2 years of intensive learning : my experience with flashcards and the method of loci

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#1 4 August, 2017 - 09:46
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2 years of intensive learning : my experience with flashcards and the method of loci


Hello everyone,

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.

Long version

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.

A few interesting websites many of you must already know :
20 rules of formulating knowledge
Strengthening the Student Toolbox

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.

4 August, 2017 - 11:12
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Although I don't have a lot of experience with using memory techniques for practical work, I have been personally thinking that the MoL is not ideal for non-ordered information such as vocabulary words. Thanks for the long and insightful post.

9 August, 2017 - 12:23
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Bump. I think this is an important post with findings that should be discussed. Does anyone else have any MoL real life application experiences that agree with this post or otherwise?

28 August, 2017 - 17:01
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Thanks for this important rundown of your experience.

My first suggestion is simple:

Not all Memory Palaces are created equal. No one should expect them to be. People use the term "method of loci," but because the approach is used so differently, it borders on meaninglessness.

We also need to combat what I think we should call "The Tyranny of Lists."

Used well, the Memory Palace and related forms of "location-based mnemonics" might capitalize on linear structures in space, but it really has nothing to do with memorizing lists. It's about creating mental rhizomes, or "rhizomatic" knowledge by harnessing the power of internal repetition.

In other words, the core difference between flash cards/SRS and a location-based mnemonic has less to do with the "material" (words on paper/screen vs. words encoded in chemical memory assisted by location-based mnemonics) and more to do with how you use these materials.

On top of this, there's the "Either/Or Tyranny."

You don't have to have just one or the other. You can fuse index cards with location-based mnemonics in ways that explode the return on investment if you're finding that one is not serving as well as you'd like.

In sum, people impose limitation on these techniques by playing games of comparison.

Let's move beyond The Either/or Tryanny and start seeing location-based mnemonics for what they really are and then use them to amplify other strategies instead of pitting them against each other.

The tools work relative to each person showing up in the laboratory of one's one mind, using them, making observations, then optimizing. This is the perfect science and there is no end to it. I applaud the OP, but kindly suggest that your Memory Palace practice could probably use some further study and finesse. You shouldn't feel that it's taking too long and it should be clear that you have multiple options for using it in ways that will amplify your results even further.

In all cases, follow your bliss and better memory is bound to follow!

3 October, 2017 - 22:58
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Yes..
But can you explain why linking shouldn't be used instead of loci?

5 October, 2017 - 19:56
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What did you use to learn English? Because it is spectacular.

6 October, 2017 - 09:48
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You lost me at " though these exams are a cause of stress, they don’t matter." Why would you subject yourself to that much stress and preparation if they don't matter?

I'm glad I didn't go to school in France!

14 October, 2017 - 14:52
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Joined: 1 year 4 months ago

great read

15 October, 2017 - 01:39
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While I agree that using mnemonics to memorize that much information in such a short period of time takes longer and is more cumbersome than a flashcard system, it does not mean that you are learning better in that way. Do not forget, one of the primary reasons for using mnemonics is not only for memory, but also for creativity and metaphorical thinking. The energy you put into thinking up similar sounding words that you can then translate into a memorable mnemonic image and then storing that image in pre-determined places in your imagination is significantly better for your own innovative intellect, than merely the drill-and-kill method for tests.

The type of education you went through sounds less like real education, and more like a method of turning the student into a prisoner of the system.

I like to mix study methods. Sometimes I prefer to just passively read or watch videos on the subject I want to learn, and other times I actively work hard to memorize it.

17 October, 2017 - 12:23
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Thank you all for your replies.

Not all Memory Palaces are created equal. No one should expect them to be. People use the term "method of loci," but because the approach is used so differently, it borders on meaninglessness.

I should indeed have been more precise : when I spoke about the method of loci, I meant any method consisting of placing images (representing knowledge) into previously defined and ordered loci. This includes the most basic method with linear memory journeys, as well as Gavino's massive memory palace for example.

Used well, the Memory Palace and related forms of "location-based mnemonics" might capitalize on linear structures in space, but it really has nothing to do with memorizing lists. It's about creating mental rhizomes, or "rhizomatic" knowledge by harnessing the power of internal repetition.

I never tried this approach. The idea of creating mental rhizomes − as I understand it, something like a mental wiki, defining the loci on the go while memorizing − seems great in principle but I don't recall having heard of anyone using this method. Did you ? In my opinion, this approach must be extremely difficult to apply. And I don't know how reviews would be done.

On top of this, there's the "Either/Or Tyranny."
You don't have to have just one or the other. You can fuse index cards with location-based mnemonics in ways that explode the return on investment if you're finding that one is not serving as well as you'd like.
In sum, people impose limitation on these techniques by playing games of comparison.

I agree with you. I don't currently have anything memorized within a memory journey, but if I did, I would review it with spaced repetition (and obviously active recall as no one reviews memory journeys passively). You're right, I only compared two extremes : 100 % method of loci vs 100 % method of questions. It would indeed have been better if I had tested every possible combination of the two methods, but I didn't have much time to do this. However, I tried to inject a bit of method of loci into my questions-based workflow (e.g. by learning tables of contents within memory journeys) but it didn't work for me. For this reason, I don't think I could have done better with loci given these circumstances. Which leads us to...

