Reader Question: Avoiding “Flashcard Hell” and Finding Enjoyable Studying Strategies
Reader Garrett writes:
I recently received my acceptance letter for medical school. Your content, ideas, and email exchanges helped me so much on this journey. So, I wanted to share that with you and thank you. Ultralearning shaped much of my approach to studying during undergrad.
I want to spell out a problem I am thinking through and see what you think possible solutions might be:
I HATE flashcards. I am not against flashcards because I don’t believe they can be helpful for learning; I hate them because I find doing flashcards to be incredibly boring, tedious, and energy-draining. I don’t know how much you know about the way most medical students are studying these days (it seems like you can’t go on the internet and look up studying content without coming across med-tubers’ videos on the topic), but the majority of students are using premade decks through Anki. The most popular contains around 30,000 cards. After talking with medical students who are using the deck, they report completing 300-600 cards every single day, and this takes them around 1 to 1.5 hours.
Do you have any other ideas about how to deal with topics which are very term heavy without getting lost in flashcard hell?
I found Garrett’s question interesting for two reasons.
First, there’s the issue of flashcards specifically. In this regard, I find myself a lukewarm enthusiast for flashcards. Compared to most people’s default studying strategies, they’re excellent. On the other hand, flashcards are easy to abuse—it’s easy to inadvertently make flashcard decks that won’t transfer well to the subject you’re trying to master.
Second, there’s the broader issue of how to find studying strategies that work for you. I tend to prioritize based on effectiveness because I think the best way to enjoy something is to do it well. A strategy that doesn’t work is rarely fun. Yet, I sympathize with Garrett that sometimes the “optimal” approach can be miserable.
My Mixed Views on Flashcards
In my studies, I’ve had projects that made heavy use of flashcards and others where I didn’t use them at all. When learning Chinese, for instance, I peaked at around 18,000 flashcards. In contrast, I didn’t use them at all for Spanish. My most recent Macedonian project probably peaked at around 3000 flashcards.
I didn’t use flashcards during the MIT Challenge, and I only made about 20-30 paper flashcards for quantum mechanics to nail down some tricky trigonometric identities. I used them for studying medical neuroscience, but I haven’t used a single one for my recent research project.
Flashcards are easiest to apply when you need to memorize a lot of information that has a cue-response pattern. Thus they’re ideal for learning vocabulary, trivia and laws.
However, flashcards have several pitfalls if you’re not careful:
- They can lead to memorizing without understanding. I think this is more likely with premade decks, where you can grind out the correct answer through repetition without seeing why it is true.
- They can lead to memorizing a specific answer—instead of a general method. Flashcards are great for facts like “7 x 7 = 49.” But it’s much harder to teach an algorithm like the one you use for 1501 + 239 = 1740. It’s difficult to include the full range of possibilities in a static set of flashcards. As a result, you sample a few problems from a given type, which invariably leads to memorizing those answers instead of the general algorithm. I prefer practice problems here, especially if you can draw from a large library of cases instead of repeating the same cards.
- They can lead to memorizing stuff you probably don’t need to remember. This is equivalent to the student who highlights every sentence in her textbook. I’ve coached some students who seem to create a flashcard for every possible factoid without selecting which ones deserve memorization.
My view on flashcards is that they’re good supplementary practice. For tasks with a high memory burden, they may even be the bulk of your studying time. Yet, I think they should always be paired with realistic practice—whether that’s having actual conversations in a language, doing practice tests for your certification exams, or using the skill in real life.
What to Do About Effective (but Unenjoyable) Studying Strategies?
After discussing some of these points with Garrett, he conceded that (in his view) the quality of the premade medical flashcard decks was relatively high. Thus, the issue was less whether this strategy would work and more whether it was possible to avoid it.
Here, I think it’s useful to keep a few things in mind:
- Sometimes a strategy just takes some getting used to. For example, I strongly recommend doing practice tests to prepare for a standardized exam. However, anxiety usually runs high, and people tend to avoid using this strategy at the start. However, if you get in the habit of taking timed practice exams regularly, the anxiety diminishes. The once anxiety-provoking activity becomes routine, and you stop feeling so bad about it. Despite my ambivalence about flashcards, I had no problems using them for four hours a day while in China. Sometimes, you just gotta give it a shot.
- Understand what the strategy is trying to achieve. If you know the purpose of the strategy, you can replicate it with alternative means. In this case, flashcards are a particularly effective way to get (a) retrieval practice and (b) spaced practice. These are effective studying techniques, but there are other ways to do them. You can do practice problems, for instance, or give yourself recall prompts.
- Start with a focused approach. As mentioned before, some problems are easiest to solve with flashcards. Vocabulary is a pretty obvious one. But there are fuzzier cases. You can learn a medical diagram through flashcards, or you could print out a blank diagram and fill in the labels without any hints. If you dislike flashcards, I’d start by using them only in the most obvious cases and using alternative strategies where you can.
For a competitive learning situation like medical school, the utility of low-efficiency strategies is limited. Like it or not, Garrett will need to pass exams, so there’s a minimum studying-efficiency bar he’ll have to cross to make it.
But for many of us, we’re learning for purposes that aren’t quite so pressing. If you want to learn a language for fun and mainly enjoy watching foreign films, you might not bother with practicing speaking. Similarly, the most rigorous approach to learning to draw probably involves a slow build-up of basic technical skills in increasingly complicated projects. But maybe you just like drawing flowers or faces and want to start there for interest’s sake.
I tend not to talk about optimizing for enjoyment when learning as much as effectiveness. This isn’t because enjoyment is not important, but because I think it is something people can readily do on their own. Only you know what you like to do, so you are the only one who can modify your learning process to suit your own personality and preferences. Learning a lot depends on finding methods that work—and methods you can enjoy and stick with!