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'Memorisation with understanding' in approaches to studying: cultural variant or response to assessment demands?

Christina Au and Noel Entwistle

University of Edinburgh

Paper presented at the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction Conference (Gothenburg, August 1999)


This research addresses the so-called 'paradox of the Chinese learner', who was believed to learn mainly by memorising, and yet typically obtained high grades in Western universities. Interviews have previously suggested that different methods of memorising exist, some of which are intended to develop or reinforce understanding. An inventory was developed which included the three main approaches to studying, but also newly developed scales derived from previous interviews with Chinese students. Open-ended questions about ways of studying were added to the questionnaire, which was given to 91 students from three different age levels in a Hong Kong secondary school. Factor analysis of the items and qualitative analyses of the open-ended responses highlighted the distinction between understanding and memorising. It also confirmed the existence of an approach to understanding which involved memorisation and was, to some extent, a response to perceived examination demands. Qualitative analyses of interviews with Scottish university students had previously identified different forms of understanding and ways of revising for examinations which involved the sequential use of understanding and memorising. These revision strategies are compared with those described by Chinese students so as to explore the extent to which the Chinese students also adapt to perceived assessment demands, as well as expressing an aspect of their cultural heritage.


Interviews with university students have shown that contrasting approaches to learning - deep and surface - are adopted (Marton & Säljö, 1976). The surface approach relies on the use of rote memorisation and routine procedures, while the deep approach involves trying to extract meaning, so as to reach a thorough understanding. Inventories developed to measure these approaches have demonstrated a link between the intention to understand and learning processes which relate ideas and use evidence (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983). Deep and surface approaches form almost unrelated factors in analyses of these inventories. In relation to everyday studying, a third dimension has been identified - a strategic approach - which describes an intention to achieve the highest possible grades through effort and well-organised studying. Investigations using such inventories have indicated that a deep strategic approach to studying at university is likely to lead to high grades, while a surface approach combined with low scores on the strategic dimension is associated with poor academic performance.

In Western university education, accumulated anecdotal evidence has suggested that Chinese students are prone to make extensive use of rote memorisation and are more passive and less interactive in class than most students (Biggs, 1996; Samuelowicz, 1987; Kember and Gow, 1991). Their level of achievement is, however, relatively high (Garden, 1987; IEA, 1988; Stigler and Perry, 1990). Chinese students also have higher deep and strategic inventory scores than their Western counterparts (Biggs, 1989, 1990, 1991; Kember and Gow, 1990, 1991), in spite of their tendency to learn by rote. These apparent contradictions have been discussed in terms of 'the paradox of the Chinese learner' (Watkins, Reghi & Astilla, 1991; Kember & Gow, 1991; Biggs & Watkins, 1996) and have provoked attempts to resolve that paradox.

Subsequent research has found that many Chinese students combine memorisation with attempts to understand in ways which seemed to contradict the earlier research on student learning among Western students (Kember, 1996). The combination is seen by Chinese students as normal because "having an understanding of something implies memory, just as (meaningful) memory implies understanding" (Marton, Watkins and Tang, 1997, p. 32). Chinese students tend to see memorisation and understanding as often taking place at the same time; they believe that if they really understand the material, they will have a very strong impression that will help them to memorise without much effort (Marton, Dell'Alba & Tse, 1996). This form of combined understanding and remembering has been labelled 'deep memorising' by Tang (1991), while Marton and his colleagues have used the phrase "memorisation with understanding" to describe the same phenomenon (1996, p.75; 1997, p.36).

The previous research came to the conclusion that this way of studying is characteristic of Chinese learners and may be rooted in the Confucian heritage which has a philosophy and practice of education distinct from those in Western educational systems. This conclusion was, however, based on interviews and inventory studies which did not include any scales specific to the Chinese approaches to studying. Also, no account had been taken of research on British university students which had reported sequential use of understanding and memorising in preparing for examinations. The present study thus developed inventory scales designed to tap 'Chinese' approaches to studying, and focused on the combinations of understanding and memorising used as students prepared for examinations.



