EP5: Using Flashcards for Study

Welcome to the Autodidactic Podcast with your host Rick Dearman.

Hello, everybody, and welcome back to the show. Today we’re going to discuss flashcard learning.

If you’re new to the show would like to welcome you and if you are returning, I’d like to welcome you back. As always, I really, really enjoy getting feedback for this show. So if you’re interested in giving me some feedback, you can email me at rick@autodidactic.info. You can make comments on the website as well where I will be uploading the show notes for this show as well as others.

Flash card learning is something that I do every single day, mostly with regards to language learning. But I also use it for other things as well, and today I’m gonna go through how to use flash cards and how to create flashcards so that they’re more memorable and useful to you. I recommend that if you have a smart phone or computer or something available that you try and get a hold of a program called Anki (ANKI), which is an electronic flash card system, and it’s free for most devices. I think Apple phones you have to pay for, but everything else is free. But there are other electronic flash card programs available.

But what we’re going to discuss today can be used either with the electronic versions or with the paper version flashcards like you may have used in school long ago. So let’s get it started. If you’ve got Anki or an app that you’re going to use, you generally need to set up an account, and you’re going to need some way of importing this into the system.

Now Anki uses a CSV file, which you can generate with Excel or LibreOffice, or you can open the program and input them manually. Now, in addition to just text electronic flashcards generally support sound as well as images. So rather than just write some text, you can have images and audio.

There is a program which I have done a video tutorial on YouTube about how to create what’s called subs2SRS, which is subtitles to spaced repetition. But that’s if you’re learning a language. You’ll be able to use the subtitles of the film to help you learn, and I’ll put links in the show notes to that.

But this is one of the reasons that I would recommend that you use an electronic flash card system as opposed to a paper one. Since it’s much easier to get audio and video into flashcards nowadays. One of the other reasons for an electronic version is fonts and colouring. The reason for this is generally you can use different fonts for different subjects to help you; give you some context when you’re memorizing things, but you don’t need an electronic version for this.

So if you, for example, were learning nouns in French, which have a gender either masculine or feminine, you might want to put yellow cards as masculine and blue cards as feminine, for example, or whatever you want. But that is one way of using context to give you some indication of the flashcards type.

Now there are two basic concepts behind flashcards, and that is active recall testing and spaced repetition. Now, active recall is something we talked about in previous episodes, where you basically test yourself on the subject that you’re learning and that testing the active recall forces you to recall what you’ve learned.

Spaced repetition is a learning technique which uses increasing intervals of time between the reviews of previously learned material in order to exploit a phenomenon where humans more easily remember or learn things when they’re studied a few times over the space of a long time.

So with any learning method, there are very good and very bad practices for anything. What I’m gonna explain here is the best practices for you to follow when creating flashcards and studying them.

And one of the very first things that I recommend is that you make your own flashcards. If you use an electronic flash card system like Anki, you can download pre-made decks for just about everything from languages to biology, chemistry, mathematics, you name it. There will be a pre-made deck for it. But part of the learning process, I believe, is actually creation of your own flashcards, using your own context and your own methods and I think this is gonna help you more than just downloading a pre-made deck.

Now, having said that, there are some quite good pre-made decks for things like mathematics, which you probably don’t want to expend the time to do yourself when the actual learning is straightforward. So, for example, multiplication tables or square roots, etcetera. They’re pretty simple; Question on the front, Answer on the back type cards. You can also get pre-made paper cards, certainly for vocabulary and things from places like Amazon. But again, I recommend that you just make your own cards.

Now the second thing about flashcards is you should never try and memorize what you don’t understand. So if you’re making a flash card, you need to understand the the topic in which you’re making the card about. You know, a parrot can just repeat sentences, but it doesn’t understand what it’s saying. So when you’re making the flashcards, it’s going to ingrain this information into your head in a spaced repetition system. So if you just made a card that said !22W2! and you looked at it repeatedly, you would actually learn that. But it doesn’t actually mean anything and is of no use. So make sure that you understand what you are putting onto your flash card.

The next thing is to relate the information on the card to some other context, so related information is much easier to memorize. If you have multiple associations in your mind, you will remember it. So every piece of our information in our memory is connected to other pieces in another way. For example, if you’re given the word pear, you may think of something green and round and sweet and pear shaped, and it’s from a tree, and it’s a fruit on. It’s made into cider, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, so there’s lots of associations with the word pear. So try and make a many associations as you can with the card, and you might want to make multiple cards relating to each other so that the information reinforces itself.

The next thing is to start with the basics. So if you’re a beginner, you need to start with the basics of the information. And you might want to keep separate decks of basic information versus more advanced information, which builds on your basic deck. And just try and keep it as basic and simple as possible. And once you have completed the basic cards, move on to the more advanced.

The next thing is the KIS Principal. K.I.S (keep it simple). Don’t try and put every piece of information you have about a concept on one single card. Complex cards are difficult to memorize, and you need to chunk up this information. It’s a smaller bits and pieces, so you try and break up the information on to multiple cards while keeping the information per card as simple as possible.

So, for example, on language card, you may have six congregations of verb in the present tense. Well, rather than put all six congregations on one card, it would be better to create a card for the first person card for second person, etcetera, etcetera. Whatever the subject you’re studying, you need to simplify the information as much as you can.

