"Every perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination."
-- Gerald Edelman, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge
3 Improving the mnemonic medium: making better cardsAvoid orphan cards:Improving the mnemonic medium: making better cardsHow can we develop transformative tools for thought？2020-10-18Journal
Most questions and answers should be atomic: Early in his own personal memory practice, one of us was learning the Unix command to create links in the filesystem. He entered the following question into his memory system: “How to create a soft link from linkname to filename”. Together with the corresponding answer “ln -s filename linkname”. This looks like a good question, but he routinely forgot the answer. To address this, he refactored the card into two more atomic cards. One card: “What’s the basic command and option to create a soft link?” (A: “ln -s”). Second card: “When creating a soft link, in what order do linkname and filename go?” (A: “filename linkname”). Breaking the card into more atomic pieces turned a question he routinely got wrong into two questions he routinely got right. It seemed that the more atomic questions brought more sharply into focus what he was forgetting, and so provided a better tool for improving memory. And what of the original card? Initially, he deleted it. But he eventually added the card back, with the same question and answer, since it served to integrate the understanding in the more atomic cards.
Make sure the early questions in a mnemonic essay are trivial: it helps many users realize they aren't paying enough attention as they read:Note added December 9, 2019: This claim appears to be based on an error in our data analysis, and is now retracted. We've left the text in for historic reasons, but we no longer believe the claim. This was a discovery made when we released the first Quantum Country essay. Anticipating that users would be struggling with a new interface, we deliberately made the first few questions in the essay utterly trivial – sort of a quantum equivalent to “2+2 = ?” – so they could focus on the interface. To our surprise, users performed poorly on these questions, worse than they did on the (much harder) later questions. Our current hypothesis to explain this is that when users failed to answer the first few questions correctly it served as a wakeup call. The questions were so transparently simple that they realized they hadn't really been paying attention as they read, and so were subsequently more careful.