A typical secondary school in Hong Kong, with English as the medium of instruction, was chosen for this study. 41 students came from the second year, 37 students from the fourth year, and 16 students from the sixth year. The small number in the final year reflects the restricted progression from O-Level to A-Level in Hong Kong.

Data collection

A questionnaire was developed to incorporate an inventory of approaches to studying and open-ended questions about ways of studying. The inventory consisted of 60 items on five-point Likert scales, ten items on each of six scales. Items on deep, surface and strategic approaches were derived from a version of the Approaches to Studying Inventory (ASI) (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983) intended for secondary school pupils ((Entwistle, Kozeki and Balarabe, 1988).

Table 1 Inventory scales, scale meanings and indicative items

Scale Indicative items Meaning of scales
Scales from the ASI
Deep approach In trying to understand new ideas, I often try to relate them to real-life situations. Intention to understand the meaning for oneself by relating ideas and using evidence.
Surface approach I concentrate on learning just those bits of information I have to know to pass.

Intention to reproduce material relying on rote learning and routine procedures, without engagement.

Strategic approach I concentrate on learning just those bits of information I have to know to pass.

Intention to obtain the highest possible grades through effort, well-organised study methods, and good time-management.

New scales based on previous interviews with Chinese learners

Rote memorisation Forcing myself to memorise is a basic technique of studying for me.

Using memorisation to develop or strengthen understanding.

Memorisation with understanding I can remember what I have studied longer by committing it to memory through understanding, rather than by just rote learning.

Using memorisation to develop or strengthen understanding.

Understanding without memorisation  I am confident about using my own words when answering questions.

Grasping the whole idea through your own way of thinking.

Three new scales were produced, with items based on the interview comments reported by Marton and his associates (Marton et al., 1996; Marton et al., 1997), and were designed to distinguish between 'rote memorisation', 'memorisation with understanding' and 'understanding without memorisation'. The items were adjusted to the specific school context and translated into Chinese.

Table 1 indicates the meaning of each of these scales and presents translated versions of indicative items. The second part of the questionnaire included open-ended questions that encouraged students to reflect on the meanings of 'memorisation' and 'understanding', and to describe their ways of preparing for their end-of-year examinations.

Students were asked to fill in the questionnaire one week before the examinations to ensure that the responses reflected their experience in that specific context.


Factor analysis of the inventory

The first step in the analysis was to use maximum likelihood analysis, with delta set at zero, to examine the rotated factor pattern of both items and inventory sub-scales. Cronbach alpha coefficients were calculated so as to indicate internal consistency. From these analyses, the scales were refined by removing the items which contributed least effectively to scale totals without adding anything to the definition of the scale. This procedure reduced the number of items to 46, leaving sub-scales with Cronbach alpha coefficients lying between 0.60 and 0.75.

Table 2 Factor pattern derived from maximum likelihood analysis of inventory scales

Scales  Factor I  Factor II  Factor III
Deep approach   56 -33
Understanding without memorisation -31 44 -34
Memorisation with understanding   87  
Strategic approach 69    
Rote memorisation  58   54
Surface approach      68
Factor intercorrelations
I - active rote learning - 02 30
II - deep approach, seeking understanding   - 24
III - passive rote, surface approach     -

Decimal points and loadings below 0.3 have been omitted.

Factor analysis of the refined scales produced a three factor solution (based on the eigen value and the scree plot) which extracted 59.3% of the variance. The factor pattern matrix of loadings are shown in Table 2. Factors I and III both show an emphasis on rote memorisation without understanding, but Factor I suggests an active form of rote learning linked to a strategic approach, while Factor III indicates the passive form associated with a surface approach. Factor II has high loadings on the scales describing a deep approach, memorisation with understanding, and understanding without memorisation. The highest loading is found on memorisation with understanding, which presumably represents the strategy most actively used during revision.

