Critique of a Method of Learning

July 8, 2006

Came across this site: http://goalsuccess.typepad.com/goaltips/2006/07/the_nofail_flas.html

…while reading my late-night news. I didn’t want to poison the well in his comment section and since I hadn’t made a new post in awhile, I thought I’d just write it out here. Anyways, if you read over the technique it seems pretty straight-forward and easy. But for me a lot of things pop out at me as just being misguided bad advice, poor explanation when an explanation is vital, and sometimes just incorrect information.

Or maybe I’m just bored.

Anywyas, the title hits me pretty hard in misinforming the reader. Flashcards isn’t a great technique in “learning” something. It’s excellent in memorizing bits of information and simplistic one question with a short and direct answer but it’s virtually useless in trying to learn other things. For instance, the suggestion is to have a short question followed by a direct answer on the other side of the card. Try that with: “What is Marxism?” and if you can answer that question in a short sentance then you probably deserve a noble prize.

But first I should point out two things. First, memorization and learning are different things. Flashcards are great for memorizing words but “learning” a word in the sense that you’ve understood it’s connotations, origin, and usage (which could mean it’s definition or when it’s “appropriate” or “necessary” to use it), takes time. It’s about taking a peice of information and understanding it to the point where you can use it in tandem with other things you have learned. This brings me to my next point.

I’ll illustrate it with a story, because I’m trying to teach here. Contrary to the common perception, alzheimers is not about “memory loss” specifically. It’s a problem where memories are harder to recollect. They still exist in the brain but our pathways of getting the information are both few and harder to find. For instance, if you ask an alzheimers patient: “Who is the President of the United States today?” They might not know. However, if you ask them “What is a small green shrub you might find in a park?” And they respond with “a bush” you might trigger the information necessary for the latter question and they might say: “Oh! Bush is the President of the United States.” The reason this happens is because our minds are made up of neuronal networks. There’s an interesting history of the neurological theories of learning and memory where it starts out with the idea that an individual neuron (a brain cell) holds it’s own individual peice of information. But that was later proven not to be the case. Nowadays we understand it that multiple neurons working together over pathways and synapses (vitally important to understand) create neural networks which hold not a datum of information but loads of information. And these networks work together to form thoughts and retain information.

So because our minds work with networks of information and not singular peices of information it is better to memorize something through connecting that peice of information with other peices of information and those other peices of information with other peices of information. These flashcards do little to connect information. Reading a question and looking at the answer without doing any other kind of thinking will only make that information temporarily retained and harder to get at. Like test card in the link above: “Who starred in Mission Impossible?” Think about the movie, think about the words, possibly visualize it, recognize your surroundings… flip the card over read the answer: “Tom Cruise”, think about him, think about him in the movie and so forth. Connect the information. The reason why is so that that little peice of information is included into your brain through networks and will stay there because you spent more effort on it.

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