April 29, 2011

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Study group: Flashcards and the Leitner method

Flashcards are great for memorizing. They break topics down into learnable chunks, develop random-access knowledge, and turn learning into a game with visual progress. Flashcards also make it easier for people to learn together, testing each other on concepts.

We’ve been teaching the kids in the study group using flashcards for multiplication facts, fractions, and the Greek alphabet. We also teach them how to use cognitive theory to improve learning–well, perhaps not in those words. For example, when J- wants to help her friends learn the Greek alphabet (having handily mastered recognition herself), we encouraged her to cycle through letters in small sets (5 to 7 characters at a time) instead of running through all the letters in one go. It’s the same technique we used when they were learning the multiplication table.

J- also shared the mnemonics she used to remember many of the Greek letters. For example, she described λ as “Lambda, like Mary had a little lamb, going down a hill.” They’re quickly developing in-jokes, too, like the way V- calls α Pisces, they call Μ big mu, and ω makes the kids laugh.

W- and I have our own flashcards: Dutch, in preparation for our upcoming trip, and Latin, because we’re learning that too. Electronic flashcards offer convenience, of course, but paper flashcards are so much more fun.

In this week’s study group, we plan to teach the kids about the Leitner system for flashcard efficiency. I found out about the Leitner system by reading the comments in the Emacs flashcard.el mode years ago, when I was learning Japanese. The Leitner system optimizes learning by reducing the repetitions for cards you know well and increasing the repetitions for cards you answer incorrectly. It works like this:

Start with your flashcards in one group (group 1). Review the cards in a group. If you answer a card correctly, move it to one group higher. If you answer a card incorrectly, move it back to group 1. Repeat with each group of cards. When you answer a card in group 5 correctly, you can archive the card until you want to do a general review again. This weeds out the cards that you can correctly answer five times in a row and lets you focus on the cards that you can’t consistently answer.

I think the Leitner system is really cool. It’s an elegant algorithm with a physical implementation. Neat!

2011-04-24 Sun 14:16