Memory Practices in Science Students Before Tests: Flash Cards

Posted on December 20, 2009 by


The title of this essay, inspired by this book on general Memory Practices in the Sciences.

I don’t think anyone has ever really been fond of tests. Board exams, spelling tests. What made me squeamish about entering the sciences was the barrage and culture of testing. From the stories of malicious professors administering tests to root out bullshitters to pulling out all-nighters, I knew I wanted to be done with test-taking.

Also in the back of my mind was the fact that if I went into the sciences, I’d have to “build” on my knowledge of math and biology from before.  I didn’t like the idea of building on my knowledge, because I didn’t think the knowledge was ever there.

So I opted out of a science major.

The first way I learned to pass tests was through rote memorization. When I was in 2nd grade, I remember some 7th grader telling my classmate that the best way to remember something was to repeat a sentence over and over. Whenever we did science, we were told to memorize the key bulleted points. Hell if I knew what any of the sentences meant; I memorized them and passed quite a few tests.

But, that wasn’t good enough when I got older.

In high school, I needed to know how to “manage” my time, I learned that repeating something 27 times over would guarantee the item would remain in memory. While it was nice to have a number that could sort of guarantee a modicum of success, I did not want to commit much time to learning a single item. It wouldn’t be fun nor did I feel it would ultimately be effective. A teacher in high school had instilled in me: surgeons or lawyers don’t take books with them to look up what to do when the pressure is on the line. I would need to know things in a more meaningful way.

From that point on in high school, I attempted to infuse more meaning into whatever I studied. In attempt to find the most effective mnemonic methods, I’d experimented with different ways to remember things in an extremely meaningful way before tests.

In my high school senior psychology class, I was attempting to make more extensive use of my visual memory. For one test, I drew pictures of different concepts and tried to tie them in together through association. It didn’t really work.  I only got a B on the test.

Nowadays, most of the time devoted to preparation for tests has been an unquantified, wild cluster of reading, note-taking.  My objective is always to try and relate concepts I’ve learned with things that I am already familiar with (Usually by making metaphors, which is another can of worms that I will open another day).

In my Real Estate classes, I wrote all over my books, infusing my own thoughts with whatever was said during lectures or written down in the books. When I’m done these prep books look like the graffiti walls at Venice Beach (or the LA River walls). Its a way to remember and recall the big ideas, the general concepts. Its an integrated way of learning and making the material more meaningful and gets me closer to explaining things.

While fun, exciting, meaningful, I’m not sure that my method of test-taking was THE most time-efficient way of memorizing everything or nailing down all the specifics.

So what is THE most time-efficient way of memorizing things?

Always in the back of my mind as an efficient mnemonic however, has been the use of flash cards. Seemed to be particularly popular with students of the sciences. My sister used them for O-chem. I remember a pharmacy student using them. A psychology student with a 4.0 straight-A student at UCLA had them for key terms.  Everyone who’s a serious student or at least an A-student used flash cards.  I steadfastly refused, mainly because I was interested in retaining EVERYTHING for the long-term.  I thought flash cards cheapened the information.

From a psychological viewpoint, the flash card is supposed to help you recognize something out of its context and foster quick reaction. It triggers a cue by activating a ‘familiar’ pattern of words, symbols, or numbers that you’re going to write down, mark down, circle, or say when the term or concept comes up.  And I can’t believe how this worked for so many people.

However, I’m curious as to how this test-prep technique of flash cards survives once these students transition into M.A. and Ph.D programs, academia, and the professional world.

I browse through tons of science papers and a lot are a very distending jumble of terminology and statistical graphs.  Sometimes it might as well be all in Mandarin.

It seems like scientists, particularly in chemistry and biology, have to identify and recognize tons of different little objects, nouns before they can actually describe what happens.

Those in medical school, grad school seem to have to memorize a lot of terminology, and nouns, and syntheses, and reactions.  I hear lots of cryptic tales of people studying for days on-in, not having social lives.  However, I never actually hear about how they study and how they remember all this detail.  I never hear about how they remember it and apply it in their careers.  So now, I’d really really like to hear it.