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Dealing with Leech Cards
Dealing with Leech Cards

Leeches are cards that you forget over and over again. Identifying and fixing leeches is key to an enjoyable and efficient study experience.

Soren Bjornstad avatar
Written by Soren Bjornstad
Updated over a week ago

Leeches are flashcards that you've repeatedly learned and then forgotten again. These cards are disproportionately frustrating and consume a remarkably high percentage of your time – if you never take action on leeches, the hardest 5­–10% of your cards can account for 50% of your study time!

Fortunately, with a little bit of practice, most leeches can be “fixed” to make them less frustrating and easier to remember. This is a skill that may take some time to develop, but it's worth the work. While leech warnings may feel unnatural or annoying at first, getting in the habit of taking prompt action on difficult cards can transform your study sessions from frustrating and repetitive to enjoyable and highly efficient.

RemNote warns you when you practice a card that you've relearned and forgotten 4 times. This threshold is customizable in Settings > Flashcards, but we've found that 4 is an effective choice for most users and types of content.

There are three basic ways to handle a leech: disable it, edit it, or find a better way to remember it.

Disabling the card

First, consider whether it's really that important that you remember the answer to this specific card. If it's not unusually important (for instance, because it's critical for understanding a lot of other cards, or forgetting the answer might cost you hundreds of dollars or put someone's safety at risk), simply removing it from practice is a great option; it will free up your limited study time for more useful, more rewarding, and easier content.

Even if you might be tested on the card you're disabling, unless you're determined to achieve a 100.0% score on your exams, there's a good chance that learning other content is a more effective use of your time. Don't forget that you can always re-enable the card later if it turns out you have extra time to study or it becomes more important to know.

Editing the card

Many cards are difficult to remember for some specific reason – one that's arisen because of the specific flashcard or the way it fits into your knowledge base, rather than something intrinsically difficult about the ideas in it. If you can identify this reason, you'll be able to fix the problem. Common reasons include:

  • You don't fully understand the information being tested by the card. If you don't understand the space of ideas surrounding the contents of this flashcard, it will likely be hard to remember; rather than being able to work out the answer from a model in your head, you'll have to memorize it by rote. Maybe you can reread the section the content came from and add some new flashcards with more background information.

  • The prompt is worded poorly. Cards can be hard to answer correctly because you are misreading the prompt (front side of the card) or misunderstanding what it's asking you to recall. Clarifying the prompt will solve this problem.

  • The card is too large. If one card tests several different pieces of information, or it's a multi-line card with many lines, it will become hard to remember everything at once. Long cards can usually be split up in some way, which will make them much easier to learn and retain. If you're not sure how to do this, check out this detailed guide to creating small, precise questions (this guide was written for Anki, but all the basic principles hold in RemNote as well).

  • You're confusing the card with another card. This is called memory interference. It's common when you're memorizing many similar items, like vocabulary or numerical statistics.

    There are several effective ways to handle interference:

    • Disable one of the cards. If one isn't very important, forgetting that one will give you space to remember the other.

    • Clarify the prompts of the interfering items. Sometimes there just isn't enough information on the front of the card to remind you which item you're supposed to be retrieving. A little more context (but not so much that you give away the answer) can help.

    • Create a new card asking yourself to distinguish between the two interfering items. This helps in two ways: first, it gives you extra practice, and second, it keeps the fact that there are two similar items fresh in your mind so that you'll remember to keep them straight when studying one of the specific items. If there's a problem with the prompts of the interfering items, though, fix that first – it's silly to make yourself learn an extra card to hide a problem with the phrasing of your flashcards, rather than address something intrinsically difficult about the material.

Finding some other way to remember the card better

If you don't see anything wrong with the card – it's just hard – and you can't afford to disable it, take a moment to create a mnemonic or give yourself additional practice in some other way before putting it back into review.

Ignoring leeches

Of course, it's always possible to simply ignore a leech and continue practicing cards without changing anything. On occasion, this may be sensible: perhaps you don't see anything wrong with the card or any way to learn it better and it's extremely important that you know it, or you think you were just about to get it down. However, in most cases ignoring it will just result in another round of forgetting and more wasted time, so be honest with yourself and don't get in the habit of using this option rather than addressing a real problem!

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