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Conceptual and Rote Learning in Children

by John D. Nolan - 1973

This paper will attempt to dull the distinction between conceptual and rote learning.

This paper will attempt to dull the distinction between conceptual and rote learning. While the two have traditionally been considered antithetical, psychological research indicates that rote learning involves a good deal of what is commonly considered conceptualizing, and conceptual learning demands a large amount of what is often considered rote repetition. In school, therefore, the child, of necessity, is doing more rote learning than his teacher may suspect.

Conceptual learning has long, if not always, been considered superior to rote learning. The principal who berated his primary teachers for not teaching concepts may have been undiplomatic in his approach but surely justified in his concern. Who would want to head a school where rote learning seemed to take precedence over conceptual learning? But later in the year the principal's attitude changed from concern to delight. To his surprise, statewide testing of fourth graders indicated that students in his school were "overachieving" so spectacularly that a state department team of observers was sent to find out what the teachers were doing that was so right. Could it have been rote teaching?

The growing emphasis on an information processing approach to the study of learning over the past two decades has convinced psychologists and other educators that a passive learner is a contradiction in terms—that all learning is a very active process, whether it be associating a sound with a letter, learning the addition tables, or grasping the general theory of relativity. Though Jerome Bruner's contention that ". . . all perceptual experience is necessarily the end product of a categorization process" is rejected by some as a bit too extreme, it is widely accepted that the perception, the storage, and the retrieval of information are all constructive processes. This view is not new. F.C. Bartlett was conducting experiments to test such a position during World War I. However, the plethora of research on perception and memory in recent years has refined our knowledge of how the constructive process works.

That a certain pattern of light waves impinges upon the retina does not necessarily lead to the source of the waves being perceived. We are all aware that we can look at a familiar word printed on a page and read it as a different word. That the source is perceived does not mean that information about it will or even can be stored and retrieved. Work on both visual and auditory perception indicates that, even in the first one-fourth of a second, information which has actually been perceived is lost. Information which survives the twofold danger of (a) not being perceived and (b) being lost immediately may be available for retrieval for only a few seconds; it may be so available many years later; or it may be available for any time period in between. What is to eventuate depends upon what is done with the information.

An oversimplification of one model of human memory may help explain the process. The perceived stimulus first enters a sensory register somewhere in the brain (its life span here is about one-fourth of a second) from which it may or may not be read out into short-term storage. What is in short-term storage may or may not enter long-term storage. The bottleneck in the information processing system is short-term storage because it can hold very few items of information, and can hold these few for only a few seconds unless the items are rehearsed. In this model there is a direct relationship between the length of rehearsal and the probability that an item will enter long-term storage. Of course, factors other than rehearsal time also affect the probability of an item entering long-term storage.

Another important factor concerns what is already in long-term storage. Items related to a new item may be retrieved from long-term storage and rehearsed with the new item. The few items which will be rehearsed are determined by the processor. If he begins to process new information before he has had time to rehearse the old sufficiently, he will lose the old. How then can some people seemingly process and retain so much information rapidly? The answer is that they are processing very few items of information, though each item is informationally rich. For example, when an expert reads a well-written treatise in his field, he can read rapidly with excellent comprehension because most of the ideas presented are familiar. Since the technical phrases are redolent with meaning, the expert need not bother with many of the author's explanations. He can easily pick out and store the new information in the article because there is so little of it that even a rapid reading allows him ample rehearsal time. Moreover, the few new items are informationally rich because they have ramifications for the expert. The novice, on the other hand, must read slowly and carefully if he is to comprehend. There is much information new to him. Each item contains little information because the ramifications are lacking. Thus he has many items to learn.

Chunking and Categorizing We know that there is a severe limitation on the number of items of information which can be rehearsed. We know that some rehearsal is necessary if the information is to be retained. Miller suggested that the way to overcome the limitation is to "chunk" information. This is a divide-so-as-to-conquer approach. If a person needs to learn a long list of items, he can segment the list into sections of about five items. These five items can then be rehearsed until they form a chunk, that is, a single unit or item. The original five items, now unitized, can be stored or rehearsed as a single item.

For purposes of discussion, let the items be English words. With the single exception of the indefinite article, any English word is an example of unitization or chunking. Each polysyllabic word is a concatenation of syllables. Most syllables are concatenations of phonemes. The series of letters e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n is a unit to us; it may not be a unit for a third grader. G. H. Bower is just one of many experimenters who have substantiated the chunking or unitization hypothesis. For example, Bower demonstrated that twelve three-word clichés (each a unit), e.g., "stitch in time," could be learned by adults as rapidly as twelve unrelated words.

