The sixteenth rule in the 20 Rules for Formulating Knowledge is “Context cues simplify wording”. Dr Wozniak explains that you should feel free to include personalised context hints in your flashcards to simplify them. A key point to take away is that your flashcards are for you and should be as personalised as possible, so having your own individual notes and context prompts is a good thing.

The issue of context when learning with flashcards goes further than that, though. Let’s take a look at some issues relating to context in your Chinese flashcards.s

Including context in flashcards

When making and maintaining your flashcards, you shouldn’t hesitate to include personal, idiosyncratic content in them that will aid the learning process. For language learners like you and me, there’s a temptation to try and make flashcards pure and consistent. Doing that will probably not be helpful, whereas including context cues will be. Your cards are there to help you individually, not to be a generalised learning system anyone can pick up.

Context cues could be quick clarifications of the category on a vocabulary card, like “(chengyu) an insignificant amount”. That’s the simplest form (and you probably do it already), but you can take it further by using a more personal cue. For example, if your friend Mingchao happened to use that particular chengyu in a memorable way in the library, your card could include “Mingchao library”. It doesn’t matter that this cue won’t make sense to anyone else. You have a vivid association with it and that will help you to learn more effectively.

If the context cue can be in Chinese then all the better, but remember that it’s there primarily to improve your learning process.

Other context builders

As mentioned elsewhere, it’s also good to use other types of media and content as context cues or prompts in your flashcards. Google Images and Baidu Images make it easy to get pictures to go in your flashcards, and doing so is highly beneficial. You don’t need to do it for every single card as that would slow you down, but adding images to problematic cards can eliminate the issue quite quickly.

Because you’re using the image as a personal context cue, it doesn’t need to be something that everyone else would see as representing that word or phrase. If it makes it more vivid and memorable for you, then anything goes.

If you have access to audio snippets for what you’re learning, that can be great to have on your flashcards too, as a context builder or as a prompt.

In the same vein, any mnemonics you’re using should definitely go on the flashcard. Images can also be there as mnemonics as opposed to being a picture of the content in question. The goal is to make the learning process so streamlined that you can power through in a fraction of the time it would take to memorise the content by brute force.

You’ve probably noticed the central theme in most of Dr Wozniak’s advice throughout this series: learning is a personal process, and you should utilise that to your advantage.

Isn’t this cheating?

It may feel like adding these cues and nudges to your flashcards is cheating yourself in the learning process because it makes everything easier. Isn’t it always better to challenge yourself as much as possible?

There is an element of truth in that attitude. After all, there is a line somewhere between a context cue and simply giving you the correct response.

However, the principle is that it’s better to build momentum and motivation by moving rapidly through a lot of material. It’s something akin to getting decent equipment for sport. It makes the activity easier, but your athletic career will likely go a lot further if you enjoy your progress and can keep hitting personal bests, even if the “true” expert can succeed with any tool. Anything that helps you reach that stage faster is a good thing.

How context can be a hindrance

Having understood the above, also be aware of the flip-side: context can be a hidden crutch that hinders your development.

This happens most commonly when you find that you can recall material when looking at flashcards, but not in real usage situations. Or, you might find that you can recall things easily in the classroom, but not outside of it. This is context-dependent learning, and it can be frustrating.

Context-dependent learning happens because your brain is picking up on other cues that are not actually related to the material. A UI feature in the SRS software or the appearance of a physical flashcard becomes a contextual cue, or a poster in the classroom gets arbitrarily associated with what you’re learning. You’re motivated to learn, and your mind is helpfully finding ways to make it easier.

As with many obstacles to learning, the first step to address this problem is to be aware of it and identify it. From there, you can try to resolve it.

The most obvious thing to do is to learn in a variety of contexts. As usual, immersion environments tend to achieve this naturally because you’ll encounter the same material in different situations. Similarly, integrated courses can help because you read, write, listen to and speak the material in several different exercises.

Outside of those, you can study in different locations and at different times of day, as well as getting a more varied learning diet by incorporating materials from different sources. Finally, you can make targeted flashcards that cover the problematic material in several different ways to try and defeat the dependence on a single context.