How should I learn lists

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Question

How should I learn lists?

For instance If I need to memorize: The 5 most important causes of A in order are 1. B 2. C 3. D 4. E 5. F. Do I construct 5 questions - since items are supposed to be short? Is this really the most optimum way to learn?

Answer

See: http://www.super-memory.com/articles/20rules.htm for a short discussion of the subject.

Questions should be simple, but they should also be useful. "What is the 3rd most important cause of A?" does not sound like knowlege of much practical use in life. A far better solution would be a cloze deletion with a context cue:

  • Q: Causes of A:
  • A:
  1. B
  2. C
  3. [...](context cue)
  4. D
  5. E

Adding context cues is likely to make it impossible to answer the same question without a cue, but real life situations rarely pose contextless enumeration dilemmas.

For example, even world class physicians won't answer the question: "What is the 3rd most likely cause of ankle swelling?". For one, the likelihood lists are often arbitrary, approximate, subject to change, etc. Secondly, a more useful and easier to remember formulation of the same question would be Bayesian: "What is the probability of a disease given a symptom?". For example, "How likely is it that swollen ankles might indicate nephritis?". Or better yet: "How can I eliminate nephritis as the possible cause of swollen ankles"

Naturally, a set of possible causes will also be needed to run the diagnosis from memory. Sets can be handled with mnemonic techniques, reference material (even the best pilot consults the decision tree in the manual when an unusual problem pops up), or years of practical encounters with a particular problem.

See: Example