2 years of intensive learning : my experience with flashcards and the method of loci
2 years of intensive learning : my experience with flashcards and the method of loci
I have recently finished 2 years studying in the french system of ‘classes préparatoires’ (or ‘prépas’). I was in the BCPST section (biology, chemistry, physics and earth sciences (there’s also math and other subjects)).
I’d like to share my experience with different ways of learning : the method of loci and an adapted flashcards system.
Compared to university and foreign school systems, this french system is somehow peculiar and quite demanding :
- I had ~ 60 hours work weeks (including attending to courses and exams) but motivation was clearly not my thing. Many would have ~ 80 hours work weeks or more.
- exams are frequent and do not simply assess learning. There are 2 oral exams and 1 written exam a week.
- in particular, during the oral exam of biology (once every 2 weeks), you are given a subject. 20 minutes later, you must present it during 5 minutes in an organized way, with the help of the board you’ve illustrated during your preparation. The subject almost always requires to synthetize information, as it has never been explicitly studied in the course. Many subjects even require to synthetize information between several chapters (examples : ‘Nitrogen and metabolism’, ‘The CO2’, ‘Intercellular communications’…) Then after you’re done, the jury asks you questions about the topic.
So you need to know your course perfectly and be able to answer any question related to it, but it isn’t enough. You must have deeply understood what you have learned, and you must be able to make fast connections. (Then you must be able to speak fast, but that’s another concern.)
- though these exams are a cause of stress, they don’t matter. Your only relevant grades are those you get at the end of your second year, during a ~ 2 months period (the competitive examinations) consisting of many written exams then many oral exams.
Short overview :
During the first few months I tried the method of loci. I was very enthusiastic and wasn’t new at it anymore (I could memorize a deck of 52 cards in roughly 1 minute). But I failed at it. Then I tried an adapted flashcards system : on a sheet of paper I wrote questions about the course. The answers were in the course. I always reviewed the questions in order (I couldn’t do otherwise and it had some advantages). This method worked almost flawlessly and I kept it until the end (and I will keep it, reformulating my questions so as to keep only the most important things and perhaps this time putting them on Anki).
I know this contradicts the experience of other users (see possible explanations below).
Conclusion of this short overview : I would recommend this adapted flashcards system over the method of loci to anyone going into a prépa. It would be less legitimate to say so for other education systems as well, but I certainly would like to.
I would still recommend the method of loci to anyone asking how to memorize a long list of easy items (such as the countries of the world, the periodic table of elements, the decimals of pi…) especially if the order is to be memorized and the recall is to be perfect (no omission) without any clue.
However, I have found while learning these subjects that :
- learning science is rarely about learning long lists
- concepts aren’t easy
- the order very often doesn’t matter
- retrieval is almost always triggered by a clue (a question, a subject, an association of ideas)
Yet none of this means that the method of loci cannot be used with science. The main problem of this method is in my opinion that it takes too long compared to flashcards.
During these 2 years I wrote ~ 8100 questions (~ 5500 for biology and geology alone). This corresponds to 140 questions a week (holidays included and competitive exams excluded, I worked 58 weeks). Every week I would spend ~ 35 of my 60 work hours attending courses or having exams, and ~ 25 hours working by myself. Exercises and reviews left me ~ 8 hours to write questions. We arrive at 18 questions/hour or roughly 1 question every 3 minutes. This sounds little but (i) this was done while reviewing courses for the first time : some time was necessary to read and understand the content ; (ii) this pace had to be kept during 2 years ; (iii) had I sticked to the minimum information principle, I would have made a lot more questions (but how many times more, this is difficult to tell).
Now suppose that with the method of loci I would have needed as many loci as questions I wrote (this is arguable, but some questions would have needed several loci while others could be clustered into one locus. I don’t know what other estimation I could propose). I would have needed to create 20 loci a day. This sounds reasonable, but :
- I would have needed to do this every day during 58 weeks i.e. 14 months, arriving at 8100 loci at the end ;
- remember I only had 8 hours a week, i.e. 1 hour 10 minutes a day, to do this. And during 1 hour 10 minutes a day, I would have needed not only to create the necessary loci but also to read the courses and finish to understand them, and to implement the knowledge into the loci, which can take a lot of time. I deem this was impossible.
Though I truly spent ~ 1 hour 10 minutes a day writing my questions, I also walked in the town about 40 minutes every day, during a few months. I could have used this time to create loci and then have 1 hour 10 minutes to do the remaining tasks, but :
- creating one locus every 2 minutes is possible but not, I think, in the long run. And the energy invested there (instead of refreshing my mind) would have been taken from elsewhere : I’m certain I would have been less efficient in some other area.
- 1 hour 10 minutes would still have been too little : writing questions is in my opinion much faster than creating images within a memory journey.
Even so the method of loci would have been impossible in the long run, at least for me.
Conclusion : the method of loci is too slow for learning science with a very limited amount of time.
I didn’t do this calculus at the time. Now that I make it, it confirms my personal experience.
Now some personal feelings about the two methods :
- when you review with questions, you know you’ve covered everything once you’re done. When you review with a memory journey, you may have forgotten things if complex images were formed. Or you could write down the images you’ve created but that would really take a lot of time.
- as I reviewed my questions, I understood the chapters deeper and deeper and I made connections between distinct chapters or even distinct subjects. I don’t know if that would have been the case with memory journeys.
- I believe that the oral exam of biology described above would be much harder with a memory journey. When you’ve reviewed with questions, I think you can go through a chapter in your mind faster than with a memory journey, mainly because there is nothing to decode, as long as you’ve learned how the chapter is organized (by learning the titles of sections in order. Even with this, which seems better suited for a memory journey, I gave up because of the energy/time needed to create loci and images).
- I sometimes had small lists to remember (~ 5 to 8 items) but I preferred mnemonic phrases I made up rather than loci, for the same reason of energy expense)
- questions were not all about facts. Some were ‘prove that...’ (in math/physics) or ‘What are 2 consequences of this ?’ (I could sometimes answer by thinking if I had forgotten the facts, often it was a combination of thinking and recalling) (and this shows one of the advantages of keeping questions in order).
- you can easily erase questions that aren't actually relevant, reformulate them or add new ones. These actions are harder with a memory journey.
What about your learning experiences ?
Has anyone compared these two methods with similar learning conditions and similar expected results (i.e. something akin to the oral exam of biology) ? Or even tried one of these two methods ? Or another method ?
What do you think of my calculus and its conclusions ?
What is your fastest pace of creating loci (i) during, say, 1 hour ; (ii) during several months ?
What is your fastest pace of creating images within loci ? (complex images, related to a subject you’re currently learning)
I'm waiting for your reactions.