Reading comprehension and memorization

After the first quizbowl tournament last year, I wrote this lovely tidbit about the ridiculously good player on our team.

As he spit out the names of foreign authors and places and works of art that I didn’t even know existed, much less could remember, I realized the hours of studying that must have went into building this massive wealth of knowledge and how focused he was on the activity.

The point wasn’t cramming facts into one’s head just for the sake of Quizbowling well, like some other players would do. There was an energy of learning things for the sake of learning, not for grades or for impressing people. Perhaps Quizbowl was the only place that was mentally stimulating and challenging enough, with only seconds to recall information and milliseconds to buzz in before the other team.

I then went off about how I sought an activity that I could pour my mental energy in and feel a strong sense of accomplishment. Quizbowl is one of the few extracurricular activities I’ve stayed with since freshmen year, and I want something to show for it, especially as the first tournament of the year is coming around again. 

With my random bursts of motivation, I’ve been using this flashcard app called Anki to study. 

“What? What’s Anki? Quizlet is obviously the best flashcard app out there!”

I used Anki for art vocabulary, but it was clearly overkill for something I only needed to remember for an hour. I went back to familiar ol’ Quizlet.  Generally, I use Quizlet to cram for a short period of time. However, for larger decks with varied content that I need to remember for a longer time, Anki has two major advantages:

1) Spaced repetition. Anki keeps track of how well you know each card to decide when to show it to you again. For instance, if you rate a card as “good,” Anki’ll wait 2 days until it shows the card again, and if you rate it “good” then, next time it’ll wait 5 days, then 10, then 3 weeks, etc., based on an algorithm developed by SuperMemo, another software for maximizing memory retention that’s more complicated than Anki. Multiply across a thousand card deck, and you’ll be reviewing fewer and fewer cards every day, until it gets down to about 15 cards a day, assuming that you review every day like I did second semester sophomore year, thanks to the convenient Android app that I used everyday while waiting to be picked up. However, due to my neglect, I now have hundreds of cards to review. 

2) More flashcard formats. Asides from the generic front back flashcard formats, Anki also allows for cloze deletions (think fill in the blank) and three sided flashcards (for Chinese learners, pinyin, hanzi, and english) , and you can even design your own format of flashcards. This article from SuperMemo (another software that promotes spaced repetition) explains how to format information so it’s easiest to remember. 

Anki has a relatively steep learning curve in terms of usability, but hands down, it’s the best flashcard app ever created.

However, reviewing a stack of virtual flashcards everyday isn’t the most glamorous thing ever, and sometimes I question the utility of all this memorization.

Anki isn’t something easily applied to the rest of my subjects, since not everything can be neatly categorized onto a flashcard. Asides from that, most AP classes prioritize “application” over content, which makes me feel like knowing all the cold hard facts is unnecessary. The fact that we have so many open-note quizzes in school doesn’t help either. Just copy down the right information and you can figure it out later.

This conflicts with the entire basis of quizbowl. The point is to have all the information IN YOUR HEAD so you can show off how much you know, not to see how fast your smartphone can look up facts. This article from the SuperMemo site answers the stigma against memorization pretty well. 

Myth: Hypertext can substitute for memory

An amazingly large proportion of the population holds memorization in contempt. Terms “rote memorization”, “recitatory rehearsal”, “mindless repetition” are used to label any form of memorization or repetition as unintelligent. Seeing the “big picture”, “reasoning” and leaving the job of remembering to external hypertext sources are supposed to be viable substitutes.

Fact: Knowledge stored in human memory is associative in nature. In other words, we are able to suddenly combine two known ideas to produce a new quality: an invention. Hypertext references are a poor substitute for associative memory. Two facts stored in human memory can instantly be put together and bring a new idea to life. The same facts stored on the Internet will remain useless until they are pieced together inside a creative mind. A mind rich in knowledge, can produce rich associations upon encountering new information. An empty mind is as useful as a toddler given the power of the Internet in search of a solution. Biological neural networks work in such a way that knowledge is retained in memory only if it is refreshed/reviewed. Learning and repetition are therefore still vital for the progress of mankind. This humorous text explains the importance of memory: It is not just memorizing

Memory and Learning: Myths and Facts, SuperMemo

When you “memorize” something, most of the time you actually learn it anyways. Rarely do you ever “blindly memomorize something,” maybe with the exception of vocabulary. I dislike it when people describe Quizbowl as remembering a bunch of random facts. Sure, you can somewhat get by in Quizbowl by mindlessly remembering facts (or in my case, by formatting Anki flashcards badly), but the best quizbowlers master a single subject and learn as much as they can

Also, one last quote:

I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they’d seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.

Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that’s one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it’s not our fault if we can’t do something as good.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as genius. But if you’re trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.

What You’ll Wish You’d Known.

If one gives you an excuse for being lazy…

Being anti-memorization is an excuse for being lazy

…then the other is probably right.

Suck it up and do the work. 

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