Correlations between the factors show the expected positive relationship between Factors I and III which are linked by rote learning, and a negative relationship between Factors II and III. The near zero correlation between Factors I and II may be the result of a negative relationship between deep approach and rote memorisation being counteracted by common active, though different, approaches to studying.

Inter-correlations among the scales are shown in Table 3 and emphasise the separation between seeking understanding (both in the deep approach and in understanding without memorisation) and rote learning. They also show that 'memorising with understanding' represents a more strategic response (r = + 0.24) than 'understanding without memorisation' (r = - 0. 17). Moreover, the correlations reinforce the conclusion that memorisation is correlated with the strategic approach, while the surface approach is not. The high negative correlation between 'understanding without memorisation' and rote memorisation is inevitable given the definition of the scales, as is the positive correlation between rote memorisation and the surface approach.

Table 3 Intercorrelations between the inventory scales

Scales Deep. Under.    Mem +. Strat. Rote. Surface.
Deep approach - .43** .35** .21* -.23* -.33**
Understanding without memorisation   - .25*  -.17  -.58**  -.40**
Memorisation with understanding      - .24*  .06  .09
Strategic approach        - .43**  .07
Rote memorisation          - .57**
Surface approach           -

* indicates significance at the 0.05 level; ** significance at the 0.01 level (two-tailed).

Comparison of year groups

The next step in the analysis involved using analysis of variance to compare the scale scores for second-, fourth- and sixth-year students, with the expectation that rote memorisation would decrease as the examinations became more demanding of understanding. Table 4 presents the findings.

All but the surface approach showed significant trends from second year to sixth year, and even on that scale there was a marked difference between second and fourth years. Students showed increasing patterns of means with age on all three scales which involved trying to develop their understanding, and decreasing scores on rote memorisation and strategic approach.

Table 4 Mean scores, standard deviations and F ratios by year group

Scales  S2 (N = 41) Mean (SD) S4 (N = 37)  Mean (SD)   S6 (N = 16) Mean (SD) ANOVA d.f. (2, 91)
Deep 25.8 (4.1) 26.2 (4.3)  28.9 (4.3) 3.3 < .05
Understanding without memorisation 26.2 (4.4) 27.8 (4.4) 30.8 (5.2)  6.0 < .01
Memorisation with understanding 26.1 (4.2) 27.8 (3.8) 29.7 (3.3)  5.1 < .01
Strategic 24.2 (3.8)  23.2 (4.2) 20.4 (4.7) 4.9 < .01
Rote memorisation  27.4 (4.6)  25.7 (5.5)  21.8 (5.1)  7.2 < .001
Surface 26.7 (4.3) 

25.0 (4.9)

24.9 (3.5) 1.8 .NS

Qualitative analysis of open-ended questions

The analysis focused on just two issues - how students distinguished between the meanings of 'memorisation' and 'understanding', and the extent to which the three year groups reported using different forms of memorisation in preparing for their examinations. Repeated readings of the responses produced sets of comments on each theme, which was then described, using extracts to clarify the distinctions being made. Full details of the analysis have been reported elsewhere (Au, 1998).

Memorisation and understanding

In responding to the question on the difference and relationship between memorisation and understanding, almost all second-year students regarded memorisation as 'rote memorisation'. They explained it as remembering material without thinking and understanding, just 'stuffing in' all the material without 'digesting' it. Most of these students could also see a difference between 'understanding' from 'memorisation', but they were less clear about the nature of that difference. Typical comments were:


'Memorisation' means not understanding the topics. 'Understanding' means memorising the material without much effort 'Memorisation' means to memorise something by 'force'. If you understand (the material) first before memorising, it will deepen your memory of it.

'Memorisation' is without analysis, putting material in the mind; 'understanding' is 'digesting' material in the mind so that it can be remembered easily. Both of them are ways of doing revision.


For the students in fourth and sixth years, the distinction between memorisation and understanding was more definite. They could also distinguish 'rote memorisation' from 'memorisation with understanding', believing that understanding and memorisation could reinforce each other in both directions; that is, understanding could contribute to a better memorisation and memorisation could enhance understanding.


