Breda O’Brien: Blanket rejection of rote learning is not so smart

It is absolutely wrong to say that memorisation has no place in education

Complaints that the Leaving Cert focuses too much on rote learning and not enough on higher-order thinking surface at this time every year.

There is no doubt the Leaving Cert is in need of reform, but while it is absolutely right to condemn learning off and regurgitating poorly understood material, it is absolutely wrong to say that memorisation has no place in education. Without subject-specific facts committed to long-term memory, higher-order thinking is not possible.

Daisy Christodoulou, the author of Seven Myths about Education and Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning points out that doctors in training are often asked multiple-choice questions along these lines: the patient has problem X, Y and Z and interesting features A, B and C. What intervention would you recommend?

To get it right, the medical student has to have a vast amount of knowledge stored in her long-term memory, but also an ability to identify the relevant symptoms and draw conclusions about the best treatment. No one wants a doctor who has to resort to Google.


No one wants a doctor who has to resort to Google

There were more negative headlines about the Leaving Cert than usual this year because of a really interesting piece of research in Irish Educational Studies.

Lead author Denise Burns, along with Ann Devitt, Gerry McNamara, Joe O'Hara and Martin Brown analysed five years of Leaving Cert exams in 23 subjects and interviewed a number of post-Leaving Cert students in a study called Is it all memory recall? An empirical investigation of intellectual skill requirements in Leaving Certificate examination papers in Ireland.

Software analysis

Basically, they conclude that exams in many Leaving Cert subjects encourage rote learning because they do not test enough higher-order thinking skills. The authors used software that looked for command verbs in exam questions (like “outline” or “examine”) that corresponded to higher or lower-level intellectual skills and knowledge domains and analysed how often they appeared on the papers.

The authors are scrupulously honest about the study’s limitations but most of the resulting newspaper articles skimmed over them. For example, the exam papers were from 2005 to 2010 and many subjects have had substantial revision since then (for better and for worse).

The authors only looked at written examinations and not at coursework. In nearly half of the subjects analysed, coursework is worth 20-60 per cent of the final result.

This led to some interesting contradictions. For example, Leaving Cert religious education exams were found to focus much more on lower-order thinking skills. However, the subject was mentioned by some students who were interviewed as one that provided opportunities to be creative, presumably because the coursework, which is worth 20 per cent, involves a significant amount of personal research and writing.

English was the only language analysed. They also only interviewed 30 students, 19 of whom were from urban middle-class schools, hardly a representative sample.

Nor did the analysis methods allow for the fact that multiple skills may be deployed at the same time. So for example, accounting exams are criticised in the study for relying heavily on the application of procedures.

Combination of skills

However, elsewhere in the paper, the authors acknowledge that ‘in applying the techniques of the subject, such as preparing a financial statement in accounting or solving an equation in mathematics, the skills engaged may include analysis and evaluation as well as application”.

I suspect accounting teachers will be irritated by the judgment that the exam does not test the highest level of thinking skills, when in fact, the study was incapable of determining whether skills may be utilised in this way.

English is one exam judged to require substantial higher-order thinking. Anecdotally, however, many students claim to learn off essays for English. All teachers agree that this is a truly awful idea, but it still goes on.

Anecdotally, many students claim to learn off essays for English. All teachers agree this is a truly awful idea

This raises another point, also unfortunately outside the study’s scope.

Every English teacher tells stories of excellent students who write fluently and analyse intelligently but who do not get good grades in the exam. So even a well-designed exam paper may not guarantee that the student is rewarded for higher-order thinking.

Unlike newspaper headlines, the authors of the study do not condemn all memorisation. The cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham goes further and says that certain types of knowledge need to be learned so thoroughly that their retrieval is automatic.

These categories are, first, the core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again; second, the type of knowledge that students need to know well in the short term to enable long-term retention of key concepts; and finally, the type of knowledge that is important enough that students should remember it later in life.

Daisy Christodoulou gives the example that learning off an essay on a novel is only useful if you are asked that specific question, but that learning 700 words like “precede”, “auspicious” or “fervent” and using them correctly will help you not only in English exams but in life.

Memorising unconnected and poorly understood facts is pretty useless unless you like collecting trivia. Memorising vital subject-specific knowledge and using it intelligently is an essential part of anyone’s education.