Why Flashcards Beat Mnemonics for Learning


Suppose you need to memorize a variety of materials—vocabulary phrases in a brand new language, terminology for an anatomy class, authorized precedents, or dates of historic occasions. Which technique will result in higher efficiency: mnemonics or flashcards?

Within the small and unusual world of finding out methods, mnemonics strategies obtain a variety of consideration:

  • The key phrase technique means that you can memorize a phrase by linking it via an intermediate and fantastical image. The French phrase chavirer, which suggests to capsize, will get transliterated into “shave an ear,” and also you image a bearded ear shaving itself in a canoe that’s tipping over.
  • The peg technique first hyperlinks photos to numbers (one is “bun,” two is “shoe,” and so on..) after which combines these into elaborate visible imagery to encode and recall arbitrary numbers and dates.
  • The reminiscence palace makes use of a psychological stroll via a well-recognized location. You insert fantastical imagery alongside a pre-remembered linear sequence, permitting you to graft arbitrary info onto this prior construction.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, the author Joshua Foer explored his dive into elite reminiscence competitions, the place folks memorize the order of a deck of playing cards in underneath a minute, be taught the values of pi to hundreds of decimal locations, or develop good recall of unfamiliar texts, verbatim, in solely barely extra time than it takes to learn them.

Given these spectacular outcomes, beginning with mnemonics for any ability that relies upon closely on reminiscence would appear a no brainer.

In distinction, flashcards are, effectively, kinda boring. Everybody has finished them earlier than. They’re dry and elementary. You set a query on one aspect, the reply on the opposite and also you drill (and drill and drill) till you are able to do them with out considering. No fantastical imagery or secret technique. Simply repetition.

Flashcards are Underrated

Whereas mnemonics may look like the plain alternative for studying a ton of latest info, analysis rigorously evaluating the efficacy of assorted finding out methods paints a considerably totally different image.

Of their glorious evaluation of ten widespread finding out strategies, Dunlosky and colleagues summarized the analysis on each the key phrase mnemonic technique and follow testing (which incorporates flashcards). On this evaluation, follow testing obtained the very best doable score for usefulness, whereas the key phrase mnemonic obtained a low grade.

The key phrase technique does work—that’s, college students who use it have a tendency to recollect the phrases they have been memorizing higher than those that didn’t. Nevertheless it had a lot of limitations:

  • It takes time to be taught and train mnemonic strategies. Not like flashcards, mnemonics is itself a ability that requires appreciable follow to get good at. Whereas this may increasingly profit elite mnemonists, it will not be definitely worth the extra funding for many who merely wish to be taught Spanish, legislation or anatomy.
  • Mnemonics usually take a great deal of time, particularly for newcomers. It might take a couple of minutes to create an excellent hyperlink with the key phrase technique, through which time you might have finished a number of repetitions with flashcards. One research, which equalized the time-on-task between mnemonics and extra rote memorization, discovered that merely growing repetition offered a bonus over utilizing the mnemonic.
  • Mnemonics enormously help with recall over comparatively quick intervals, however their advantages may not endure. This makes mnemonics helpful in reminiscence competitions—occasions that require memorization of extremely arbitrary info with near-immediate recall. In distinction, a lot of what we’re attempting to memorize wants to remain in our heads for for much longer.

Flashcards, in distinction, are easy and fast. Whereas all reminiscence fades finally, the repetitive overlearning attributable to flashcards is likely one of the extra sturdy methods to create long-term studying.

Direct Retrieval is the Finish Purpose of Studying

Empirically, mnemonics are a little bit of a blended bag. Flashcards appear to have the benefit, not less than in rigorously managed research of longer-term recollection in college students who aren’t already skilled in mnemonic strategies.

Cognitive idea additionally lends help to this angle. A serious function of ability acquisition is that the strategies used to attain a outcome will not be fixed. For occasion, youngsters studying easy addition begin by counting each numbers on their fingers, then depend from the larger quantity and at last retrieve the reply immediately.

As experience develops, extra elaborate strategies are typically changed by direct retrieval of the reply. That is one purpose that experience might be comparatively easy—as an alternative of going via an elaborate course of to get to a solution, you simply bear in mind it.

Mnemonics, on this mild, might be seen a bit of bit just like the finger-counting. The vivid imagery acts as a bridge between two ideas that might in any other case be tough to affiliate. You possibly can shortly be taught the mnemonic and it enabling you to cross over from one concept to the opposite. Nonetheless, when you follow sufficient, the 2 concepts get immediately related—with no intervening imagery.

For conditions the place fluency is especially essential, corresponding to recalling vocabulary phrases whereas talking, the direct retrieval possibility is maybe essential for a majority of phrases with a purpose to not get slowed down whereas talking an excessive amount of. This implies that even when you initially be taught a phrase by way of mnemonics, direct retrieval will finally take over because it turns into the sooner possibility.

This implies that mnemonics are, at finest, a short lived measure. They might make studying an affiliation simpler, within the short-to-medium time period, for phrases that haven’t been sufficiently overlearned to type a direct affiliation.

Why Not Each?

After all, flashcards and mnemonics will not be mutually unique. You should use the key phrase mnemonic if you first encounter a flashcard after which research it repeatedly. On this manner, the short-term bridge provided by the mnemonic could also be helpful to studying.

That is the method I’ve used after I’ve needed to memorize a variety of materials. I begin with the key phrase mnemonic, when that’s comparatively straightforward to do, and observe with a variety of spaced retrieval follow to make the affiliation automated and sturdy.

Nonetheless, I believe it’s value analyzing the relative efficacy of the 2 strategies for a number of causes:

  • Many individuals get overly enthusiastic about mnemonics and use them as an alternative of flashcards. I believe that is usually ill-advised for the explanations I’ve articulated above.
  • Generally the fabric isn’t mnemonics-friendly. I discovered the key phrase mnemonic nice for studying vocabulary in European languages—however far much less useful for Asian languages. The “feels like” technique doesn’t simply discriminate between phrases in Chinese language (which all sound like one another rather more than they sound like phrases in English) so the primary leg within the bridge is weak. Nonetheless flashcards continued to work and have been my major device for studying Chinese language and Korean vocabulary.
  • For these not skilled in mnemonics, it’s value asking how a lot time ought to be invested in buying the abilities wanted. Whereas mnemonics have some legitimate use instances, they’re usually sluggish and cumbersome with out a number of follow, which means they’re finest reserved for conditions the place they’re seemingly for use throughout many memory-intensive topics.

In brief, in case you are proficient with mnemonics, by all means, use them to complement your flashcards. If you happen to’re not, or your topic makes utilizing them tough, otherwise you merely aren’t certain which one to prioritize, follow the flashcards.


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