The minimum information principle
When learning with flashcards, a rookie mistake is to put too much content into individual flashcards. This really hampers your learning efficiency, and the solution is to follow the minimum information principle.
The minimum information principle encourages you to break down knowledge into the smallest, most granular parts possible when creating flashcards (remember that memorisation should come after learning).
Applying this to learning Chinese means that your largest flashcards should not contain more than a single sentence, for example. Moving down from there, smaller cards could be individual words, characters or other small chunks of information (you can use flashcards to practice a lot of things besides vocabulary).
The main reason this is a far more effective approach to memorisation is that it keeps the information granular. This has two main advantages:
It’s easier for you to retain immediately in one attempt.
It allows the flashcard software to schedule cards in an optimal way.
What counts as granular information varies a lot by your current level of Chinese ability. If you’ve just started out, a whole sentence can be overwhelming, so it’s not granular. At that stage, individual words and characters make nice granular information, with a few sentences in the deck to stretch your ability. Later on, a granular diet of flashcards could consist mostly of sentences or other larger chunks as your improved ability lets you cope with them quickly.
Also remember that you can maintain different types of information and thus different skills with flashcards; it’s not just a vocabulary tool. Cards can prompt you to practice your pronunciation, listening, differentiation, reading speed, grammar and so on.
A good rule for deciding what’s granular is that you should be able to review your flashcards at a rate of at least 10 cards per minute. That means a card shouldn’t take longer than 6 seconds. 15 cards per minute is even better, but you’ll probably find that the more difficult cards slow you down a bit.
When a card prompts you to produce or recall something granular, your odds of being succesful on the next attempt are quite high. When you’ve got to produce or recall a large amount of Chinese for a single card, you’ve not only got a lower chance of success, but it’s also much harder to assess how well you did. All of this lowers the effectiveness of flashcards.
One of the reasons flashcards are effective is that they force you to actively rehearse and test your knowledge. They give you the chance to be wrong. This works much better when the prompt and check are small and discrete.
It’s important to emphasise that flashcards and memorisation can never be more than one part of an effective Chinese learning system. Memorisation alone does not lead to real knowledge or real skill; it’s just a tool to reinforce and maintain those in the long term.
Momentum and motivation
As well as the improvements to learning effectiveness, using the minimum information principle is also likely to increase your motivation to study. This is because:
It’s easier to persuade yourself to attempt a few quick cards than a series of long, complex ones.
Quick cards let you build up momentum as you study, which you’re less likely to break than if each card takes a long time.
As mentioned above, there is less mental effort involved in assessing your response to smaller cards.
So the minimum information principle not only makes your flashcards more effective, it also makes them more enjoyable. This contributes to a virtuous circle.
Better prompt and response
One of the most common misconceptions about using flashcards for language learning is that they’re about “questions” and “answers”, and that memorisation is about rote-learning fixed translations of things. That is not the case at all.
The goal with flashcards is to get regular rehearsal of the skills and knowledge needed for ability in Chinese. It’s this active use of what you’re learning that develops and maintains it in the long term.
In an ideal world, you could get all the active rehearsal you need naturally from real life situations. Realistically, though, that’s difficult to achieve for most people learning Chinese. Flashcards and “memorisation” offer a useful alternative (and you may be able to get entirely natural rehearsal later).
The minimum information principle aligns well with the idea of flashcards being a prompt-and-response model of learning. Concise prompts with quick responses are a better way of mimicking real-life learning situations than labourious internalisation of large chunks of the target language.
Don’t forget the synergy
As alluded to above, using flashcards for active practice is only one part of learning a language. Granular knowledge and skills that can be maintained using the minimum information principle are not the whole picture. Granular knowledge only works when you’ve got equally strong ability in the gaps. Having that glue between different pieces is what gives you a strong 语感, which is at least as important as the rest of your Chinese skills.