Hirsh Agarwal • March 28th, 2022
5 Spaced Repetition Tips from a Medical Student and a Hebrew Student
After years of studying and now running Studius for a year, these are a few of the lessons that we’ve learned about what works best. It’s easy to make a bunch of flashcards when you’re in school — but it’s not so easy to make ones that actually help you learn effectively. We’ve compiled these tips both from our own personal experiences, and also over 100,000 flashcards worth of data from Studius.
A little every day goes a long way
This one might seem obvious — but we had to include it first as it’s important. The whole point of spaced repetition is that the algorithm will optimize when you’re supposed to study each card. Although it will help by prioritizing the order no matter what, studying regularly is the best way to ensure you’re letting the algorithm show you cards at the optimal time. Doing some cards every day really shows off the magic of spaced repetition, and you’ll find yourself surprised by how quickly you learn.
Keep prompts consistent and prioritized
This one is particularly important if your cards are a little more complex. For example in many decks for medical school I’ll be quizzing myself on medications. Let’s look at an example about two heart medications for clarity.
Prompt: “Which class of anti-arrhythmic is Lidocaine?”
Prompt: “Amiodarone is what class of anti-arrythmic?”
Both of these might seem quite similar, and equally reasonable choices for writing the question. However, I would strongly advocate for the format in the second question, and most importantly I would make sure that these formats are not mixed. Over time I’ve observed that when studying using spaced repetition my brain will pick up on the wrong cues if I let it. So with these two cards I might realize that when I see Amiodarone the answer is class III and if I see the “other” anti-arrythmic card, the answer is class IB. In this case it’s just easier to remember a binary system — Amiodarone and “not Amiodarone”, rather than trying to actually remember two drug names. Our brains will do this type of “lazy learning” naturally, and sometimes it’s really helpful for learning heuristics to guide our decision making without exerting too much mental effort; unfortunately studying is the time for mental effort!
Aside from not mixing these formats, I think the second one is much better as it actually leverages the “lazy learning” strategy. Eventually your brain will just read Amiodarone and immediately know the answer without reading the whole question and thinking about it — and chances are it’s fine, because you’ve associate the important information! So to be clear I’d recommend having your questions look like the following in this case:
Prompt: “Lidocaine is what class of anti-arrythmic?”
Prompt: “Amiodarone is what class of anti-arrythmic?”
Make sure it’s easy to tell if your answer is right or wrong
When you’re studying you want to be focusing on the content that you’re trying to learn, not wasting cognitive effort deciding if the way you answered was “correct enough” to mark it as correct. So the tip here is to make sure that when you’re writing your cards you know how you’re expecting yourself to answer correctly. If you need to answer exactly consider using an “input” type card (this works great for languages!). If you need to recall a list consider putting together bullet points with exactly what you’re expecting to be able to recall. For more conceptual things put a simple flow or explanation at the top that you’re supposed to remember and maybe more detail underneath that’s helpful for context. Here’s another example!
Prompt: “Physiologic S2 cause?”
Answer: “Difference between pulmonic and aortic valve closure due to inspiration.
(Inspiration → ↓ intrathoracic pressure → ↑ venous return → ↑ RV filling → ↑ RV ejection time → delayed closure of pulmonary valve)”\
You can see in this answer the first line is what I want as an answer, and as long as I say that it’s correct. A slightly more detailed explanation to jog my memory as to “why” this happens is below. It might be good to help me remember, but it’s not the critical piece of information.
Cards are free
There’s often a temptation to try to fit a couple related questions onto a single card to try to avoid making a second one. In some cases this can be fine, but in general we’d recommend separating your questions onto two cards. It can feel a little unnatural, and in a way wasteful to duplicate information onto another card for a slightly different question. However, it will make it easier for you to learn and for the algorithm to optimize. If you keep multiple questions on a single card you run the risk of making it difficult for yourself to determine each answer and “correct” or “incorrect”. Having to think about this will increase your cognitive burden and distract you from learning the actual content.
Take advantage of different formats
It’s important to figure out what type of card is best for the content that you’re learning. In generally this is pretty straightforward, however knowing about all the options can make it easier to choose the right one. In Studius.ai there are 4 different card types (as of writing), each can be used for a slightly different purpose. The first two are “input” types, where you will be shown the prompt and you have to type the answer (it will automatically be assigned correct or incorrect). If possible this is probably the best choice, especially if you can condense your answers to a single word. This is a great choice as it requires you to spell the word, doesn’t let you mentally accept an answer as “close enough”, and removes the cognitive burden of determining its correctness. Probably the most common card type is “reveal”, which is akin to a physical flashcard paradigm. These cards are good when you’re not able to condense your answer into a less than a few words. There are some risks with reveal cards. The biggest drawback is that you have to determine the correctness of your answer, which is a little bit of a waste of energy. These are a great choice for slightly more conceptual based information. One of the unique cards is “image occlusion”. As the name suggests, this is designed for learning content from images.
Image occlusion is an easy way to quickly learn a bunch of information from a labelled image. I use it a lot for anatomy as it’s easy to find labelled diagrams online. Once you have a labelled image you just place boxes to obscure the labels and it will generate a bunch of cards to quiz you on each!
Writing good flashcards is as much an art as a science. Although there’s no formula to create the best cards we hope that these tips can help make your studying a little bit more effective! If you’re interested in seeing an example deck you can check out my neurology cards here.