A Smart Way to Learn

Employment Matters column, i711.com

I always have trouble remembering three things: faces, names, and – I can’t remember what the third thing is.

– Fred Allen

Memory is a mysterious thing. You’ve probably had the experience where you can easily remember something that’s not important, like the score of a ballgame you saw 5 years ago. But you’ll forget things that are very important, like where you left your car keys, or the name of someone you’ve known for years. It’s maddening sometimes.

Why does this happen? Your mind must sort through a lot of information every day, and some things just aren’t worth remembering. For example, if you walk your dog around the block every day, you’ve probably seen every crack on the sidewalks – but you don’t need to remember the exact location of each one. It’s not that important. Your mind must forget, or you will drown in useless details. Sometimes the important stuff isn’t reinforced often enough for you to remember it well.

Scientists who study memory know there is a pattern to human memory and forgetting. One man from Poland – Piotr Wozniak – wanted to develop a way to predict the pattern of forgetting. This pattern is not exactly the same for everyone, of course. Some people have better memories than others. If it’s possible to know when you will forget something, then remind you just before you forget, you will remember. Piotr found a way to do it.

His solution is a computer program that works like smart flashcards. Ever used flashcards to learn something? Someone holds up a card with a question on it, and the answer is on the other side. You work together through a stack of cards, and try to remember the answer on each card. Do it again, and again, and again, and it helps you remember.

But remembering this way eats up a lot of time. Suppose you could score each card. Let’s say there’s one card you don’t need anymore because it’s easy – the answer comes to you immediately every time you see it. You score that card 5. Then there’s another card – you can never remember the answer. You score that card 0. And so it goes – you work through the cards and score each one on a scale of 0 to 5, according to how hard it is for you.

This is how smart flashcards work. You use a simple computer program that keeps track of how you score the cards. Stuff you’ve already memorized is shown less often. Stuff you can’t remember is shown to you repeatedly until you start scoring it higher. The higher you score a card, the less often you need to see it.

This speeds up your ability to remember. Smart flashcards know what you haven’t memorized yet, and they know what you already know, so they don’t waste your time showing it again.

Piotr’s program for creating smart flashcards is called SmartMemo, and it’s very popular among students learning foreign languages. SuperMemo has inspired an whole new category of similar programs called spaced repetition software. Some of them support the use of photos and video, so it’s possible to develop one for learning ASL.

Smart flashcards are very powerful – the real beauty of this kind of memorization aid is that you can customize it, make it work for you. It can remind you about anything you want to learn. It’s not the best tool for reminding you to pick up more milk and bread the next time you’re out shopping – write yourself a reminder for that – but the uses for students are obvious. I wish I’d had a tool like this when I was learning algebra. You can demolish exam anxiety with smart flashcards.

You want to memorize great jokes? Smart flashcards can make it happen. Do you want to remember certain birthdays and – pay attention, guys – anniversaries? Smart flashcards can make you smarter. Do you want to memorize the recipe for that incredible spaghetti sauce? Smart flashcards can make you look like a genius in the kitchen.

You’re in the driver’s seat – you decide what you want to learn, and smart flashcard programs will work with you until you’ve memorized what you need to know. It’s not a teacher – it can’t explain things you don’t understand – but with a little investment of time, it can help you remember what you do understand. That can make your work and everyday life a lot smoother.