There is learning which involves material so unfamiliar that the most efficient approach is to divide it into manageable segments and then form a chunk out of each segment. However, most learning involves material with which the learner already has some familiarity. He can simplify the learning process by organizing the material, that is, putting together those items which share some common attribute, and then rehearsing together what has been organized together. For example, if for some reason one wished to learn the fauna in Yellowstone National Park, one would probably organize them. Birds, mammals, and reptiles would be learned separately. In the class of mammals one would be more likely to learn elk with the various species of deer than with the grizzly bear. Organizing on the basis of a common attribute is usually called categorizing. Bruner suggested that there is a need to categorize in order to reduce the cognitive load. In other words, categorizing reduces how much one must learn.

To categorize incoming information is really equivalent to concept formation. To form a concept one must extract from items those attributes which they share. It is on the basis of common attributes that one places several items of information into a single category. Chunking differs from categorizing precisely on this dimension. The only attribute common to items in the same chunk is spatial or temporal contiguity, that is, the items are seen together or seen or heard one right after the other. The minority who learn their social security numbers do so by chunking. In fact, the number is presented chunked into three digits, two digits, and four digits.

The major difference, then, between conceptual learning and rote learning is the difference between categorizing and chunking. The latter consists of grouping items together because they are experienced together temporarily or spatially, the former because they share common attributes. While the term organizing is usually taken to mean categorizing, it really applies to chunking also. G. Mandler demonstrated that organizing in the sense of categorizing was equivalent to learning. He also demonstrated that there is a limit on the number of items, about five, which can be recalled from a single category. If a person puts more than this number of items into a category, he must subcategorize -- form two or more sub-categories with the same limitation of about five items. The categories themselves, because they too are items, are subject to the same limitation as their members. About five categories can be retrieved from a supercategory, which in turn forms a unit subject to the same limits. Bower and others demonstrated that, if all information is simultaneously available to the learner, the information organized in an hierarchical fashion is learned far more rapidly than the same information presented in an unorganized manner. However, if the information is presented item-by-item to adults, an organized presentation does not necessarily lead to more rapid learning than does an unorganized presentation. The reason is that if the semantic basis of the organization is sufficiently clear, and if presentation is sufficiently slow, adults can organize and learn the material just as well if it is presented in an unorganized manner as when it is presented in an organized manner. This is not true, however, if the organizational basis is not readily apparent or if presentation is too rapid. The Bower et al. experiment involved a rather rapid presentation.

The picture we obtain of the adult learner is that of a very active individual selectively choosing a limited amount of information from his environment, acting upon that information to organize it on the basis of common attributes (conceptual learning), and rehearsing together the items he has categorized as well as rehearsing the categories. He can also organize the information on the basis of spatial/temporal contiguity by dividing it into segments of a few items and rehearsing the items in each segment until they have formed a chunk, that is, a single item, and then rehearse the chunks (rote learning). For an adult learner, this last approach is a last resort. He can usually find some attribute common to several items and upon this basis organize the seemingly most unrelated information.

E. Tulving asked adults to learn a list of what appeared to be unrelated words. Across a number of learning trials (a single word-by-word presentation of the list followed by a recall in any order the subject wished to recall), he measured the consistency in order of recall when the order of presentation of the words varied on each trial. Tulving called this consistency "subjective organization," that is, an organization chosen by the subject without any preconceptions on the part of the experimenter about how the subject should organize. He found not only a significant correlation between each subject's index of subjective organization and the rate at which the subject learned, but also a commonality in the way the different subjects organized the words. This latter finding suggests that there exists an objective basis for organizing information among people with the same language and cultural backgrounds. Organization is so important to an adult who is attempting to learn that he can be kept from learning if he is forced to keep reorganizing on every learning trial.

Semantic Markers It is known that adults categorize items on the basis of common attributes. A decade ago researchers suggested that a word be considered a symbol for a sequence of what was called semantic markers. For example, the word "boy" is a symbol for the following sequence: +entity, +object, +living, +animal, +human, -adult, +male; "girl" has the same sequence of markers, but is -male, while "woman" differs from "boy" by being +adult, and -male; since "boy" and "girl" differ only on the sign of the last marker, they are more closely associated than "girl" and "woman" which differ on the sign of the penultimate marker. "Boy" and "tree" are related because they share the markers +entity, +object, +living, so they should be associated, but not as closely associated as "boy" and "cat" which also share the marker +animal. Miller made an empirical study of the way people organize words in an attempt to define the semantic markers. Though there are some difficulties with looking at a word as a well-defined sequence of semantic markers, the notion has produced worthwhile research and will aid the present discussion.

