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Usability not extension determines Flash Card content

August 13, 2009

This morning I read a post about discovering that flashcards do work and they are a great way to study, the most important aspect of the post was that the author preferred to write down more complex Q&A than the typical Term-Definition flashcard as used by many online flashcards. The issue of writing them on paper deserves a post of its own, if you are interested in Supermemo, you’re probably already convinced paper can’t match digital anyway (might supplement it though).

Many argue that that flashcards should be very simple (e.a. “flash”) they mostly refer to the issue of extension or wordiness. My own experience, although doesn’t oppose completely to this way of thinking, shows that many simple Q&A questions don’t necessarily need to be short in extension.

The type of information included in my flashcards has suffered constant change, you could probably call it evolving,  trough the simple clozed sentences that later on I had no clue which word was missing and memorizing them felt parrot like repetition, to complex question with a short answer plus further explanations sometimes used now.

Currently my primary way of choosing the amount of information to include in a single flashcard depend mostly on usability, I try to figure out I’ll require to remember the data and what for.

For example if I need to recall what is some “normal” laboratory value like hemoglobin in adults, it makes no sense to include further explanation in the question or answer field. But if values are related by sex, say testosterone values, I would probably make the question emphasize this by asking: What are the serum testosterone values for  (male, female)?. In this specific case I don’t want to ever make a mistake by remembering the female value when a male value is needed, hence remembering this two values together makes more sense than learning them separately.

This seems to contradict the simplicity principle of supermemo, from my point of view though simplicity means as simple as possible. Some knowlegde nuggets need more space for storage in  my external hypocampus thats all.

An example of item with short answer plus explanation:

Which is better Interleaving or Blocking for study?[…]

#Title: Will That Be on the Test?
#Source: Spacing Effect-., Memory-., learning-.,-
#Link: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2425
#Element:
97173: [24/06/2009 04:52 p.m.] Will That Be on the Test?.. Ebbinhaus’s Spacing Effect …
#Article: 96269: Will That Be on the Test?

Answer:

Interleaving is better then blocking

Best is “interleaving” practice items, as opposed to “blocking” them en masse. Example: redesigning syllabi to include short reviews of previous lessons at the end of each class.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Littlefish permalink
    August 13, 2009 14:26

    Since I have started using Supermemo I have struggled with the length of flashcards. Those I created when I first started using Supermemo are quite long, whereas those that I make today are quite short by comparison.

    Incremental Reading has made this MUCH easier because I have several “revision” phases before I “publish” the final card. I am not under pressure to make the “final draft” right away.

    Here are my two self-imposed requirements for making an acceptable flashcard: (1) The question can only be one sentence long (Unless the next sentence with “Why?”). (2) The length of the question should not exceed two lines. While this might seem too strict, I am surprised at how easily I can establish context with very few words.
    Also, in Incremental Reading, I try to rewrite a small portion of the sentence in slightly fewer words EACH TIME I see the topic. I have learned that there is almost ALWAYS a way to shorten the length of an item without distorting the context, no matter how short it might be. I think of it as a challenge.

    One technique that has been really helpful for me has been instead of using “which is better,” I use “WHY is A better than B?” This question structure forces you to focus on the qualities of something, exactly WHY one choice is better than another choice.

    Think of it this way: If your mind was completely blank and you remembered the following Q/A: “which is heavier, a rabbit or a mouse? Rabbit”, then the only information you would have about the rabbit is that it was heavier than a mouse (Likewise for the mouse). If you wanted to know if a rabbit was heavier than a chicken, the information learned with the previous flashcard is of little to no help. But if you learn “how much does a rabbit weigh? x,” then the information left in your head is now MUCH more applicable in other situations.

    So rather than focus on what something is like in direct comparison with something else, at times I have found it helpful to focus on the qualities that distinguishes one thing from another. It accomplishes its purpose in my being able to tell the two apart, plus you learn an additional piece of information!

    • gersapa permalink*
      August 14, 2009 06:27

      Actually I think many have had the same experience, huge Flash Cards at first then going into more precise, concise, useful ones. I believe your advice is the kind we all searched when we first go into the supermemo “method”. Regarding the last example your totally right, using why is a better option most of the time, if there is a reason for some information to respond certain question is much better to remember this reason and not only the relationship. Sometimes though, information that has no particular reasons to be related to other data and yet needs to be remembered, in those least cases finding a reason (artificial) helps me memorize them. When ever I talk about the best to way to remember information, I constantly repeat – find a why and will stick – its curious how I don’t always apply it to my own material. So usability criteria is always a must, the way you formulate individual items makes an efficient why of building knowledge not only paired cues.

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