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All gain, no pain — learning with the Flashcard method

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The flashcard method, also known as the Leitner system, has been around for over 40 years. This versatile learning approach helps students save time and process information. Let’s look at what makes it work.

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To go from temporary to permanent, knowledge gained during the classes needs to be utilized. But not everything can be immediately applied in the real world. Here’s where the flashcard method comes in.

If you take 10 minutes to go over a subject the day after you first studied it, it will take you 5 minutes to ‘freshen’ this memory the following week, and only a minute or so after a month of weekly training. Repetition can help you remember things you’d otherwise forget. According to a study conducted at the University of Alberta, the students who used this method were more likely to improve their grades than those who didn’t.

Derek Severs, the founder of CD Baby, praised flashcards for being a great way to improve and maintain your coding skills. Roger Craig — the 2010 Jeopardy! contestant — also credited this method with helping him take his $77,000 winnings home. The system has already become a staple of online education. Dozens of specialized apps, such as Anki and Memrise, transported the flashcard experience into the digital realm. Even the ‘original’ flashcard app from 1985 — SuperMemo — is maintained and updated to this day.

The origins

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th century pioneer of experimental psychology, came up with the concept of the ‘forgetting curve’ — an equation roughly describing our loss of memories in relation to time.

Later scientists replicated his experiments and realized that different kinds of content have different forgetting curves. For example, poetry — an artistic medium that requires conscious processing — is likely to be remembered for longer than a piece of out-of-context data. What’s more, the way the information was received (the environment you’re in and your mental state) also influences memory retention.

One thing is inevitable: you’re bound to forget stuff. The logical conclusion to Ebbinghaus’s findings is simple: to remember something, you have to keep ‘resetting’ the forgetting curve through frequent repetition.

Starting in the early 20th century, various psychologists experimented with this hypothesis, culminating in the work of Robert A. Bjork and Sebastian Leitner. Bjork laid down the theoretical foundation, further developing the memory theory of Ebbinghaus. Leitner introduced a way to make use of it by creating the flashcard method in the 1970s.

How it works

The original Leitner method involves creating hundreds of double-sided paper cards. Each card has to contain a question and an answer, or a word and its definition. You’ll also need five boxes to sort these cards into.

First, put all the cards into box #1. After examining them, pick the cards you feel you’ve already memorized and move them to the next box. The next day, examine the contents of both boxes, and repeat the process. If you’re struggling remembering something — the corresponding card moves to the previous box. Do this until each of your five boxes has something.

This sorting mechanism will help you set your priorities. Box #1 will contain the cards you have the most trouble remembering — those need to be studied daily. The contents of the second box will need to be looked at once in two days. The last box will only need your attention once every five days.

The sorting process has to repeat each time — if something is too easy, you move it a box forward. If something’s too hard, you increase the repetition frequency by moving it a box back. By following this daily routine, you’ll be able to memorize pretty much anything you want in a month and a bit.

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Usually, retaining knowledge requires additional exposure to the source material as soon as we start forgetting what we learned. However, in practice, this moment is next to impossible to trace. The Leitner’s flashcard method, by the virtue of its inherent repetition, ensures a higher memory retention months after you finish studying something. You don’t have to use paper cards if you don’t want to. There’s plenty of specialised software — both desktop and mobile — that imitates the Leitner workflow. You can review your flashcards on the go and even set automatic reminders to help you study.

Final words

Much like physical exercise cannot help you unless you do it regularly, your brain needs to repeatedly process a piece of information to properly retain it. Multiple encounters indicate the usefulness of the info to the brain. But the Leitner method is just an educational tool, no more, no less. It cannot magically fix anyone’s grades, and needs to be combined with other educational tools for a well-rounded educational experience.

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