Academiology VII: Silvics

Published on 2024-03-30

Okay hear me out: there is only one correct way to study, and it goes something like this:

  1. Download Anki
  2. Learn how to use Anki
  3. Attend every lecture
  4. Use your judgement, and turn everything your professor says and writes that you deem worthy of study into a flash card
  5. Do all your prescribed Anki revisions every day without fail

If you follow these steps perfectly, you can expect to spend at most 30 minutes studying every day and to get in the range of an A+ on every test without fail. If you struggle to do step 5, every once in a while you'll find yourself with a considerable backlog and you'll need to to spend a lot more time to catch up

The reason this system works is threefold: it implements all of recall learning, interleaved learning and spaced repetition.

Recall learning is a method that's been empirically shown to be very effective for retaining information, and it's a lot like taking tests. Ironically, students tend be more familiar with material after they've been tested on it than before. This is a big part of why making practice exams is so important. Essentially, it's when you study by trying to remember a fact or a piece of information, rather than just reviewing the solution. Most people study by reading over their notes, but they'd have a lot more luck by hiding portions of their notes and trying to mentally fill in the gaps before checking (what Anki calls a "cloze deletion" card). Flash cards are essentially this.

Interleaved learning is also key: it's when you mix up what you're studying. Practising one of a particular problem puts you in the head space to solve that particular problem. But in life, and importantly, on tests, that's not how things work. The first question might draw from one topic, but the next may draw from a completely separate topic. If you practice in that space of needing to be able to draw from many different sources of knowledge at once, then you'll find yourself much more able to deal with complex and varied problems in life. By putting all of your cards in one Anki deck, and by atomizing the information as flash cards, you get interleaved learning for free.

The third is extremely important: spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is a systematic way to maximize your retention of information while minimizing the number of times you need to do review. The simple approach would be to imagine having three boxes: one for new cards, one for cards that need to be reviewed, and one for cards you're confident you know well. All your cards start out in the new box. Once you're reasonably comfortable with them, you move them to the review box, which you practice every other day, for example. Once you're sure you're really good with them, you move them to the third box, which maybe you only review every week, or maybe once a month. What these intervals look like in practice varies from person to person. Anki starts with some pretty good defaults and adjusts the interval on a per-card basis.

Taking this one step further, you can accelerate your learning by not attending lectures. Most of the time, professors only test you on the material explicitly written in the lecture slides. Or, perhaps the textbook. If you're a quick reader, you can often get away with skipping the long and tedious lectures by skimming the slides and drawing your cards from other high-density sources.

Last semester, I took this even further when I noticed that I could work a lot more efficiently from home. So, each day, I'd wake up, do my Anki revisions, review the newest slide decks to make new cards, and then I'd call it a day. Suddenly, I had a ton of time to do my own thing.

And perhaps most importantly, I found that I very quickly started to feel like a stranger in the campus community

Academiology I: Ritual

Ankiism--this pseudo-religious approach to studying, as I half-facetiously find myself calling it--is kind of like the transhumanism of doing university. It may be used to great effect, but at some point, humanity is lost. Maybe that's the point. Maybe that's desirable. But I must contend that there's something valuable about being human. I must contend there's something valuable about being a part of the university ecosystem. That's what this whole series is about, after all. It must matter to me, at least a little bit.

It's clear to me now, having been such a devout follower of Ankiism over the last year or two, that you need to find some kind of balance. There are ways to get the efficiency gains of Anki without accidentally alienating yourself from the university-ecosystem, I've discovered. I don't know how to qualify them, exactly. I think it's one of those things you've got to figure out for yourself.

Whenever I see someone cramming for a test by reading their notes over and over, I hold back on preaching my gospel to them, and remind myself of the same truism I often find myself throwing at professors that seem to design their courses in a way that penalizes people for studying their own way: nobody knows better how I learn than me. Everyone does what they do because they've found that it's what works best for them.

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