Now. The next thing and this sort of only applies to electronic versions of cards is to use close deletion cards where possible. A closed deletion card is a, for example, a sentence, which has the information in there, but one of the words is blanked out. One of the critical words is blanked out, and you have to type it in. Now this type of card forces you to actively recall. You can’t just press the next button and be given the answer. You have to type it in so these types of cards are very, very useful in forcing you to actively recall what the word is, which completes the sentence. And it may not be a word, it maybe, if you’re doing mathematics, it might be one variable of the formula, for example. So these types of cards are very useful and I highly recommend them.

Wherever possible, try and use images because, as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words and as human beings we’re of quite visual creatures on its very easy to link pictures and images in your mind to various bits of information. This can be done on paper flashcards as well. You can print out images and use them in your flashcards, etcetera. It’s very easy on electronic version.

When you create cards trying, use as many senses as possible. Now, obviously, even on electronic one you’re not going to get the sense of smell. But you can put the word on a flash card. You can put the picture of the thing on the flash card. You can put a linked to a sound of what’s being said on it or some other form of sound, so sight and sound can be done, and it’s very easy to manage that.

Try and avoid sets of information. This goes back to the KIS principle of keeping it simple. It’s almost impossible to memorize a set without forgetting some numbers and typically, things in the middle of the set are almost invariably forgotten, because we tend to remember things at the beginning of a list or at the end of the list, and not so much the stuff in the middle.

Don’t set up your cards with a set of information. Break that set up into smaller cards or close deletion cards. Try to not just learn in one direction or the other. So what I mean by that is an example. If you’re learning vocabulary is that you might have always put the French word on the front of the card and the English on the back. Well, actually, you need two cards. You need one where English is on the front and another where French is on the front, for example. And you do this the same on, other study cards. You need to have a reversible card that presents the same information and the same question in the other direction.

Okay, When you’re creating your decks, try and keep a theme for each deck. So this is similar to the rule about related information. So, for example, if you have a deck about the circulatory system, only have things in there about the circulatory system and have a completely separate set of cards for the respiratory system. If you were studying biology.

For languages, it’s the same thing. You have a theme for animals, and then you have another one for kitchen utensils, but you try and keep them separate.

Now the other thing is to try and make sure that you only have one point per flashcard again. This is stressing the not having sets of information and not trying to put all the information on one card. But you need to have one fully comprehensive point on the card. Now, if that means that this card is particularly large or long, that’s fine. But it needs to only consist of that single point of information. So you’re dedicating one concept to each card, and hopefully one question with one answer.

Wherever possible, you should try and use sentences for your question and sentences for your answer, rather than just image cards, but enhance that question with images and sounds. Try and commit to completing your allotted amount of flashcards every day.

Now, how do you a lot yourself Flashcards? Well, if you’re using electronic program, it will allocate that for you based on whatever for algorithm it uses. If you’re using a paper flashcard system, then typically what you would do is you would have it in a file card system and you have today’s cards. And if this is your first day, then you say you start with 10 cards and you do them until you’ve learned them all, and you put them in tomorrow’s card. On tomorrow you take 10 new cards and you go through those and then you go through the 10 from yesterday and see if you forgotten any. If you have forgotten them, you move them forward into tomorrow’s set. You basically carry on doing a review each time.

Now, wherever possible, try and say the answer out loud when you’re doing the flash card. This is because it helps you to retain the information because you hear yourself saying it.

Never do opposites cards. An opposite card is, for example, what is the opposite of hot in French. This only leads to confusion, and you start to mix up the concepts of hot and cold, and things don’t don’t do opposite. Ask what is cold in French. Don’t use what is the opposite of hot. So whenever you’re doing any study cards that you’re creating, try and remember not to do opposite cards and dependent on what you’re studying, you know that can become a problem, especially for vocabulary for language.

Vary your question format. In other words, don’t make all your cards the same. Some cards, maybe question cards, try and come up with other types of cards that aren’t just questions that they are asking you to do an explanation. One of the methods I use to create a different type of card when studying a language, for example, would be to create a card that says; practice grammar point A practice grammar point B and then you go away and study for 10 minutes on that particular point of grammar. So this isn’t giving you a easy question answer thing. It is directing you to study this particular topic for five minutes. That type of card is also useful because it’s prompts you at different times to do different things.

Okay, so memorizing using flash cards is a great way to help you progress in your study. Just memorization isn’t going to help you necessarily, you know, fulfil all of your requirements. You’re going to need to do other things in order to become an auto didactic learner, you’re gonna have to study other ways. But flashcards are an amazing, excellent way to take those little stolen moments of time when you’re standing in a queue or you’re waiting for something and use those to progress your study and also the creation of cards itself, works as a study.

So in order to generate the cards, you are having to ask yourself questions. You have to find the information you have to find the answers. You have to find related information. You have to simplify the information so that it fits one concept per card, etcetera, etcetera. So flashcards aren’t just a way of studying in the stolen moments they actually help you study full on while creating the cards. And this is one of the reasons I tell you not to download pre-made decks because the actual creation of the card itself will help you just as much as memorizing the card.

Okay. Thanks for listening today. And I’m glad you joined me. Next week, we’re going to talk about memory, and memorization and study skills. Thank you very much.

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