Bye Bye Rote Learning

40 years ago this year in my own student days I recall my Oxford lecturer, Christopher Strachey, giving sage advice about accessing information. In essence he said ‘No need to commit facts to memory, just remember who to ask or where to find it quickly’. He was prescient as this advice is so much more relevant to today. Currently the ‘who’ is Twitter followers and the ‘where’ is the searchable Internet, with a judicious touch of information literacy to allow us to judge the quality of the returned results.

It has taken me a while, though, to follow through the ramifications for teaching the students of today. A blog post from Sarah Perez of ReadWriteWeb entitled ‘Education 2.0: Never Memorize Again?’ brought the point home that ‘rote learning is a waste of time’. She points us to Don Tapscott’s Times article ‘Google generation has no need for rote learning’ with some juicy quotes (truths?):

Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge; the internet is.


Kids should learn about history to understand the world and why things are the way they are. But they don’t need to know all the dates. It is enough that they know about the Battle of Hastings, without having to memorise that it was in 1066. They can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google.

Although I have never articulated in exactly this form I have been using this approach for my final examinations in all my web application subjects over the last two teaching semesters. Using the online test engine in our local Blackboard LMS I have been setting what I term ‘open book and open Internet’ exams. Between 40% and 50% of the marks are allocated to practical programming/designing tasks for producing parts of web applications during the exam. However, the remaining marks are allocated to short answer questions where the students have full Google and any other searching capability.

I have been careful to set parts of questions that I feel are not easily answered by a quick Google search (no definitions required in answers, and students asked to give informed opinions about topics and technologies that can apply in given example situations/problems). So far the spread of marks has been typical of those for written exams, so I believe the experiment is working well so far. Certainly none of my students need to employ rote learning, thus hopefully mirroring the context of their future careers more closely.


About Michael Rees
Academic in IT interested in Web 2.0 and social media

3 Responses to Bye Bye Rote Learning

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  3. David says:

    I agree with much of your opinion here, except “Currently the ‘who’ is Twitter followers”. Since I have found the signal/noise ratio on Twitter to be quite low, I would really hate to think that I would depend on Twitter folk for my knowledge. Being on a social network does not make one any more a fountain of knowledge that not being on it, it simply makes one a participant in a network. (Same with politics: being a politician does not make one more knowledgeable, but simply implies someones wish/need to be a politician.)

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