Memorisation is divided into 'rote memorisation' and 'memorisation with understanding'. After understanding the content, you do not need to memorise it by rote; you can use simple sentences to answer.

'Rote memorisation' and 'understanding' are definitely different from each other. Rote memorisation is 'stuffing' all the material given by the teacher into your head without analysing and 'digesting' it. The material will then be forgotten within a short period of time. But 'understanding' is using analysis and thinking to learn the causal relationships between topics. Therefore, 'memorisation' and 'understanding' have a sequential relationship, that is, you have to understand the topic first to comprehend all the concepts and examples, (and) then you can memorise them easily.

'Understanding' means grasping the main points and concepts of the topics, using your own words to express them and applying them to daily experiences. Sometimes, if I do not understand, I will memorise it first, then through continuous thinking I will understand it eventually.


Preparing for the examinations

While most students saw memorisation as essential in preparing for examinations, different year groups emphasised contrasting forms of memorisation. Looking first at students in fourth and sixth years, they tended to achieve a deeper understanding without much use of rote memorisation. In their revision for their final examination, most sixth-year students and some fourth-years memorised only certain aspects of the work - technical terms, vocabulary and main points. Most of them had their own notes that had been summarised from the school handouts. They had tried to make sure of understanding the meaning before memorising them, and then they could analyse the examination questions and answer them in their own words. Most of these students recognised the importance of understanding in the process of learning, but they also thought that the combination of understanding with memorising became crucial in preparing for examinations.

Memorisation can strengthen my ability to recall the content, but understanding can deepen my impression of it. Both of them should be emphasised because some topics require us to understand first and then memorise.

Understanding and memorisation contribute to each other. If we study only through memorisation without understanding, we cannot analyse questions in the exams. But if we only understand (the topic), but don't memorise it, we cannot remember it in the exam.

The materials that I memorise are only those main points, not the words in every paragraph. This can help me to understand the content clearly and study them easily If those main points are very simple and easy to understand, I will read them once, and then memorise them once. But when I come across materials that are difficult to remember, I will memorise every single point, and memorise them many times, or even write them down.

During my revision, I will divide the materials into two parts: the more important part and less important part. Then, I will concentrate on those which are more important and study them deeply. I will highlight the main points, remember the key words. After finishing one set of notes, (I) will say those key words out loud, and try to remember the content once

Basically I do not rely on memorisation in my studying. Memorisation needs more time and that memorised material will be forgotten easily. I usually memorise key words only. This makes me have a deeper impression. But most important is to understand.

Some fourth-year students memorised by rote in their revision. They memorised not only the vocabularies and main points, but also most of the content in their notes, like characteristics, formation and impacts, because they did not have much confidence in using their own words in the examinations.


When doing my revision, I try to rote memorise all the material thoroughly, because I'm not confident (about answering in my own words).

I read the notes once, then I underline the main points and key words, and memorise them. Only when I can recite all the material and can describe the whole process, then I know I have understood.


As second-year students saw 'understanding' as just knowing of the meanings of words or sentences, they relied much more on rote memorisation than the older students, because they wanted to reproduce accurate answers in examination and were less confident about using their own words.

I rely on memorisation in my studying because the (answers to) the question (section) in the workbook are so long that I can't use my own words to express (them).

If I do not understand, I cannot recite them. If I don't memorise the material, I can't answer the question during the examination.

If I only have understanding, it doesn't mean that I can answer the examination questions because I don't know how to express (what I know) in my own words. Therefore, revision is for understanding, then followed by memorisation (for the examination).

I will revise it until my mind is full of 'information', then I know I have prepared well for the examination.

Yes, I definitely do (rely on memorisation)! Mainly on the long question section! (Because) they are sure to be asked in the examination.


A comparison with the revision strategies of Scottish university students

The British study of undergradates, mentioned previously, had interviewed students and asked about the ways in which they had prepared for their final examinations (Entwistle & Entwistle, 1991, 1997; Entwistle, 1998). The combination of understanding and committing that understanding to memory for the purpose of the examinations was also found among these much older and more experienced students. The general procedure involved a systematic, sequential approach which most students followed, to a greater or lesser extent.


