Why Spaced Repetition Matters to your training

You may have noticed from the training plan that the two forms of resources are either your own projects/notes, and flashcards. The former are so you can get hands on and get under the hood with some concepts – there’s nothing like ‘learning by doing’.

So what then of flashcards? I think of them as ‘learning by doing, but for text’. The AWS certification requires depth in some areas of study, and breadth knowledge in others. Flashcards can work for both of these levels.

In addition some questions will requires us to learn by rote (I know I said that was bad!) such as CLI instructions. Whereas for other questions, we need to be able to recall the general concept quickly and apply the specifics of the question to get the correct answer.

Flashcards can aid us both with recalling subject matter using spaced repetition and for comprehending something using a ‘search for meaning’. We’ll cover both those after we have a quick flashcard 101 for anyone not familiar with how they work.

Flashcard 101

Flashcards are really a pretty simple concept, yet surprisingly powerful. For a given subject, you write a question on one side of a piece of card, and the answer on the other. You ask yourself the question on the front if the card and check the answer on the back.

I’ve used Cram here because I prefer having something I can synchronised across devices, but there’s nothing stopping you using physical card, should you prefer.

Example question using cram.com as a digital flashcard host

On the back of this card is the answer:

Example answer using cram.com as a digital flashcard host

I could group more than one question as set, a logical group for a given subject, if you will.

Retrieval practice and spaced repetition

When you reveal the answer side of a flashcard to check yours answer, you are essentially asking yourself “How did my answer compare to this correct answer?” and “How well did I know (or not know) it?” It turns out that struggling to recall the answer is actually a good thing, as that results in strengthening the memory – a fear of failure really is a good thing in this case!

Spaced repetition is the means by which we ‘top up’ our memory. Testing yourself once and assuming you will remember it isn’t going to cut it. If you have had a look at the training plan you can see how long the path to study is. You’re not (unless you’ve really got an exceptional memory) going to read something in Week 5 and recall it in Week 12.

Using the example of the set of flashcards earlier, we can test ourselves by going through that set of cards 1 day later (i.e. tomorrow) ,then 3, 7 and 10 days later. In this way, we’re giving our memory a regular workout. Think of going to the gym and building up to bench press 100KG. Would you expect to do better adding 2kg a time until you reach 100KG, or by trying to bench 100KG from day 1?

Be able to recalling content on a schedule is one thing of course, but that’s not all that useful if what you’re recalling isn’t valuable insight. Let’s move onto how to get good content into the flashcards.

‘Search for meaning’

When going through material ask yourself, what is the point of reading this slide? What point above all else, do you think the section is trying to get across? What does the author want you to know that you didn’t know when you stated? That’s what the basis of your flashcards should be.

Since the AWS Docs are an official training trail, you can be pretty sure that the pages are structured in a way that will give you at least one ‘takeaway’ per section. The excellent “Make it Stick” has a section about a US Military Academy where the students must find efficient ways to study. The phrase “Start with Questions, Read for Answers ” is the same when reviewing the content.

As an example of that approach let’s take a more practical set of cards than the ones we’ve been using so far, an overview of S3. I started on the AWS S3 docs getting started guide and went through the Sections from ‘Getting Started’ all the way through to ‘Deleting Objects and Buckets.’

Using each page and section to create flashcards

Given that this was the overview section of the technology I couldn’t be sure that the concepts in these pages would come up in the exam. But I was pretty confident that concepts would at least be built upon for the exam.

For example step 3 on ‘To create a bucket’ states:

The bucket name must:

Be unique across all of Amazon S3.
Be between 3 and 63 characters long.
Not contain uppercase characters.
Start with a lowercase letter or number

That made it into one of my flashcards.

I may or may not get a question on troubleshooting that specific question. But even if that question didn’t come up, it looked like an important building block for the architecture of S3. There was nothing stopping me removing the card later after all.

Some flashcard points led to other questions forming in my mind. In this instance, I realised that there was no concept of ‘update’ operations on objects in a bucket based on permissions. The follow up question on the permissions was my own reminder of that.

The entire section for Getting started with S3 in the AWS Documentation is mapped in this way. The set of flashcards is here.

Hopefully all of this is demonstrating how much more powerful getting things out onto flashcards is than just reading the text and hoping for the best. Because we don’t have time to do every single tutorial, flashcards are a very high impact, relatively low effort way of converting content.

Recap of the benefits of flashcards

We’ll conclude this section by reiterationg the beefots of using flashcards over just reading and taking notes.

  • By looking for questions (searching for meaning) and writing your flashcards in those terms, you’re forcing yourself to rephrase the information and understanding it. That’s better than kidding yourself you know it after one read.
  • By setting up a spaced repetition system, you’re making checkpoints on your memory as you go. We’ll cover a specific implementation of that later.
  • By struggling to recall information you actually strengthen the memory of it in the long run.

Now you know how to study, you’re ready for your first week. We’ll cover how to calibrate your study schedule once you have done this.