. Does a person need to know about trans- formational grammar and psycholinguistics to spell cor- rectly or write a simple declarative sentence? Practical language skills can also be learned by rote. Does a fresh- man chemistrv student need to understand thermodvnam- - ~~ ics and quankm mechanics to work stoichiometrii prob- lems. balance an eauation. or write the likely formula of a comiound formed Getween an alkaline earth metal and a halogen?

    I teach freshman chemistry at a state university for peo- ple who have never had chemistry before. We have no en- trance requirement besides a high school diploma. The students \n;ho take my course are s ther in the nursing pro-

    gram or are preparing to take the course designed for sci- ence and engineering majors. I have seen from working with my students that many skills can he learned by rote. Let me give you some examples.

    Examples of Useful Rote Learning Twenty Elements

    I always dedicate the entire first day of my class to a chemistry show (2). The students know from the second day of class that one of the questions on the first exam will require that they know the names and symbols of the first 20 elements. They will also be expected to correctly place the symbols on a blank periodic table. They know that they will lose points for misspelling the names or misrepresent- ing the symbols.

    This question is worth 20 points, and classes typically average about 19.5. They have all learned something use- ful by rote: They now are on the road to "speaking" chem- istry. They also have achieved some setf-confidence about chemistry and the satisfaction of knowing some of our spe- cial language.

    AcidBase Problems

    I t is useful in the modern world to know something about acids and bases. I have my students chant after me the Bronsted-Lowry defmitions of acids and bases until it is fixed in their minds.

    The pH scale is another useful concept. I give the stu- dents a "demonstration" about the equilibrium constant for water. Those who are mathematically adept can follow the derivations and manipulations that I go through. The others learn the p notation for the negative of the loga- rithm of an ion concentration by chanting after me. I deal with the properties of logarithms to show them how to start with [Hi] = I x lo-? and get pH = 4. Then I drill them on converting any hydrogen or hydroxide ion concentration to pH or pOH and vice versa. Although I do not think it is necessary at this level, I could also teach them how to con- vert any hydrogen ion concentration to nonintegral values of the DH bv rote. wine their calculators. I derive the for- . . - mula pH r pOH = 14. They arc told to nlemorrw this equa- tion. After that they all do vew wcll in these kinds of cal- culations.

    Note, that at no time have I mentioned the Gibbs energy, equilibrium constants, activities, or activity coefficients. I do tell them that there is more to this, and that ifthey take more advanced courses all will be "explained", but this is not necessary. Of course, I do spend some time demonstrat- ing the properties of acids and bases using household "chemicals", and I do spend time on the qualitative aspects of the pH scale. We also have a required laboratory exper- iment on acids and bases.

    Distinguishing Needs Acidhase phenomena make more sense to chemists be-

    cause we know about equilibrium constants and the Gibbs

    Volume 69 Number 2 February 1992 ' 135

  • energy. But, is i t needed to do practical chemistry-or drive a car? When I was an undergraduate student I learned about equilibrium constants in general chemistry. Then, I got lots of practice working equilibrium constant problems in qualitative and quantitative analysis. In phys- ical chemistry I learned the relationship between the Gibbs enerw and eauilibrium constants. and I was actu- -. ally able to "derive"Athe mass action relationships! I was readv then for these exolanations. However. it wasn't until I stidied thermodynakics in graduate schod that I devel- oped a full appreciation for the utility and limitations of thermodynamics as applied to the problems that I had been successfully dealing with for years.

    We should always remember to distinguish between our needs and abilities and those of our students. Certainly, the phenomena of chemistry make more sense to me when seen through the formalism of thermodynamics, but is this needed by my students? Those students who are capable and interested should have their curiosity satisfied. When I first learned how to program a computer it had to be done in machine language because only that was available at the time. Now we have all sorts of "user friendlv" wavs to ~~-~ ~ ~ work with computers. A handful of clever pr&ammers have converted a difficult-to-use device to one that chil- dren can use.

    Some Theories on Learning - G. M. Bodner (3) has written persuasively about con-

    structivism and has also given a good summary of Piaget's work. He states

    ... the constructivist model can be summarized in a single statement: Knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner.

    Later in his article he also states

    The idcn that knowledge is constructed in the mind of [he learner on the bass of preexisting cognitive structures or schemes prowdes 3 thwrt.tica1 basis for Ausubrl'3 distinction between meaningful and rote learning

    The thesis of his article on the importance of rote learn- ing to repeat by two relevant quotes from Ausuhel(41.

    To learn meaningfully, individuals must choose to relate new knowledge ta relevant concepts and propositions they al- ready know. In rote learning, on the other hand, new knowl- edge may be acquired hy verbatim memorization, and arbitrarily incorporated into a person's knowledge structure without interacting with what is already there.

    If I had to reduce all educational nsveholow ta iust one . . ... . prinriple. ~t would be this'l'hr must rmportant factor influcnc- mg learning is what the learner alwndy knows. Ascertam this and teach him accordingly.

    Gerrans (5) has also written on this subiect. I do not dis- agree with ~bdner, Ausubel, and ~e r rans . However, as in- dicated in the oaean to rote learnine that started this arti- cle, I think they are downgrading &e important aspect of learning.

    An Analogy to Language We express what we know and understand both to our-

    selves and others with lanmaee. I maintain that most of - - that language was learned by rote! Words, phrases, and grammatical structure are all incorporated by blind mem- orization without an understanding of linguistics. Much of this learning of language is experiential in the sense that words, by repetition, come to be associated with phenom- ena in our environment. Without knowina linrmistics, we - - manage to communicate quite subtle concepts as well as prosaic ones.

    When we learn a language that is foreign to us, we may start with cognate forms, but we must learn by rote an en-

    136 Journal of Chemical Education

    tire new vocabnlarlv and mammar before we can easilv - communicate or understand. Is it constructivism to pair words in other lanmaees with similar words in ours or is the pairing done by rok?

    For a student who has never been exposed to chemistry, there are many parallels to the learning of a foreign lan- guage. Much material must simply be memorized so that they can "talk" chemistry. The fads, definitions, and prob- lem-solving processes that are memorized form the very foundation on which "meaningful" learning can be achieved, and I am not exactly sure what "meaningful" means. There is a constant cq-to start general chemistry with facts and phenomena to which students can relate, rather than d h atomic and molecular theory, which are remote constructs. And, you can incorporate these basic phenomena by rote! That is where learning starts.

    The Limits on Theorv Needed Although there are dangers in using models, analogies,

    metaphors, and anthrooomorohic demonstrations, these all potential ways inwhich connections may be made to chemical phenomena and concepts. Are we overly concerned about our students attaining absolutely exact replicas of currently accepted concepts? If they never take any more chemistry, what harm

  • challenge you to examine your cumculum to find a hap- Literature Cited pier for students rote learning and

    1. b p p , S. B. IfYou M d The Buddha on the Rood, EN Nim!; Seienee and Behavim retical explanations. ~ a o k a : r en r om and, CA, 1972.

    2.Battino.R. J. Cham. Educ. 1980.57.67.

    Acknowledgment 3. ~ ~ d ~ ~ ~ , G M. J cham E ~ Z . 1986,63,873 ~.AYS&I,D. ~ ~ d u m f l o ~ ~ ~ h ~ l ~ p ~ ~ cognaiw virw;~~lt ,~inehart andwi,,ston:

    The author appreciates comments made by F. M. Bodner N ~ W Y O ~ ~ , 1968. and an anonymous reviewer. 5. Gerrans,G. C. S. ~ f r J Sci. 1983,85,565.

    Volume 69 Number 2 February 1992 137


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