4 June 2020

Flashcards and Microlearning

I like learning in all its aspects. A large part of software work is hands-on, so I experiment a lot and work through old and new code katas alike. For theory I rely on classic books like Clean Code. Sometimes I struggle to internalise theoretical knowledge and take notes, create extracts, mind maps or sketch notes. For material I need to memorise I like (digital) flashcards.

Applications of Flashcards
I use flashcards for a lot of different things.
  • The common case is to study tiny facts like words or numbers. IDE shortcuts and spelling alphabets are in this category. These flashcards work very well for me.
  • Then I tried visualising keys, which did not work as well.
  • I also use them to remember key points from books, e.g. The Little Schemer or Gerald M. Weinberg's Secrets of Consulting. Key learnings from books, i.e. phrases or sentences, are more difficult to remember. I am still experimenting with these - maybe flashcards are not ideal here.
  • In the past I created decks of cards to accompany some of my training workshops, e.g. Design Patterns. While participants were enthusiastic about them, I am pretty sure they did not use them to deepen their newfound knowledge. People use different phones, so the availability of flashcard apps is also an issue.
  • Even when I fail to study the cards later, creating them is a learning experience on its own. I have to collect and structure the material, formulate the questions and find precise answers. For example I created cards around Coupling and Cohesion which helped me understand more of these two concepts.
Micro GardenMicrolearning
By researching flashcards, I came across Microlearning. This is kind of a buzz word - everything is micro today, e.g. Micro-Workouts. (You practice for five minutes a day and then the exercise gear folds under your bed ;-) Wikipedia says that Microlearning deals with relatively small learning units and short-term learning activities. [...] In a wide sense, Microlearning can be understood as a metaphor which refers to micro aspects of a variety of learning models, concepts and processes. It is a new concept and there is no clear definition. It contains a lot of things. Besides the obvious reading, listening or watching short pieces of information, Microlearning activities include flashcards, quizzes, answering multiple-choice questions, micro games and more.

I was surprised to learn that sorting and organising learning content like tagging it (e.g. Social Bookmarking) is considered Microlearning. I like sorting and connecting information, I even sort my code katas. The most fun activity listed on Wikipedia is composing a haiku or a short poem. I did compose a poem in the past but never considered it a tool for learning. I like the idea. Maybe I will write a poem about TDD or Micro Services in the future.

I do not consider a whole deck of flashcards Microlearning. A whole deck is so much more as it contains all the aspects and details about a certain topic. In addition, creating it takes several hours. I am seeing that because I create most of my decks myself. Probably I am putting too much information into them as well. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by my own questions. For example my Design Patterns deck contains more than 360 questions including class diagrams and all. On the other hand, learning a few cards now and then - especially from an unknown deck - is fine.

Listening and watching short audio or video recordings is Microlearning, too. I like to listen to podcasts, especially if each episode is focused and not too long. That means it is shorter than ten minutes. Short episodes are easy to consume between other activities, e.g. when commuting. It is easier to stay focused. (Yes, maybe I am getting old. I have less time and energy for prolonged learning.) That is the reason I plan for episodes of eight minutes in my own podcast on Coderetreat Facilitation. Short episodes are easier to produce, which allows me to publish more often.

Bonus Material
The German Wikipedia entry on Microlearning contains a paragraph on Microlearning in the context of software development. It lists Test Driven Development as an example. This is an interesting angle. When the test - an assumption - goes green, the implementation moved forward a micro step and the developer knows a tiny bit more about the system.

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