Students reported that they revised in a succession of phases. Realising that understanding was required, they started their revision by trying to make sense their notes as a whole, reading them through several times. The process of 'concising' then began and summary notes were usually written at each stage of revision. Understandings were rehearsed, either by talking the ideas through with other students, or by constructing explanations for themselves on paper or out loud. Once understandings were established, students became more strategic, although to varying degrees. They looked at previous examination papers and began to consider the amount of information needed and also to think how best to structure typical answers. Finally, students rote learned the details necessary to support their explanations in the exams, and the summary sheets were used to see to what extent the structure of answers and the supportive details could be remembered. (Entwistle & Entwistle, 1997, p. 147)


There were, however, some interesting variations among the students interviewed, which depended on the student and the nature of the examination. One medical student, for example, relied almost exclusively on rote learning in preparing for first-year examinations that required just facts. He said:


One thing I do is, at the beginning of every course, I read the past papers on the day I start the course, and get orientated towards the exams. I don't like to waste my time Well, medicine is different, I think, from other subjects The facts, you just have to learn them. Sometimes, I would get up at 5am and read a few subjects the morning before and use (that, and pass) But then I would forget it very quickly after the exam, which isn't much good for the patients in the future... (op. cit., p. 149-150)


When it came to finals, however, this same student revised quite differently, knowing that he would have to demonstrate conceptual understanding.

Other students relied heavily on the notes they had taken in lectures, and then simply tried to remember both the information provided and the arguments used. This produced a very inflexible form of understanding, which could not be easily adjusted to the specific question set.


Some questions are basically asking you to discuss (a topic), and if that comes up, it's just remembering my lecture notes and putting down what they said. Sometimes I was lucky, when the question said (in) effect "Re-write your mind map in prose", (as) the mind maps were, to a large extent, based on past exam questions But other times I had to make connections which weren't there in the first place, by extending them (as I went) By and large, those were worse essays than I would have written, had the question been more favourable. (op. cit., p. 149-150)


Students adopting a deep, strategic approach tried to develop a different form of understanding, one which would allow them to respond flexibly to whatever questions were asked.


I like to do (my revision) more by a process of understanding and seeing how things fit together. Because, if I can't, then I find it very difficult to get to grips with the topic. Then, it would be a matter of reading through the notes that I had made and seeing how everything fitted together, both in chronological terms and facts, and changes. I would just make myself write out a pattern, just trying to remember figures and names and dates. (Finally), I would look through my notes and almost mark it, and in doing so I would remember the things that I hadn't put in  This (way of revising) gives you quite a broad base from which to answer any question that comes up on that topic. So you are used to being flexible in the way that you answer the question: it allows you to adapt to different ways in which the question could be worded, and it also organises in your mind the relationships between different aspects of, and approaches to, a question. (from the transcript)



In the analyses of responses by the Hong Kong students, the distinction between 'rote memorisation' and 'understanding' emerged clearly from both the factor analysis and the open-ended comments. The quantitative analysis also confirmed that, among Chinese students, the attempt to seek understanding through the deep approach was related to 'memorising with understanding': it showed the highest loading on that factor. The idea of 'deep memorising' or 'memorising with understanding' was also spontaneously mentioned by several of the older students in their comments. Memorisation with understanding was, however, a more strategic response than understanding without memorisation. Both the sixth-year Chinese students and British university students recognise that 'remembering and committing to memory', based on a prior understanding, will create a much firmer basis for revision than either initial understanding (which has not been reinforced) or memorising.

Linguistic comparisons

One of the difficulties in exploring these distinctions through the translated comments of the Chinese students' is the equivalence, or otherwise, of the words in the two languages. The ideograms indicating 'understanding', 'rote memorising', and 'remembering' in the Chinese language have, not just meanings, but connotations that may create nuances beyond what is captured in direct translation. The underlying meanings of the ideograms need to be explored before interpreting the findings.

