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Apologies if I am asking something that is well known, but I am not a native English speaker, and I could not find an answer so far.

In my native language, there exists a (derogatory) word for pupils, who strive to get high grades by literally memorizing tons of facts, instead of understanding and learning. The main characteristic of such people is that at first (in first few years of school) they get excellent grades, as the quantity of material is not beyond ability to memorize (but still they do not understand most of it). As they progress through the school, this gets more and more difficult, and becomes impossible in high school or at the university at the latest, causing such people to spend many hours trying to memorize impossible amounts of data, only to be outdone by their peers who can understand the subject.

The word is derogatory in a sense that such pupils are usually hated by their peers since they are teachers' pets (at first), increasing the bar for others, who do understand the subjects, but are not prepared to invest hours and hours of their time to memorize useless facts. The downfall of such pupil is often welcomed by peers.

So, what is the word for such pupil? "nerd" and "geek" are not appropriate, since they are not derogatory in the desired sense -- nerds and geeks display above-average understanding of subjects, even if it is narrowly focused.

Example "John is such XXXXXX, he does not understand a word of what teacher is saying, he just repeats phrases from textbook and gets good grades. Shame!"

Word XXXX is not vulgar or obscene, but it is derogatory. So, I am searching for an English expression describing such person/pupil. Thanks.

Edit: I don't think that is a duplicate, since I explained the rationale in more detail. I am searching for word with negative connotation, related to learning. The person may not be stupid or lazy, perhaps they don't know better than rote learning.

So far the best candidates are: parrot (to parrot) and regurgitator (to regurgitate). Both come very close to what I had in mind.

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    Perhaps a parrot? Parrots also learn by rote (a word which may also be helpful or applicable).
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 14, 2016 at 22:48
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    Out of curiosity, what's the original word and what language is it from? I'd love to coopt it into English. Mar 14, 2016 at 23:12
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    Orignial language is Slovenian, and the word is "piflar" (a noun, denoting a person), or "piflanje", activity.
    – xmp125a
    Mar 15, 2016 at 2:25
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    Very sadly, in much of the U.S., they would call that person an "honor student."
    – cobaltduck
    Mar 15, 2016 at 13:17
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    In India, such an act is called "mugging up" and an Indianism for that person is "mugger"!
    – BiscuitBoy
    Mar 15, 2016 at 13:27

11 Answers 11

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I believe you are wanting to use the term regurgitate (with the noun form regurgitator):

: to repeat (something, such as a fact, idea, etc.) without understanding it
Merriam-Webster

The fact the word also relates to vomit gives it a negative connotation.

John is just a regurgitator, ...

John is simply regurgitating, ...

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    @jxh I didn't downvote you, but I imagine that it's because what's wanted is a noun, and regurgitator doesn't seem to be a word people use of these kinds of students?
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 14, 2016 at 23:37
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    Actually I did not vote down, it still the best answer so far. Regurgitator and a parrot are currently my favorites.
    – xmp125a
    Mar 15, 2016 at 2:27
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    I don't think people tend to use the term regurgitator for such students, but they do tend to describe some teaching and testing policies as only testing a student's ability to regurgitate facts. This is usually aimed at the education system, though, not the students. Mar 15, 2016 at 16:32
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    +1 I have actually heard this term, as a noun, to describe such people in North American classrooms.
    – Lan
    Mar 17, 2016 at 16:12
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    @Lan: I make no claim that regurgitator is in common use, but there is precedence of it being used, and its meaning is crystal clear and is obviously derogatory when applied to a student.
    – jxh
    Mar 21, 2016 at 8:12
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There is the expression that someone is learning parrot-fashion.

Simply repeating received phrases like a trained parrot.

This is often seen as a verb, the pupil simply parrots the received lesson.

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    I think constructions involving "parrot" best fit the OP's intent. I suspect there isn't a simple noun equivalent of "piflar", sadly. Mar 15, 2016 at 13:55
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John learns robotically, he does not understand a word of what teacher is saying, he just repeats phrases from textbook and gets good grades. Shame!"