Adults can organize. Adults do organize, and their rate of learning is related to their organization. Children are another story. The younger they are, the more slowly they learn and the more poorly they organize. Young children are particularly poor at organizing on a semantic basis, at least on the semantic basis defined for adults. However, if they are forced to organize on a semantic basis, even kindergarten children increase the amount they can recall.

Unfortunately, kindergarteners do not learn from such an experience, since they immediately go back to an unorganized (at least from an adult view) approach to learning. Third graders profit from the experience of being forced to organize and subsequently will organize (and learn) better on a similar task than they had before being forced to organize, but not as well as when they were being forced. Even ninth graders, though they spontaneously organize much better than younger children, profit from being forced to organize; there is a transfer of organizing to similar learning situations.

We do not know all the reasons why children do not spontaneously organize on a semantic basis when they obviously recognize the basis to some extent and profit from using it. We do know that a particular word is not the same sign for a young child as it is for an adult. In other words, for the child the full set of semantic markers for a word have not yet developed. For example, when a two-year-old boy with a twin sister is told "good boy" by his mother and responds, "No. Me good girl. Her bad boy," he obviously has not developed the marker for gender for the words "boy" and "girl." In this instance, the child apparently differentiated "good" and "bad," but for him "good," when applied to a person was labelled "good-girl" and "bad" labelled "bad-boy." Evidently, he had rarely heard "good-boy."

It is not clear in what order the semantic markers develop. Did the boy in question have fully developed the +living for "boy"? In a series of experiments addressed to the controversy over the order of development of semantic markers, J.M. Anglin obtained inconclusive results. He did, however, clearly demonstrate that the growth of the markers, or at least the ability to use the markers to see relationships between words, and to organize words, continues into young adulthood (mid-twenties), the limit of his investigation. Anglin's results suggest that the younger a person is, the less basis for organization is available to him. That these findings regarding words can be generalized to other concepts is suggested by experiments on hierarchical organization done by Piagetians. For example, a child not yet in the Piagetian stage of formal operations will not see that bird is superordinate of duck, though he can use "bird" and "duck" correctly in a sentence and comprehend that a duck is a bird but a bird is not necessarily a duck.

That there is a definite shift in the way children organize at about the time they move from elementary school to junior high has been demonstrated. For example, Mandler and Stephens found that second and fourth graders not only organize less than sixth and eighth graders (and are able to recall less), but that the basis of organization for the younger children is different. In learning a list of words, the older children tended to organize by putting the nouns together, verbs together, and adjectives together. Moreover, there was more uniformity in organization among the older children. What organization the younger children showed tended to be more idiosyncratic. As the authors remark, it is at about the sixth grade that American children begin entering the Piagetian stage of formal operations.

Implications The investigations cited above have several implications for education. First, we know that the younger a child is, the less apt and the less able he is to organize information in a manner which increases his rate of learning and aids his retention. Because the child's concepts are quite limited, he does not see the relationships adults see, and thus must carry a heavier cognitive load to retain the same items of information. Where the adult can place five items in the same category because they share many semantic markers, and thus has only to recall the category and differentiate a few final semantic markers, the child may place the five items in the same category because, for him, they share just a few markers, and thus he must retrieve the category plus many markers for each item. This also makes it less likely that the child will be able to relate the category to many other categories on the basis of shared semantic markers.

Where the adult is actually forming concepts (seeing the same semantic markers in different items of information), the child may instead be forming chunks, putting items together because they occur together. This makes both his learning slower (he has more to learn) and his retention poorer (items are not as interrelated.) Chunking rather than categorizing may account for some of the rather strange associations primary grade children make. They have experienced se-mantically unrelated items together and thus formed associations which adults would never form.

A teacher may think that he has successfully taught concepts to a class because the pupils retrieve in juxtaposition those items which the teacher sees as related. Yet the pupils may simply have been chunking, not categorizing. Their learning may be more rote than the teacher thinks it is. This is not bad. In fact, it shows good teaching. The child is not yet capable of forming the full concept, but when he is, he will have what he remembers from his chunk with which to work.

If the younger child is actually forming more of a chunk than a concept, then it is more important for him than for the older child that information be presented in an organized manner. It is also more important that the presentation be slower and more repetitious, for in learning the same material he is processing more information. In other words, the younger child needs to learn by rote as a preparation for conceptual learning.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 75 Number 2, 1973, p. 251-258
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1455, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 9:37:52 PM

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About the Author
  • John Nolan
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    John D. Nolan is associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College. This is the second in a series of papers to appear in TCR whose purpose is to explicate and interpret for educators the significance of psychological research in their work. The papers have been organized by Dr. Mary Alice White and her colleagues at The Center for the Behavioral Analysis of School Learning, Teachers College.
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