I applaud the OP, but kindly suggest that your Memory Palace practice could probably use some further study and finesse.

I totally agree with you on that. I'm definitely not a memory palace master. Had I practiced the method of loci during years instead of months before beginning the prépa, and in various ways instead of obsessively focusing on playing cards, my experience could have been quite different. The fact is that I didn't have the opportunity to get better at a technique that didn't give instant results. So I had to abandon it quickly.
A better conclusion could be this : "if you're not already very good at the method of loci, don't try it in prépa. If you are, no advice. Keep in mind that this is only an attempt at generalizing a personal experience. Perhaps I was just really bad at memory journeys. But keep my calculus in mind, too."

Let's move beyond The Either/or Tryanny and start seeing location-based mnemonics for what they really are and then use them to amplify other strategies instead of pitting them against each other.

I'm interested, since I know my use of the method of loci was far from perfect. How should location-based mnemonics be used in such cases, in your opinion ? Can you please describe what the best strategy to learn science would be, or provide links ?

Yes..
But can you explain why linking shouldn't be used instead of loci?

I didn't say that so I don't feel I have to. I didn't try linking so I cannot tell. Linking could indeed in principle avoid the creation of loci. But I wouldn't recommend using linking alone (see elsewhere for information on linking compared with the method of loci). I think linking could be better used along with the method of loci, so as to use fewer loci. Thanks for the suggestion. But I believe this wouldn't be enough to solve the problem.

What did you use to learn English? Because it is spectacular.

Aged 15, after 6 years of slow progress in school, I spent a summer holiday learning english vocabulary 1 or 2 hours a day (in a non-optimal way, since I hadn't heard about SRS or memory palaces at the time). Then I read books in english, without a dictionary (somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 pages), and I began searching and reading the Internet exclusively in english. I also practiced writing thanks to school.

You lost me at " though these exams are a cause of stress, they don’t matter." Why would you subject yourself to that much stress and preparation if they don't matter?
I'm glad I didn't go to school in France!

I'm glad I did − but we may both be subject to choice-supportive bias even though we didn't choose our native country. By "they don't matter" I meant "the marks you get there do not directly affect the grande école you're going to get after the competitive examinations." But the stress − which heavily depends on the person − shows that these exams somehow matter : you want to avoid failure especially in front of your teacher ; if you perform badly, your teacher is probably going to let you know he/she isn't happy with your performance because he/she wants you to work hard ; failing at an oral presentation or an oral exam, even if your mark doesn't matter, is far less pleasant than failing at a written exam. These exams also matter because they make you become dramatically more at ease and convincing when you speak in front of an audience, and because since you're alone with your teacher, or with 1 or 2 other students, you can make really fast progress if you arrived prepared enough. And also because without them, a vast majority of students would work far less and far less regularly.
So the stress is − for stressed people − a side effect of the above advantages. As for preparation, it is (unfortunately, Marshall Rosenberg would say) for many a direct consequence of stress, but I consider that these exams help you to work hard, if you know that's what you want to do. If that's not what you want to do, they force you to work hard. But it's a chance nevertheless, because I believe it makes you more efficient in almost everything you will do later in your life − not mentioning the fact that you've learnt a lot about science so you've improved your critical thinking and widened your knowledge.

The energy you put into thinking up similar sounding words that you can then translate into a memorable mnemonic image and then storing that image in pre-determined places in your imagination is significantly better for your own innovative intellect, than merely the drill-and-kill method for tests.

If you're memorizing, say, digits, I definitely agree with you. But if you're learning science, the answer may be trickier. Since the method of loci is − in my opinion − less efficient than the method of questions, using it means that you become better at creating images, visualizing in space and making a certain kind of associations, but at the same time you're not as good in science as you could have been. Also remember one of the advantages of the method of questions is that you can partly learn by logic. And as you get better, you find yourself using logic more and more to remember things you would have rote learnt before. So you get better at making associations, too, and I would say that getting better at this kind of associations is more useful − if you want to do science or use science in your life.
Again, you can use both methods ; and if you find that the method of loci is not worth the time invested for learning science, you can still use it to learn cards, digits or − even better − random words, so as to get the above advantages ! Keeping in mind that your time is limited so you probably want to spend it carefully.
Last point : any method that hasn't been explored to a great extent may be worth your time. This includes the method of loci, but also − unfortunately − active recall and spaced repetition.

The type of education you went through sounds less like real education

This calls for a definition. I found this one on Wikipedia : "Education is the process of facilitating learning, or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and habits." I firmly believe I went through education.

and more like a method of turning the student into a prisoner of the system.

It's true : you kind of become a prisoner of the system. But it's for your own good. Think about all the times in your life when you would prefer or would have preferred to be forced the right way, instead of being able to choose.
And it has to be remembered that, although you are a prisoner of the system during 2 years, you have chosen this path before, knowing quite well what it would be like.
It's easier to take a decision (I'm going to work hard during 2 years) once, than every day without sufficient incentives.
It's a resolution followed by powerful means of application.
I'm not saying that the system is perfect or that it suits everyone, though. But I think it's a fairly good way of transforming your learning efficiency if that's what you want.

Now if I may reiterate my questions :

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 still waiting for your reactions.

(By the way I think that this forum as a whole is a goldmine of knowledge, and I really wish someone could make a literature review out of it...)

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