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/robot#robot__2

robot

1.2 A person who behaves in a mechanical or unemotional manner: public servants are not expected to be mindless robots

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    As a software developer having developed robots, I feel the urge to slap the person who came up with this phrase. Mar 18, 2016 at 14:17
  • @StephanBijzitter I agree completely... The majority of the population seems to think that all robots are stupid
    – undo
    Mar 19, 2016 at 17:10
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    Robots ARE stupid. They don't actually understand things. Even with a giant neural network that beats humans in Go, they don't understand what the stones are, that you could throw them, that you could choke on one, that they sink in water. The neural network is still deterministic, even if a human can't follow all the traces of inputs & outputs in their lifetime.
    – Chloe
    Mar 20, 2016 at 20:29
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    @Chloe, all the examples about the stone you gave are equally applicable to humans. How do you know you can throw a stone? You tried and observed the result, didn't you? It's naive to say robots have no understanding, for all we know we might be the ones that do not understand their level of understanding. Then again, it may even depend on your definition of understanding. Either way, that's probably a subject for multiple other SE domains. Mar 20, 2016 at 23:13
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    @PLL This is pure coincidence, but we got excellent example of "robotic learning" with infamous Tay Twitter robot by Microsoft: telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/03/24/…
    – xmp125a
    Mar 25, 2016 at 6:26
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A slightly old-fashioned word in informal British English is a swot. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/swot

The British English verb to describe the process of "learning lots of facts but without understanding the subject" is cramming, but I don't think there is a noun meaning "a student who crams". The noun crammer means a school or a teacher that helps students to pass exams by cramming (usually referring to a private school or a tutor which charges high fees) - it doesn't refer to the students at such a school.

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/cram (meaning #2) http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/crammer

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    Supposedly there is a similar word in US English: "a grind" (definition 19). But I'm unfamiliar with it. Mar 15, 2016 at 14:09
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    "Cramming" in Canadian (North American?) English just means intense studying. Their are some implications of it being last minute, but you could cram for a math test where you are legitimately learning.
    – Sled
    Mar 15, 2016 at 14:31
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    As far I understand, cramming is perfectly legitimate and does not necessarily involve rote learning. Grind would be perhaps closer, but "overly diligent" does not imply that the person is doing it in a wrong (and dead-end) fashion.
    – xmp125a
    Mar 15, 2016 at 15:11
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    Indeed. "Cramming" is any form of preparation for an exam, especially last-minute, but without regard to the particular technique, in British English as much as elsewhere. "Swot" also lacks the required connotation, as it is (was?) often used with a meaning similar to the more modern "geek" or "nerd" -- i.e. somebody who prefers learning to other activities, often for the sake of the process.
    – Jules
    Mar 15, 2016 at 20:58
  • @ArtB: As a Canadian, I'm aware of "cramming" (studying just before a test/exam), but mostly thought of it as a British word. Most people just say "study session", even if "cram session" would fit. Mar 16, 2016 at 14:48
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A related term that may be useful is "academic bulimia". A style of learning where a person 'consumes' what they need to learn and then 'purge' of it afterwards. However, it describes the behaviour and not the person unlike what you may be asking for.

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    Just because Urban Dictionary has an entry for it doesn't mean it's actually being used. The only places I see that mentioned are UD itself or references talking about the UD entry or definition.
    – Brandin
    Mar 16, 2016 at 8:28
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    I've heard it used for years, and only checked to see if it was on Urban Dictionary to make sure it wasn't a purely local thing.
    – Sled
    Mar 16, 2016 at 14:22
  • A less disgusting version of this practice is "the sponge-faucet method." You turn the faucet on and the sponge fills up with water. You wring the sponge and the water pours out. "That is what we call the final exam," as my mentor would say about the method. Mar 18, 2016 at 16:09
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    The metaphor is actively used in other languages as well, e.g. German Bulimielernen ‘bulimic learning’. A related term is binge learning.
    – Crissov
    Mar 20, 2016 at 14:23
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Another term that's in wide enough use to be recognized by a fairly significant number of people is packer.