It is the Chinese term 'ming bai' which is usually translated as 'understanding'. The first character 'ming' is composed of two smaller parts - 'sun' and 'moon', and refers to something that is bright and light. The second character - 'bai' - refers to a 'white' colour. Both of these words thus refer to something that is bright and clear. So, if one uses 'ming bai' to describe how much one knows about something, it means that the whole thing has become clear to oneself. It also contains a sense that one has 'seen through' the matter. Generally speaking, when applying the term 'ming bai' to Chinese student learning, it ssuggests that students have grasped the whole idea clearly, that they know the meaning and can see relationships with other parts of the learning materials.

The Chinese word 'bei' is most frequently used to indicate 'memorising'. Its origins lie in 'bei song', which is similar to the English term 'recitation', but 'bei' has other meanings. In Ancient China, the term referred to two actions - 'turning your back on something' and 'reading something out'. Therefore, when Chinese students of today use 'bei' or 'bei song' to describe their studying, it means that they can recite the material without looking at it, which probably implies that they are learning by rote. In some colloquial sayings, and in some student responses in this study, Chinese students describe this kind of memorisation as 'stuffing' the material, word for word, into their minds without 'digesting' it: some also see this as studying by 'force'. Through these terms, we can see the effort which many Chinese students use to commit material to memory.

The different usage of the terms 'remembering' and 'memorising' may originate in the written ideogram for the word 'remember' - 'ji'. Apart from meaning 'not to forget', this character also means 'to record'. It is composed of two small individual characters which, taken separately, mean 'word(s)' (yan) and 'one's own self' (ji). Combining these two single characters implies that words become a part of oneself. In an old Chinese Dictionary, 'ji' also means 'knowing' and 'knowledge', so there is an indication that - ji -'remembering' entails being able to explain what you know in your own words.

One of the Chinese sixth-years commented that, in studying, rote memorisation is only used to show one's memorising ability and diligence, but does not lead to understanding. In contrast, 'memorisation with understanding' enables students not only to 'see through' the related materials, but also to remember them more easily, and for longer, than learning by rote. But 'memorisation with understanding' is also seen as essential when it comes to preparing for examinations. To what extent, then, is this apparently distinctive 'Chinese' approach to studying a product of the Confucian heritage or rather a more general response to perceived assessment requirements.

Influences of assessment procedures and cultural heritage

The examinations taken by students in secondary schools in Hong Kong change in their demands from second year to sixth year. The questions set for the younger students are straightforward and factual, while those produced for the older ones are more complex and demand at least some conceptual understanding. In addition, the questions are set, and have to be answered, in English. The second-years had much less confidence in their linguistic ability in a second language than did the sixth-formers, which increased their need to use rote memorisation (see, also, Gow, Kember and Chow, 1991). In responding to the open-ended questions, many of the second-year students said that, since they did not know how to answer in English in their own words, they would study all the material by rote and reproduce it word for word in the examination. By doing so, they would feel more secure and confident.

Although most of the younger students relied heavily on rote memorisation in their studying, they still believed that understanding was important, because it led to easier and more effective memorisation, which in turn could help them to achieve better grades in the examination. What they intended to understand, however, were not the main ideas, because that would "waste" much time in their revision. Instead, they saw 'understanding' as knowing the meanings of words that would help them to memorise by rote more easily. Their approach to revision seemed best summarised in the factor analysis by Factor I - an active strategic use of rote memorisation. Actually, most of these students could also see the interweaving relationship between 'understanding' and 'memorisation', but had not yet developed the notion of 'memorisation with understanding'. They seemed to think that 'understanding' and 'rote-memorisation' led to the same outcome, namely verbatim recall. As Schmeck (1988, p.319) comments, if teachers keep "rewarding the parroting of words from textbooks and lectures, students will memorise those words literally through repetition and recitation". And several studies at university level have shown how the form of assessment affects the approach to studying, with fact-oriented questions encouraging a surface approach (see Entwistle, 2000).

