The flashwalk method: A simple way to combine study, nature and exercise

Is your study routine getting a bit boring?

Is it starting to feel a bit same old, same old?

If so, it’s time to mix things up a bit. You need to try something new.

My brain gets bored easily. For this reason, I often experiment with new and novel ways to learn. I find a change of scenery and a few simple tweaks to my routine usually helps to perk up my brain.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been testing out a new study strategy that involves walking, a good dose of nature and some flashcards.

I call this strategy the flashwalk method.

It combines four things that have been found to decrease stress and boost brainpower:

1) Active recall (i.e. retrieval practice);
2) Spaced practice;
3) Physical movement; and
4) Time in nature.

All you need for this strategy are some flashcards, a pair of walking shoes and a jumper and/or some pants with decent sized pockets.

Here’s how the flashwalk method works:

1. Make some flashcards containing information you need to learn (question on one side, answer on the back). Each card should only contain one question. Keep it simple. Draw pictures to illustrate the information wherever possible.

2. Put on some comfortable walking shoes and clothing that has pockets. Grab a manageable pile of flashcards for a subject. You’ll need a pile that you can easily carry (no more than 20 cards). Put these cards in your pocket.

3. Head out the door and start walking to your nearest park, oval, walking trail or beach. You need to find a place where you don’t have to worry about being hit by a car, train, etc. You also need to feel relaxed in this environment because if you feel worried about your safety, little to no learning will take place.

4. Once you arrive at your destination, pull out your flashcards and keep walking. Read the first question.

5. Now look up. As you walk, think about how you would answer the question. Do not flip the card to read the answer. When you feel ready, state your answer out loud.

6. Now flip the card over and read the answer. Got the question wrong? Repeat the answer out loud. Got the question right? Well done! Put that flashcard in your pocket.

7. Go to the next question and test yourself. (Remember, no flipping the card until you state your answer out loud!)

8. Keep walking and testing yourself until all the flashcards are in your pocket.

9. Once all the cards have transferred from your hands into your pocket, celebrate (e.g. say “Wooh! Great work!” and/or do a little fist pump).

Why celebrate?

According to Professor BJ Fogg from Stanford’s Behaviour Design Lab, releasing a positive emotion helps to wire this new study behaviour into your brain. This means it will be easier to perform the behaviour next time.

I realise you might be thinking . . .

“But won’t I look crazy doing this? Walking and talking out loud?”

If you’re concerned that you might look slightly odd, here’s a tip: pop some earphones in.

Anyone that sees you muttering information to yourself will think that you’re just talking on the phone to a friend. On that note . . .

Treat your flashcards like your mobile phone

It’s really important that you don’t practise your flashcards until you arrive at your chosen location (e.g. a park). Do not attempt to practice while crossing a busy road.

Just like a mobile phone, flashcards can narrow your field of vision and stop you from noticing the things going on around you.

But what if you live in a busy, built up area with little to no green open space? Practising your flashcards on a treadmill may be a better option. Alternatively, you can try a stationary bike.

Simply tweak the technique. Make it work for you.

Next level: Incorporating spaced practice

Going through your flashcards once is a great start. But it won’t be enough to make the information stick. At least two more practice rounds are required.

I don’t recommend continuously drilling through your cards though.

Firstly, that’s mentally exhausting. Secondly, that’s what I’d call cramming. And cramming is not an effective or fun way to study. It’s demoralising.

We know from cognitive psychology that we learn more information when we space out our study over a period of time, rather than doing it all in one go.

Allowing yourself to forget the information and then bringing it to mind again helps you to strengthen the information in your brain.

Spaced practice requires doing a little planning. You need to work out when you’re going to do your practice sessions. Since this takes mental effort, a lot of students can’t be bothered taking this next step. But this next step can make all the difference. So stay with me!

I’ve developed a simple system that allows you to easily incorporate spaced practice into your study routine.

Here’s how it works . . .

1. Start with a small set of cards (no more than 60).

2. Divide your cards into three sets (20 or less).

3. Get a file with six pockets or a set of six manila folders. Put a tab on each pocket or folder for everyday of the week (except for Sunday).

4. Put the first set of cards in Monday’s section. The second set in the Tuesday’s section. The third set in the Wednesday section. Thursday to Saturday should be empty at this stage.

5. On Monday after you’ve carried out a pre-existing habit (e.g. brushed your teeth or put your shoes on), grab the cards for Monday. Go for your walk and test yourself with these cards.

6. When you come back from your walk, put those cards in Thursday’s section. You’ll revisit these cards on Thursday. (Note: Tuesday’s cards will be revisited on Friday and Wednesdays cards on Saturday. Sunday is a rest day).

7. When you’ve filed away your cards, do a little dance and celebrate!

If you follow this system, by Sunday you will have tested yourself on each set of cards twice.

Once you’ve done two practice rounds, you get a break from these cards for 14-21 days. Make a note in your diary when you’ll revisit the cards for your third practice round.

Strengthening information: The third practice round

On the third practice round, you need to take note of what cards you get wrong. So at the end of your walk, you’ll have two piles of cards:

1) Questions you got right (in your right pocket)
2) Questions you got wrong (in your left pocket)

There’s no need to pay so much attention to the cards that you got right (you know this stuff fairly well by now). Your focus needs to go on the pile of cards that you answered incorrectly.

Wait 24 hours and do another practice round with this pile of incorrect cards.

The aim of the game is to answer the question correctly three times in a row (spaced out over time).

Don’t throw your flashcards in the bin

It’s a good idea to revisit your flashcards a few weeks before your exams. Have them ready to go and easy to access when revision rolls round.

On the importance of making connections

It’s not particularly satisfying being able to recall a bunch of disconnected random facts. You want to be able to see how the facts are connected.

Enter my old friend the mind map.

As a starting point, I like to create mind maps before I launch into making flashcards. Creating a mind map helps me to see the big picture and how all the different ideas are connected. This is really important when it comes to developing a deep understanding of your subject areas.

To sum up

For your next study session, instead of sitting at your desk and staring at the wall, put your shoes on, grab your flashcards and head to your closest park for a flashwalk.

With flashwalks you get in a solid study session, plus a good dose of exercise and nature, which are both critical to your health and wellbeing.