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Revisiting Flashcards

Coffee and FlashcardsSomewhere buried deep under the layers of paper that fill my desk drawers I still have the flashcard sets I made for drilling Latin vocabulary in high school. Years later, the knowledge those words represent is hard to recall, and it’s mostly because I never studied well or consistently. Now that I’m trying once more to expand some of these memorized knowledge banks, I’ve found a few new solutions that go beyond index cards, and can even help with making forward progress.

A mobile device that’s already flash card sized can be a great solution for drilling. Apps like gFlash do a great job of turning a Google docs spreadsheet into a study aid on the go. This type of app can also be used for some recurrent challenges, like learning student names. There’s also a number of sites that crowdsource knowledge sets, like the popular Quizlet, which has both mobile and web-based applications and user-generated flash cards for a wide range of topics.

Of the flashcard “upgrades” I’ve tried so far, I’ve been excited by the possibilities of Memrise:

Memrise, like Quizlet, allows users to generate content. It encourages the inclusion of different ways to think about a word and pronunciation guides. It also keeps track of what you’ve studied, how you’ve performed, and what you should do to keep that knowledge from slipping away.

While the garden metaphor (plant the seed, pot the plants, grow them in the garden and watch out for wilting) might seem at first like unnecessary gamification, I’ve found them to be very useful—particularly because the system uses an understanding of memory processes to ground each stage. The best part of this tool is its ability to prioritize for you the words or concepts you need to refresh. The system also sends reminders to encourage users to keep the process going, with alerts that warn that newly planted words will “die” if they aren’t harvested within a certain timeframe. These messages can be really helpful with sticking to goals, especially during busy times of the semester.

Within this framework, the most exciting possibilities await in user-created content. The site was clearly intended for the learning of languages, and it has several impressive wordlists for Mandarin Chinese, Latin, French and many others. But users have added and are working on many other types of content, including Lojban and HTML.

There are plenty of opportunities here to go beyond the original intentions of flash cards. A new programming language, an unfamiliar set of jargon, important concepts, historical knowledge–the same mechanisms might be applied to anything worth committing to memory.

What tools or techniques do you use for memorizing new languages, vocabulary or concepts? Share your tips in the comments.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user whitneyinchicago]

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