Friday, May 28, 2010

Knowledge Formulation

I got a comment recently asking about how I formulate items. Currently I have 41,600 or so items (I add about 50 and delete maybe 1-3 a day due to bad formulation, the info is not valuable, duplicate item, etc.). I realized that constantly posting how many items I currently have is a waste of space and comes across as being overly conceited and arrogant. Not quite as annoying as the loud guy wearing a bluetooth ear piece (Especially when he wears it all day, even when not on the phone), but I don't want to do anything that reminds me of such a person.

Formulating knowledge is a skill that one constantly improves on. Every month or so I reread the "20 commandments" on formulating knowledge, a must-read for anybody serious about making long-term flashcards. There always seems to be some aspect of flashcard formulation that I can improve in. Efficient wording, learning sets of information, so much room for improvement.

The main thing that I try to keep in mind when formulating items is this: "Keep it as short and as context-independent as possible."

With the precision of a military sniper, hit only what is necessary to make you recall what you want, then leave. For example, let's say I read this article about Robert Oppenheimer. Let's take the last paragraph and make flashcards out of it:

After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He opposed developing an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. When President Truman finally approved it, Oppenheimer did not argue, but his initial reluctance and the political climate turned against him. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away. He had, in fact, had friends who were communists, mostly people involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties. This loss of security clearance ended Oppenheimer's influence on science policy. He held the academic post of director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, and in the last years of his life, he thought and wrote much about the problems of intellectual ethics and morality. He died of throat cancer in 1967.

"Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful."

Interest dictates how thoroughly the article is dissected and ultimately how many articles are made. You have to determine how valuable this knowledge is. Once you get the hang of placing a value on any knowledge that you encounter, using Supermemo is a whole lot easier.

Let's imagine that I want to know as much as possible about Robert Oppenheimer, so I read this article and thoroughly analyze it, and make flashcards of the interesting information.

Rather than repeat what the 20 Rules are, maybe it would be a good idea to read it, and then look at the examples below to see how the rules apply.

After WWII, Oppenheimer chaired what US Commission? The US Atomic Energy Commission.

How did Oppenheimer feel about the hydrogen bomb? He opposed the development of it.

What did the government accuse Oppenheimer of? Being a communist.

In what year was Oppenheimer accused of having communist sympathies? 1953.

Did Oppenheimer have communist friends? Yes. How were his friends involved with communism? They were involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties.

What caused Oppenheimer to lose his influence on science policy? The loss of security clearance.

What was the cause of Oppenheimer's death? Throat cancer.

In what year did Oppenheimer die? 1967.

Oppenheimer quote: "Science is not [...], but science is very beautiful." (Answer: Everything)

Oppenheimer quote: "Science is not everything, but science is v[...]." (Answer: ery beautiful)

In regards to his final years and writings, if I were really interested in learning about Oppenheimer's life, I would find more articles about those subjects, and incrementally read those instead of adding the seemingly vague information contained in this article (At least it seems kind of vague to me, not specific enough to merit their own flashcards).

Certain things require more context (Science, historical battles, events in religious texts, and so on), but experimentation eventually shows you how to word flashcards so that they adhere to the 20 rules of formulating knowledge. For example, "In [battle abc], [character x] was killed by [character y] for [reason z]." (Each [bracketed item] becomes a separate cloze deletion flashcard.) "In battle abc, character y killed character x by [method a]."

You are basically isolating what makes the knowledge significant and snipe at those pieces of important information. It might seem like you are making too many flashcards, but because the knowledge is easier to recall, recalling and maintaining such knowledge becomes quite easy. Also, by dissecting knowledge in this manner, by the time you are finished making the flashcards, you will understand and grasp the information much better than you did before.

Hopefully this answers your question/comment :)