The basic definition of a packer is much as you've noted: people who learn by memorizing a large number of facts.

The dual of packer is "mapper". Mappers learn more by creating and maintaining more of a logical framework. Rather than being built around specific facts, the emphasis is much more on understanding of general ideas.

I think it's fair to say that (when used in this fashion) "packer" is derogatory to at least some degree (i.e., carries at least a mildly negative connotation).

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I've heard it as someone that is full of "book learning" or is a "book learner". They can recite the book back at you, but have no idea how to apply it.

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You are precisely describing a glib student.

The phrase may not be very commonly used, however. I'm not sure. I worked at a couple different schools and the staff and students would all understand you perfectly if you used "glib" to mean exactly what you describe in your post, but I haven't seen it in dictionaries with a perfectly matching definition.

If someone doesn't get it when you say "glib student", you could clarify by saying, "You know, he's just a parrot."


The probable source of this usage of the term, with an excerpt:

We now have “the quick student who somehow never applies what he learns,” also called a glib student.

The specific phenomenon then is that a student can study some words and give them back and yet be no participant to the action. The student gets A+ on exams but can’t apply the data.

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  • Glib? Why glib? That doesn't fit here.
    – dangph
    Mar 18, 2016 at 4:56
  • @dangph, see caveats listed already. I can only respond that I've definitely encountered it used that way, not once but scores of times from different people. A Google search reveals a possible source for the usage; I will update my answer.
    – Wildcard
    Mar 18, 2016 at 5:45
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Depending on context, you might call such a person sophomoric.

This often carries with it connotations of immaturity or lack of wisdom, but it can also be used to describe someone who has theoretical knowledge, but lacks practical experience with applying that knowledge.

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You could try a broken record.

This is more often used in cases of repeating only one thing over and over, but depending on the specific context, it might work here.

Jim is such a broken record. He only repeats what the book says over and over again and never contributes anything of value.

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    I don't think this works at all. If a record was broken, it couldn't repeat the right fact. Technically someone could still drop the needle in the right place, and get the right fact until the record hit a scratch that made it loop. But being broken has nothing to do with being able to recall the right fact. I think I see how you're trying to stretch the analogy, but IMO it just doesn't work. Mar 16, 2016 at 14:51
  • Well... I would contend that education in general is like a broken record. Whenever someone comes up with a new idea, it is almost always feared to the point of persecution and shot down (sometimes violently) by society, who would prefer to continue repeating the same old story. Galileo was BURNED for stating the fact that the Earth is round... but that's probably far outside the scope of this question.
    – Adam Hayes
    Mar 16, 2016 at 15:24
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    Most of that is true (except that Galileo wasn't burned at the stake. Maybe you're thinking of one of his supporters, Giordano Bruno, mentioned in Galileo's wikipedia article). But that doesn't make this a good answer to describe a single person who's memorizing instead of learning. Mar 16, 2016 at 15:38
  • The term "broken record" is misused in this answer. A literal broken record repeats the same thing over and over. It does this because a damaged groove throws the playback needle back to a prior point, usual the previous groove. A person is compared to a broken record when he repeats something to the annoyance of others such as when a child repeatedly asks "Are we there yet?" So Jim in this example is not a broken record, but he could be compared to a (correctly operating) tape recorder.
    – David42
    Mar 18, 2016 at 15:55
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I'm not sure if it is in common use but direct translation from Polish for such a person could be a pecker (or woodpecker), plus pecker has quite few derogatory meanings on its own in English.

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    Hi Miko, welcome to EL&U! Your answer as-is isn't bad, but it would be a lot better if you were to include links or references to support why "pecker" or "woodpecker" is a correct answer to this question. The part about packer having derogatory meanings in English, while interesting, isn't helpful in the context of the question asked. Mar 15, 2016 at 13:12
  • It's purely Polish thing, because mindless learning is called 'kucie' - same word as woodpecker' activity. It would work only if learning by heart was called 'pecking' in English, which is not.
    – Agent_L
    Mar 17, 2016 at 13:11

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