Number. 22 © CDTL 2003
Practise Meaningful Learning: Do Not Rote Learn
Professor Y.K. Ip
Department of Biological Sciences / Associate Director, CDTL

At the end of a learning experience, you can assess your own learning outcomes by using two basic kinds of tests: ‘retention tests’, which seek to evaluate if you remember what was taught, and ‘transfer tests’, which you must apply what has been learned to a novel situation (Mayer, 1995). If you have not learned, you would have poor retention and poor transfer performance. If you have learned in a rote way, you probably have good retention, but would not know how to transfer. If you have learned in a meaningful way, it is likely that you have both good retention and good transfer.

So, how to achieve meaningful learning? Kolb (1983) has argued that when we undertake to learn something for ourselves, there is a ‘natural’ learning cycle that follows four stages. The starting point is concrete experience; we then make observations and reflections on that experience. The third step involves using abstract concepts and generalisations to make sense of the reflections, which leads on to testing the implications derived from the abstraction in new situations. The cycle is completed through linking the outcomes of the experimental phase back to the original concrete experience, as shown in the following diagram:

As this model is developmental, it is often shown as an upward spiral rather than a circle, implying that the result of the complete cycle is at a higher level than its starting point. Hence following an ‘experience’ or after gathering ‘information’, there should be a consolidation that draws you to actively explore in your mind the new information and relate it to previous knowledge, before moving on to new topics. Wherever you start on this cycle, it is important not to miss out any stages. Learning opportunities will be wasted if you:

  • have no theoretical basis or prior concepts with which to make sense of your experience or to devise action plans;
  • are not involved in setting up your own action plans, but simply carry out the directions of others (e.g. teachers or peers);
  • carry out activities without being aware (not thinking) of what is going on; and
  • do not reflect upon your experiences.

To achieve meaningful learning, you should try to:

  1. define problems and troubleshoot solutions;
  2. tolerate ambiguity;
  3. make and specify your assumptions;
  4. consider alternatives and be open to new ideas;
  5. see issues from different perspectives;
  6. develop a line of argument and marshal support for it;
  7. value evidence;
  8. collect, aggregate, analyse and portray data;
  9. produce and generate solutions;
  10. synthesise knowledge from a variety of sources;
  11. take responsibility to complete sustained problems;
  12. persist in the face of failure;
  13. be reflective;
  14. self-assess your own progress and make corrections;
  15. recognise that knowledge is tentative.


Kolb, D.A. (1983). Experimental Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New York: Prentice Hall.

Mayer, R.E. (1995). ‘Cognitive Theory for Education: What Teachers Need to Know’. In Lambert, N.M. & McCombs, B.L. (Eds.). How Students Learn—Reforming School Through Learner-Centered Education. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 353–378.

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