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What's wrong with rote learning?

Lockcard Team
January 1, 2021
Illustrations by Yuxuan Wu

Rote learning is a memorization technique based on mechanical repetition.

The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material simply by repetition instead of meaningful learning, associative learning, or active learning.

Many people dread the prospect of learning new vocabulary because they assume it only involves rote memorization.

If you're rushing to pass a test or exam, you probably have no choice but to dedicate a significant amount of time to memorize words by rote. However, this come with many drawbacks. Mainly, we are likely to forget everything past that immediate date / objective we were studying for.

What's more, rote learning is so dull that it dampens our curiosity in learning vocabulary, and burns out our passion for learning a language. That's the last thing we want.

How might we make vocabulary learning more fun and effective?

Something is missing among vocab apps

There are a lot of solutions on the market, varying in their usage of visuals, gamification and context (e.g. example sentences from articles), to help learners learn and retain vocabulary. As a language enthusiast myself, I tried many.

And I still feel something is missing. On the one hand, images and gamification can be engaging, but sometimes I feel so disconnected that they become a distraction (read more about our experience using Duolingo). On the other hand, learning new words with meaningful context is effective, but it is asking a lot from learners who aren't necessarily comfortable reading from a quoted text in a language that isn't their native one (read more about experience using Vocabulary.com)

Nonetheless, I understand the rationale for all those designs and solutions. They are basically trying to solve this one problem.

Help learners create memorable association with new words.

These are proven methods that help millions of us, but why do we still find it so challenging to learn and retain vocabulary over time?

No app can replace your own cognitive effort

Most vocabulary learning apps are proactive in their functioning, which means they guess what learners are interested in and push that new content to them using images, videos or context that help you create association. Sometimes, they supplement that process with games or quizzes to reinforce memorization.

The proactive method represents a more organic way of learning words compared to rote learning, already. Using a mix of pop-up notifications, rewards and social features, these apps play on our laziness and try to replace the need to go outside and expose ourselves to pure organic learning in uncomfortable environments, like abroad or among a group of foreign friends.

As a result, proactive apps tend to push a lot of information we feel disconnected from — nouns we don't need, adjectives we'll never know when to use — and in that process, they lose us because we don't create as meaningful an association as when a friend uses a word we don't know in a private conversation.

What's missing is a learner's own initiative. Most apps make us feel like it is fine to slack off and abandon high-cognition activities; it is dangerous to believe that apps will teach us new vocabulary. At most, they give us a platform we use to create a habit of learning. True organic learning is personal, self-initiated and very contextual. 

True organic learning is personal, self-initiated and very contextual. 

More and more nowadays, learning is treated like a chore, like staying fit or going grocery shopping. From a high-cognition activity originally, learning has become a more repetitive process we don't pay enough qualitative attention to. We're focused on remembering (note that I didn't say 'learning') as many words possible, as opposed to learning fewer with greater care.

The problem lies more in us than the apps we use. The apps available on the market are just the intermediary tools to make it easier for us to create more meaningful association between new words and our personal experience. Some apps work for us, others don't. This is because associative learning is personal. It is based on your existing knowledge and experience. Your job is to connect that new information with your experience system and place it inside your own cognitive space.

Lockcard is reactive, not proactive

We built Lockcard to be reactive. We are not a one-stop shop for learning a word, because they don't exist. What we do differently is that we never push new content to your screen; we patiently wait until you search for a word you need, to give you exactly, and only, the information you want.

What we do differently is that we never push new content to your screen

Once you have told us you needed a word, we use our smart flashcard notification system to 'lock' it in your memory.

We stand by our teaching philosophy, even when our users request more proactive features like the one below (e.g. 'Word of the day'). We sincerely believe we forget words we don't need.

Public Feature Request for Lockcard via kampsite

In case you're confused, here's a typical scenario for using Lockcard:

  1. You are reading a book or academic text, and you stop on a word you don't know. There is a need and you have context.
  2. You search that word on Lockcard, skim through definitions and focus on the one that matches the context in your reading. You can also explore synonyms and example sentences.
  3. You close the app and continue reading.
  4. A few hours later, you get a flashcard notification from Lockcard to help you recall the word.
  5. Your brain is being asked to recall the word in its context, creating a stronger association that helps you remember the word forever.

The point is that you use one method to memorise words when you first encounter them (e.g. association to personal experience), and then you use Lockcard's flashcard notifications to absorb them in your long-term memory.

In summary, most learning apps push random words you didn't even know you needed, and that you have no personal connection to. Lockcard tries to do it differently: we help you remember words you already have a personal connection to.

Charlotte Chen, Designer @Duolingo

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