From Rote Learning to Meaningful Learning By Mr. Vivek Gupta, Faculty,

I.T. & Systems Group , Indian Institute of Management , Lucknow


Meaningful learning in today's competitive world holds the key to success. How do we enable ourselves to be a meaningful learner and a higher-level thinker? Developing a capability of 'learning to learn' and higher-level thinking skills is a life-long practice and must be honed on a continual basis.

Educational theorists suggest a distinction between meaningful learning and rote learning. Rote learning is often emphasized in primary and secondary educational settings, and consists of simple memorization of information, without concern for elationships among concepts, to merely regurgitate in the exams. In contrast, in a higher educational scenario, meaningful learning results from linking new information to relevant, preexisting concepts in the cognitive structure of an individual. The most important factor for learning is what the learners already know.

Our brain works in an associative way and our memory serves us in a chained structure. Existing knowledge acts as mental hooks for new learning to occur. People displaying memory deftness often contend that by establishing a visual relationship between seemingly disconnected or unrelated objects or numerals, their retention is enhanced.

To transform ourselves to be meaningful learners, we need to understand the cognitive levels of learning and use visual learning tools.

Cognitive Levels of Learning

In 1950s, Bloom had postulated a hierarchy of six cognitive levels, ranging from the most basic (knowledge) up to the most difficult (evaluation). The lower three levels, responsible for most of our education up to graduate level, include Knowledge (finding out), Comprehension (understanding) and Application (making use of knowledge). Even for the teaching fraternity, it is easier to formulate the evaluation instruments (or question papers) for these lower three levels.

However, postgraduate (and later) studies require higher order thinking skills. Just like preparing for a 100 meters Olympic race is different than ordinary walking, similarly higher education requires an improved capability to learn and that's where the top three levels - Analysis (taking apart the known), Synthesis (putting thing together in another way) and Evaluation (judging outcomes) come into play.

These higher levels requires us to be able to break apart and understand the individual components and then be able to synthesize it into something new, based on a judicious evaluation of possibilities. However, to be able to actively and skillfully conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize, and/or evaluate information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, requires an atmosphere that fosters creativity and participating in group activities. Consequently, institutions of higher learning, offer a larger scope for group-mediated learning, besides ample opportunities for individual learning mechanisms. Nevertheless, graduating to these higher levels is a painful process. While learning something new, one has to continuously resist resorting to rote learning. However, visual learning tools help smoothen the transition to the higher levels of learning skills.

Method and Tools for Meaningful Learning

Visual Learning: Thinking and learning visually, involves working with tools that let us create a picture of our ideas or concepts in the form of a diagram. When we work with visual representations of ideas, we easily see how one idea relates to others. earning and thinking become active rather than passive. We discover where our deepest knowledge lies, and where the gaps in our understanding are. When we create a visual map of ideas, we can recall the details better than if we had read a paragraph. That's because we can see it in our mind.

Human brain comprises of two hemispheres - left and right. The left hemisphere appears to be dominant in the following intellectual areas: words, logic, numbers, sequence, linearity, analysis and lists. The right hemisphere appears dominant in a different but equally powerful range of mental skills: rhythm, spatial awareness, gestalt(wholeness), imagination, day-dreaming, colour and dimension. Usually, we are tapping only the left hemisphere of our brain, whereas the right side of our brain remains hugely untapped. How can an organization, as complex as that of a human being, function optimally merely utilising only half of the available resources?

Visual learning helps both sides of our brain to contribute to our learning process. During our childhood, primary school lesson plans took this into account and we often used colors, objects and drawings, effectively utilizing both sides of our brain and consequently learned at a phenomenal rate, without taking recourse to rote learning.

Gradually we begin severing the tenuous connection between the left and the right parts of our brain. We begin writing in mono color, become verbose speakers or writers. Minimal usage is made of the right side of our brain, which acts more like a reserve, serving us only in exigencies.

Tools: Concept Maps and Mind maps are the most important diagramming tools for knowledge organisation and representation. Joseph Novak, a senior researcher for the Pensacola institute, developed concept mapping in the 1970s at Cornell University , where he is a professor emeritus. Tony Buzan, developed mind mapping technique in 1960s.

A concept map is a hierarchical diagram used to represent a set of concepts, usually nouns, and beginning with the most general or most important and then working down to more specific detail. Key concepts are linked by phrases or verbs, explaining the relationship between the concepts. This tool helps create a tree like structure, enabling us to see relationships between seemingly unrelated concepts.

Concept maps can be used to assess student knowledge, encourage thinking and problem solving, organize information for writing projects and help teachers write new curricula. When constructed by students, they allow students to actively understand relationships among concepts. Student-constructed maps allow the teacher to see how students structure their knowledge, and understand a subject of study. Teachers are able to easily identify missing or misunderstood concepts through the visual representation of concept maps.

When constructed by teachers or experts, concept maps enable students to identify and explore the structure and nature of knowledge in a domain. Students are able to identify new concepts, relate them to concepts that are already understood, and specify key relationships between concepts needed for understanding. This results in more meaningful learning.

A mind map is used to brainstorm ideas and develop thoughts. To create a mind map, a central word or concept is written in color (and if possible, pictorially) in the center of a page. 5 to 10 ideas related to the main idea, are recorded on the radial lines emanating from the main idea. These provide the initial hooks relating to the central idea. Subtopics or specific details are then added to each of those ideas. We let the ideas flow and then step back and look at main themes, patterns or possible solutions. Mind maps are used for individual or group brainstorming, planning, problem solving and report writing.

The difference between a Mind Map and a Concept Map is that a Mind Map has only one main concept, while a Concept Map may have several. Hence a Mind Map is essentially hierarchical, while a Concept Map can have a more complex network representation

Using these tools, we are able to reconstruct our understanding of a new topic, idea or a problem by consciously building bridges between what we already know and what we want to learn.

Thus, 'meaningful learning' involves utilizing our own, god-gifted, resources optimally, understanding the natural associative property of our learning mechanism and adopting new ways to read, write, learn and speak, while consciously trying to break old habits of resorting to linear, text-oriented, rote learning.