Beyond Rote Memorization—The Importance of Fluency in BCBA® Exam Prep - Tackling the Test Series

Part 5


Part 1: Intro to the Series

Part 2: Mock Exams for BCBA® Exam Prep

Part 3: Self-Management Strategies for BCBA® Exam Prep

Part 4: Study Methods that Work

Part 6: Test Taking Strategies

Students rarely use the term “rote memorization” to describe something positive. In fact, the term is often tinged with negativity.  But can there be a place in education for rote memorization despite its less-than-stellar reputation? 

In this article, we’ll look at rote memorization through the lens of those preparing for the BCBA® exam. We’ll dig into Bloom’s taxonomy and unpack the role of rote memorization in higher-level learning. 

What Is Rote Memorization?

Rote MemorizationRote memorization, also called rote learning, involves learning content through repeated exposure. For example, a child may learn multiplication tables or sight words by repeatedly practicing study flashcards or viewing lists. These practices are commonplace in school. We rarely question the idea of children learning key concepts this way. However, adults studying behavior analysis often balk at the thought of this type of learning.

“I feel like it’s just rote responses.” —Anonymous Student.

Like any learning method, rote memorization comes with its own set of pros and cons. Its most significant benefit lies in its repetitive approach, which significantly aids in information retention and recall. This makes it particularly effective in mastering basic facts and precise definitions in any subject matter, including behavior analysis.

Conversely, rote memorization has been criticized because it does not promote deep thinking. The repetitive nature that makes it useful in facts-based contexts can become tedious and, well, rote.

Graduate behavior- analysis students sometimes feel that this type of learning isn’t important to their overall development because memorizing terms, in their view, does not have clinical applicability. However, memorization of terms and, more importantly, learning terms to fluency is a prerequisite to higher-level skills.

Understanding Bloom’s Taxonomy

To appreciate the value of rote learning, it’s important first to understand the types of hierarchical responses necessary to acquire and demonstrate a complex skill.

Bloom’s taxonomy is one way to understand the relationship between these skill sets. It is a systematic way of developing instruction to promote the best student outcomes. This same taxonomy can be used in test development. Understanding Bloom’s taxonomy can help students preparing for the BCBA®, or any other type of exam, understand expected performance types and how those performances are built.

Bloom’s taxonomy includes six levels within the hierarchy. It begins with the most basic type of learning, what we have been referring to as rote memorization, and extends to the complex use of knowledge.

The Six Major Categories in Bloom’s Taxonomy

  1. Remembering. Involves recalling or recognizing facts, information, and concepts. For behavior- analysis students, this level may be demonstrated by seeing a definition and saying a term or vice versa or listing characteristics of a procedure.
  2. Understanding. Involves interpreting and explaining ideas such as explaining/restating information in their own words. A student of behavior analysis may demonstrate understanding by explaining concepts such as positive reinforcement in words other than those memorized in the remembering phase.
  3. Applying. Involves applying acquired knowledge in practical scenarios. For a student of behavior analysis, applying may be demonstrated by identifying the concept or procedure given an example scenario or identifying examples and non-examples.
  4. Analyzing. Involves identifying patterns, organizing information, and analyzing data. A student of behavior analysis might look at a graph and determine the function of behavior.
  5. Evaluating. Involves critically assessing information to make judgments or decisions. A student of behavior analysis may demonstrate evaluating by making a decision given information, such as what to do next, given assessment data[GS1] .
  6. Creating. Involves the ability to use knowledge to produce something unique. A behavior- analysis student may demonstrate this knowledge level by creating a graph from data or writing a behavior plan.

Fluency for BCBA® Exam Success

SAFMEDSSome students argue that studying flashcards and learning terms is just “rote memorization” and, therefore, not important or a good use of study time. Bloom’s taxonomy helps us see that “remembering” is a prerequisite skill for higher-level learning and responding. It isn’t just about “rote memorization” but about building a foundation of recall knowledge on which further applied skills will rest. In other words, one must learn to talk the talk before one can walk the walk.

To be useful in application, remembering (Bloom’s level) or rote memorization needs to include more than just recall. To serve us well, we need to be fluent in the terminology of our science. Fluency is a combination of accuracy and speed. Fluent performance is characterized by a lack of hesitation, few errors, and automatic-like responses Fluency is what transforms rote memorization into applicable skills.

To picture fluency in real life, imagine someone fluent in their native language and contrast that with someone learning a second language. The language learner may have a solid vocabulary and may be able to communicate in the language. Still, their responses will have errors, they’ll hesitate often, and they might struggle with understanding more nuanced conversations. Someone who is fluent can come up with key terms and definitions seemingly without thought. This type of fluency is a foundation for learning and applying information in other, higher-level ways and under different conditions.

Building Fluency with SAFMEDS

The SAFMEDS technique is a research-based approach developed by Ogden Lindsley and Steve Graf in the 1970s. SAFMEDS is a method of building fluency, the ability to recall quickly and accurately. This is a great way to master the first level of Bloom’s taxonomy.

The SAFMEDS Acronym

Say. The learner sees the front of the card and says the answer (back side of the card) out loud. Saying the information out loud is important because vocalizing the content will likely improve retention.

All. All terms currently being studied are included in the deck every time.

Fast. The student should attempt to go through the cards quickly and increase speed across performances. This fast performance is aimed at fluency.

Minute. Practice intervals should be timed; generally, one minute is recommended. This short timing allows students to fit practice into their busy schedules, and one-minute timings are easily graphed.

Every day. Practice should occur daily. This regular practice supports retention.

Shuffled. The deck of cards is practiced in random order. Shuffling the deck helps prevent memorization of the order of cards or what may be termed true “rote memorization.”

SAFMEDS Card Creation

While both SAFMEDS and traditional study flashcards are educational tools, SAFMEDS is an educational technology designed for fluency-based learning. The process for both SAFMEDS and traditional study flashcards begins the same, with the preparation of the decks. Though creating the cards may seem easy, many purchased, or student-made flashcards lack appropriate design. Poor card design risks inefficient or even ineffective learning. To avoid this, SAFMEDS are created following specific guidelines. These include elements like card size and proper formatting of information on both sides. Learning these guidelines will allow you to create your own SAFMEDS or evaluate SAFMEDS available for purchase. See our SAFMEDS Tips Sheet to learn about SAFMEDS card creation, or purchase our BOOST Exam Prep SAFMEDS.


Using SAFMEDS as an educational tool relies on setting performance goals for accuracy and speed across frequent, timed intervals. Traditional study flashcards are a general educational tool that can be practiced untimed and do not prioritize accuracy and speed. Although traditional study flashcards are a versatile tool for studying, the learn-at-your-own-pace method with no prescribed timings does not promote rapid recall or fluency, which is the necessary foundation for more complex skills. The SAFMEDS technique goes beyond simple memorization to focus on fluent performance. See our Tips Sheet for more on using the SAFMEDS technique to learn terms to fluency.


Whether studying for a course or certification exam, mastering terminology to fluency is a prerequisite to more complex skills such as applying and analyzing information. Rote memorization can be considered fluent when it is quick, accurate, and easily recalled in response to the proper stimulus conditions (i.e., proper stimulus control).

The sheer amount of information required for the BCBA® exam can feel overwhelming. Learning important terms to fluency is an important first step in building a solid foundation. Fortunately, SAFMEDS is an effective and efficient study technique to help students absorb and retain information efficiently.

Get your BOOST SAFMEDS Flashcards now!



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