Stages of Mastery: Moving Beyond Rote Memory

Too often rote memory is thought of negatively.  But knowledge first has to be learned [ie memorized] before it can be built upon and applied.

We memorize our math facts, either through drills or by repetition over time.  Then, later, we can move into algebra and advanced applied mathematics.  If you don’t have the basics in your memory, you will struggle with moving on.

The same could be said with geography facts.  Sure, you could look up places, but if the facts are not in your memory, then reading various literature or studying history might not make sense.  Are you likely (or is your child likely) to stop and look up geography references in the middle of reading a book?  Probably not.  If you don’t know the geography facts, you just keep reading and glaze over that information.  However, if you have the facts in your head, then you can expand your knowledge more easily.  You have a place in your brain to store new information and then will more likely remember the new information.

So, I’ve made a case for memorization, but do we really need to do drills and rote memorization?  Well, I would say, that is where to start, but not where to stay.

There are actually levels of mastery of information and I have some resources to help you move through these stages.

Levels of Mastery

  1. Recitation – This is verbatim (word for word) giving of information that you have memorized.  This is the first stage of the classical model of education.  You don’t have to understand it to memorize it at this stage.  Some examples include:
    • Catechisms (questions and answers are memorized in order to learn spiritual truths)
    • AWANAs – similar to catechisms, memorize Scripture and truths
    • Classical Conversations – Foundations memory work
    • Memorizing poetry or foreign language phrases
    • Memorizing songs (not always knowing what the song is even about)
  2. Memorized and Understanding
    • Can say the information out of order or without song
    • Understand the vocabulary of what is memorized
    • Can restate the information in own words
  3. Comparing information/Applying Information
    • Makes connections beyond word for word memorization
    • Understands how one thing relates to another
  4. Mastery of a subject
    • Involves more research or study
    • Takes basic information and expands it with new information
    • Can present the information for others to learn


Some examples of this:

  1. Memorize the parts of the digestive system – student can say it back.
  2. Can point out the parts on a diagram or on their own body (visual connected to the words)
  3. Understands that digestive system is a system among other systems, understands (in simplistic terms) that the “tummy” includes stomach and other organs, and blood and nerves, etc
  4. Can study digestive system in more detail


  1. Can recite a Bible verse
  2. Can retell in own words, understands the words of the verse
  3. Can relate it to real life or another passage of scripture
  4. Can build doctrine based on Scripture, is able to study on own


  1. Memorize a history fact (person, date, place, event)
  2. Can retell the fact in own words.  Can answers questions like “In what year did the Pilgrims land in MA?”
  3. Can relate a history fact to another history fact – It was 128 years after Columbus that the Pilgrims landed.
  4. Can dive into the details of a history fact and remember the specifics leading up to an event, or the results of the event.


With younger children, staying in phase one and two is most appropriate.  However, as children grow older and have mastered the first two, they can move into mastery beyond rote memorization.

Check out online quizzes and Timeline Connections!


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