What to write on your flash-cards is more important than you think.

Spaced repetition, part I

In high school, I had an English teacher. He was strict. Few liked him. Every week, he made us fold and tear a piece of paper into 32 rectangles. He would then dictate the vocabulary terms and short phrases that we had to write down on our flashcards. Rote memorization was checked with weekly quizzes. I rebelled long enough and saw my grades drop before I caved. Once I had surrendered, I followed his method. And along the way, I began to understand that it helped me to acquire the language that I learned to love. More than 20 years later, I still remember some phrases from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

Shakespeare, King Lear (Cordelia).
The sociologist in my finds the loyalty expressed in her role as the King’s daughter remarkable.

He practiced spaced repetition with us. This type of instructor-led exercise can help students develop a habit of learning with flash cards, regardless of them being on paper or digital. What matters is guidance, habit formation, and working with exemplars of good flash cards. But because this is such a powerful mechanism to imprint knowledge into students, instructor-led spaced repetition exercises need to be handled with extra care and responsibility by the educator.

You always need solid foundations. The core concepts. In a new language, it is the most common vocabulary. In medicine, it is anatomy and many other core subjects. Being presented with the card just at the right time when you are about to forget something, and have the item coming back in more spaced-out intervals, is a very efficient way of beating the “forgetting curve” and committing something to long term memory. It is much more efficient than cramming for exams.

But burning something into your long-term memory is also dangerous. What if you are learning the wrong stuff? What if you are manipulated and indoctrinated instead? Then you just got a malignant piece of knowledge, a strain of bad code, a virus uploaded into your brain.

In part 2, I’ll write about how to firewall your brain.

2 thoughts on “What to write on your flash-cards is more important than you think.”

  1. Kassapa (aka Bhante Kassapa)

    Its always a good reminder that the content needs to be right at the right time, and old techniques of repetition always have lasting effect.

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