Sixth-year students, and fourth-years who were also more proficient in English, seldom relied solely on rote memorisation. They set out to understand the material first, then memorise the main points, and finally elaborate them in their own words, although some of the students saw memorising and understanding taking place simultaneously. They only rote memorised some technical terms and complicated sentences for later analysis. Most of them distinguished clearly in their comments between 'memorisation with understanding' and 'rote memorisation'. For them, the main differences between these two kinds of memorisation were whether they had achieved personal understanding, and whether or not they could express the learning material in their own words. However, the strength of 'memorisation with understanding' in the factor analysis (Factor II), together with the correlations between scales, suggest that this is a more strategic response to examinations than is 'understanding without memorisation'. In other words it is, at least in part, a response to assessment demands.

We thus see that both second years and sixth years are adopting a form of memorisation which suits the requirements of the examinations. The same type of response was also found in the analysis of comments from British university students. An additional complication was noted, however. The responses differed between individuals as well as between different forms of assessment. The same student might revise by rote learning, or by committing an understanding to memory, depending on how the assessment demands were perceived. Yet, the same examination could be perceived quite differently by individual students, some of whom were content to reproduce their lecture notes, while others sought to develop their own interpretations of what they had learned. And among the deep strategic students, their ways of studying were very similar to some of the older Chinese secondary students.

Reactions to assessment demands must thus play a part in the approaches to studying generally adopted by students. 'Rote memorisation' is recognised, and used, by both Chinese and British students to cope with assessment procedures which are perceived as requiring little more than basic factual responses. And the revision strategies of the two groups of students seem remarkably similar. Are there, then, any remaining cultural differences in approaches to learning? A flavour of one possible difference may come from students' reactions when understanding proves difficult. The first comment comes from a British student; the second from a sixth-year student in Hong Kong.

If I can't (understand), then it would be a matter of reading through the notes that I had made and seeing how everything fitted together.

But when I come across materials that are difficult to remember, I will memorise every single point, and memorise them many times, or even write them down.

It does seem that memorising is more immediately associated with understanding in the Chinese mind than in the Western one.

Although Hong Kong is a modern society substantially affected by Western views, it is still influenced by traditional Chinese values. There is no formal Confucian teaching in schools, and yet traditional beliefs still prevail in child-rearing practices. The Confucian heritage emphasises the virtue of effort and 'filial piety', which includes respect for teachers as purveyors of authoritative knowledge. The belief that academic success comes from effort, and that knowledge is presented for students to learn, puts a premium on memorisation in learning, even when personal understanding is sought.

From a very young age, students in Hong Kong are expected to adopt rote memorisation as a routine way of learning. At primary school, youngsters are taught to remember Chinese characters through repeated copying. They are also encouraged to rote memorise standard Chinese compositions and multiplication tables. Moreover, educational achievement is highly valued within Chinese society, and its teaching emphasises "a product, not a process" (Biggs, 1996, p. 55). Thus, memorisation becomes a well-established and overt way for Chinese students to show their effort and their respect for a teacher's knowledge, and to achieve academic success, where the assessment requires only the reproduction of what has been taught. Also, as memorisation is considered as a common and acceptable way of studying in most Chinese societies, students are able to include forms of memorisation in their studying even when conceptual understanding is required (Marton, Wen & Nagle, 1995). By the end of secondary school, memorisation and understanding seem to have become part of a single process of learning, at least when preparing for examinations.

The two small-scale studies used here to explore the phenomenon of 'memorisation with understanding' or, in terms of the British experience, 'committing an understanding to memory', have suggested further complications in its interpretation and origins. The Chinese approach to studying seems to make memorisation an accepted part of understanding, rooted in the Confucian heritage. And yet in both Hong Kong and Britain, the students are also phasing their revision, sequencing understanding and memorising for specific purposes in preparation for the perceived requirements of the examination. Further research will be required to clarify the intriguing issues thrown up by these, and earlier, findings.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 16 May 2001