While we can charitably say I’ve been a student for a long time, it has only been relatively recently that I’ve started paying attention to pedagogy and effective study strategies. Sure, while I was still an active student, I would be exposed to the usual litany of strategies for student success – read/review text multiple times, practice questions, low-level frequent studying is superior to cramming, etc. But of course, most of these would get dropped because of my poor time management and I would end up cramming and staying up the night before a paper was due to write in one marathon stretch. But those were my habits during undergrad and grad school and I haven’t been a student in almost five years. I know I lack some of the youthful fortitude to carry-on those habits while working a full-time job, part-time job and all of the other fun projects I have on the go.
So, rather than working hard, I’m trying to work smart. I’m trying to use sound pedagogical approaches to learning that helps me to effectively learn the material on my own and retain it for future application. Right now, I’m taking a preparatory biology distance education course at the College I work for. I took physics and chemistry through high school, but I did not think I would need the biology. If I hope to make a career change towards paramedicine, this is a gate-keeper that I must pass.
Because of the nature of the biology course, most of what I’m dealing with is rote memorization that emphasizes knowing how systems fit together rather than directly applying knowledge. This means that what I need to know to pass the test will focus more on being able to recite facts, definitions, explain processes and label diagrams. Understanding and recognizing this is beneficial to how I can structure my homework.
One strategy I’m using for this course is flashcards. There are two purposes to the flashcard:
- The act of creating the flashcard helps in retaining information. To make useful flashcards, you have to sufficiently understand the material to condense it down into a few meaningful points. Also, the physical act of writing the cards out helps you to retain the information (over and above just reading highlighted text from your book).
- Flashcard drills can reinforce knowledge depending on how you use them. You can use keywords to trigger a recall of definitions, or use Jeopardy-style recall of knowing a definition to trigger the recall of a technical term. You can chain cards linearly to help walk you through a multi-stage process (i.e. cellular division, or mitosis), or you can shuffle the cards and break your dependence on moving through memorized steps and sequences.
I found that the more time I spent in designing and creating flashcards, the better I memorized and understood processes. Take, for instance, protein synthesis. By copying a diagram from my textbook, I was able to learn:
- the difference between transcription and translation;
- the differences between mRNA, tRNA, and ribosomal RNA;
- the process of how RNA encodes directions from DNA in the nucleus; and
- how ribosomes outside of the nucleus create proteins.
All of that was memorized from one flashcard!
Everyone has different learning styles and unique ways of absorbing materials. One way that is highly effective to me is brute force drills. Once created, I use the flashcards to drill myself until the gaps start to fill in. I first learned that brute force was effective for me in preparation for a probability course almost ten years ago.
After performing poorly on some quizzes and tests, I took the textbook and every practice question I could get my hands on, sat down in a Tim Horton’s and solved every question (sometimes multiple times!). I kept solving them until I could instantly recognize which algorithm I needed based on the presented information and what I was asked to solve. Those lessons I learned from probability theory almost ten years ago have helped me in my self-directed learning today.
Flashcards are not the only tool you can use, but if you are looking to easily memorize concepts and schemas, they can be a highly effective strategy to help you out.
Have you ever used flashcards? What did you use them for? What strategies do you use to learn? I’d be happy to read your input in the comments!