On Learning: Creating Meaningful Flash Cards

This is part one of a three-part series.

I still study for the CCIE R&S. I study for it in some form (and often multiple forms) every single day. My attitude, thought processes, and learning process has changed quite significantly in the last year and a half. My experience is growing, and timelines are starting to become more concrete. I’ve written about this before, but this past year really has been life-changing with regard to my study habits, “learning how to learn”, and discovering what works best for me to take in, manage, and retain information.

Just over a year ago, I wrote about using Anki. This software has been the catalyst for my learning transformation. I wrote a blog entry after having used Anki for only a short period of time. With this three-part series, I am now expanding on my experiences of using Anki since then, as well as knowledge management across different platforms.

Flash Card Creation:

I have learned a lot about the process of creating good, quality cards, as well as consuming them. For so many years, I took direct notes while reading books or watching videos. Despite taking the notes, they made little impact on my studies due to lack of quality in both the notes and the review process. Using Anki has helped me refine both activities, and I now formulate my notes directly as flash cards. I also realized that I am able to absorb information much better in the written form, as opposed to video. Following are some tips that help me to create more effective cards.

When creating flash cards that go beyond simple raw facts, take the time to succinctly explain the concepts and meanings or reasons behind the topic. It has been said that you don’t really understand something complicated until you can explain it in simplified language. If it’s not making sense to you while you’re trying to make the card (such as if you’re tired of studying for the moment), don’t try to create the card until you can fully grasp the concepts, otherwise you’ll just end up creating poor-quality cards. You can’t force meaningful learning, and you must break down what you don’t fully understand.

When creating cards, understand the tradeoffs of shorter versus longer. Shorter cards are easier to remember, but sometimes a card must be longer due to the amount of information to convey. Always try to limit cards to a single fact or idea. If a card must contain multiple pieces of information (for example, if everything goes together and there’s no real logical way of breaking it up) and you’re having trouble remembering everything after several reviews, try to figure out a way to create a visualization.

I kept forgetting the five requirements of using the EIGRP Add-Path feature with DMVPN until I created this visualization:

This image contains the exact same information that was present in my original text-only card, but by adding colors, shapes, and positions, I was able to have a mental visualization of the information to recall.

If you’re taking in something of unknown importance, create the card anyway and then suspend it from review. For example, in studying for a certification, you may or may not need to know all of the fields within a particular protocol header. Something like this can be relatively complicated as well as intensive to try and memorize, and it might be unnecessary. By having the suspended card in your collection, you can easily revisit the information or reinstate the card if you discover it really is necessary.

Mnemonics are also extremely useful. What are the thirteen fields in the IPv4 header? I can tell you that “Very Heavy Dudes Prefer Fat Fried Food To Pretty Healthy Salad Dish Options” is easier to remember than: Version, Header Length, DS Field, Packet Length, Fragment ID, Fragment Flag, Fragment Offset, TTL, Protocol, Header Checksum, Source IP Address, Destination IP Address, and Options. When I created this mnemonic, I purposely tried to come up with something silly so that it would be easier to remember.

After creating several cards (such as for a section or a chapter), go back and break up cards that convey multiple ideas (that can be easily broken up). For example, a card that asks “How and why…” can probably broken up into separate “how” and “why” cards, which will increase your retention. A card-creation habit I had to break myself out of was phrasing a card as “What is X and how do you configure it?”. I discovered better retention by creating separate cards for “What is X?” and “How do you configure X?”.

Likewise, create cards that allow you to learn the same thing in reverse when possible, known as two-way learning. For example, one card could ask “What is the IP Protocol number used by L2TPv3?”, and a second card could ask “What technology uses IP Protocol 115?”

Don’t worry about this too much at first when you’re creating the cards, as it may inhibit the initial creation. However, do take the time to go back and break them up. What I discovered for myself was that when cards contained multiple pieces of information, I would remember one part, but not the other, so the card became less valuable in helping me to retain the information. Two-way learning cards might be a little more difficult to realize, especially when examining many cards at once, and you may bump into diminishing returns if you attempt to create two-way cards for everything. Raw facts make the easiest two-way cards. However, for cards that explain a particular concept, creating a two-way card can demonstrate that you really understand the topic.

Assign tags to create meaningful groups to use later for custom review decks. Try to use somewhat broad categories, and avoid creating lots of super-detailed tags unless they are combined with tags that are more general. For example, use STP as a broad category, with RSTP,  MST, and STP Enhancements as subcategories. Don’t create tags that will represent only a few cards. Use tags that will create meaningful groups to study from, otherwise just use the search function in the browse window.  On a related note, in the card browser search box, you can exclude a term by prefixing it with a dash. For example -EIGRP or -tag:IS-IS excludes cards containing the word “EIGRP” or cards tagged with “IS-IS”.

When creating cards, try to keep in mind that you may be reviewing them again months or even years later. This incentivizes you to create good, quality cards. As mentioned, don’t create cards if you’re not understanding the material at the time. Be honest with yourself, and If you’re just not getting it, take a break and come back to it. For example, I’ve noticed if I’m feeling tired, I have trouble creating good meaningful cards, but if I come back to the same material the next day, it all begins to make sense and I can create better cards as a result.

Remember, you can’t force learning. It has to mean something to you. When attempting to create quality cards, try to be as accurate as possible with your understanding of a topic (aside from raw facts which are either correct or not), but remember you can always edit a card later if your understanding of the particular topic improves. I have found myself more than once reviewing a card created months ago, with an improved understanding that allows me to re-phrase the card to have more meaning or clarity.

Make your cards as useful as possible within the realm of diminishing returns. Don’t worry about making the cards and tags perfect. The goal is to retain the information from the individual cards, not to have them perfectly phrased or organized. If a topic seems too complex to explain simply, look for ways to break it up into smaller pieces. A concept may seem singular at first, but if you can break it down into even smaller components, you will have both better retention and a better understanding of the topic. Reviewing the individual components will make the assembled whole make more sense in your mind.

Part One: Creating Meaningful Flash Cards
Part Two: Flash Card Review
Part Three: Knowledge Management

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *