Flash-card software

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Mental case

http://kinkless.com/article/getting_things_remembered Getting Things... Remembered. Retrieved on 2007-05-11 11:18.


We spend all this time and effort figuring out ways to get things out of our heads and into our trusted systems. We’ve offloaded the memorization of telephone numbers to our mobile phones, driving routes to GPS units and friends’ birthdays to our calendar applications. But some things belong inside our heads. With all this focus on getting things off our minds, what do we do about getting things back in? Where’s Getting Things Memorized? Am I the only one that feels like, despite freeing up all this mental processing power with all these clever applications, my memory is still getting worse? In this post, I’ll talk about a new application that tackles this head-on. ... [...] for now I want to talk about Mental Case in particular as it is just out of beta. And for those who notice that Drew has included a nice link back here from the Mental Case site… I should note that there’s no affiliation between us other than we’re both geeky expats and we each bear a striking resemblance to [insert manly male lead from hollywood’s golden days here], so take this review as my own simple enthusiasm for a great product.

Beyond Flash Cards

I’ve used flash card programs like iFlash (which still rocks for printing out physical flash cards) for years to study this and that. Many times I’ve had the thought that it would be nice to be able to be reading through my language text book and, as I come across something noteworthy that I’d like to review later, quicksilver it into a flash card program. Sadly, most flash card programs out there seemed to be soft on Applescript support and none had a real quick entry facility.

Then, a couple months back, I found what looked to be the perfect solution. Drew McCormack who is, like me, the child of hippies and, unlike me, a scientist living in Amsterdam, released the beta of Mental Case.

Mental case occupies a sort of middle ground between traditional flash card applications and the quick note taking of Quicksilver and Yojimbo. Drew calls it “RSS for your head” and that’s not a bad description. At first glance you can be forgiven for thinking it’s just a flash card program, but when I first saw it I felt like I was looking at a new genre of application.

The Idea

[Funny (category)] You’ve got stuff you want to memorize, people whose names you keep forgetting, countries you are invading but can’t remember the location and religious/ethnic demographics of. What to do? You could take night or online classes, but there’s no online course for “the name of the new guy in accounting”. Enter Mental Case.

The Interface

Mental case keeps the user interface clean and deceptively simple, but it’s got some clever thinking going on behind the scenes.

First, you’ve got cases which are simply containers for notes. They can be thematic like “phone numbers” or “vocabulary”, for example.

Then you’ve got notes. You can think of these as flash cards, and like flash cards they can be single or double sided. Drew’s done a great job integrating note creation with all the OSX goodness like drag and drop image wells, built in quick screen captures, and even iSight integration if you want to snap a quick image of a physical object or person.

So far it’s not that different from some of the other flash card programs out there, though it’s already more polished than most. Where Mental Case really gets interesting is the “Quick Notes” features.

You can quickly create a text, image or screen capture Mental Case note at any time, most importantly while you are doing something else. Simple, easy and the note is right there in Mental Case without any fuss.

The times I realize that I want to add something as a note are not when I’m working in Mental Case, they are when I’m working or reading in another application, book, etc. The quick note feature of Mental Case finally makes this workable. Not rocket science but this is the detail that really makes the app for me.

The next big thing is the Lesson. Mental Case will select, from all or just the cases you specify, a set number of notes and prepare a “lesson” for you. Again, other flash card programs have similar sounding features but Mental Case has really refined this and success is in the details.

Unlike many traditional flash card and learning apps, Mental Case doesn’t rely on you to tell it anything about whether you “know” or “don’t know” a note/card. I love this. First, the state of “knowing” a fact can be more gray area than black and white. Second, I love it when software accepts that I’m a lazy bum. Instead, Mental Case sets a schedule for studying the cards (either default or on a case-by-case basis, literally). You can set finite schedules like “show me this 16 times and then call it good” or just go for the tried and true “show me this every day/week/month”.

If you have a preferred learning style just set it as your default review schedule and you’re done. You can always override the default on specific cases and notes, or even prevent specific cases and notes from showing up in the Lesson section entirely.

Once Mental Case has automatically populated the Lesson section with notes, you can either manually review the Lesson or have Mental Case automatically start it for you. I don’t like interruptions while I’m working on other things, so I tend to go for manual lesson review, but I recommend you try the automatic options as well. There is some very good thinking behind them and they might just keep you from forgetting to review your notes.

There’s a lot of processing at work in the Lesson section and happily I can ignore all of it and just let it work its magic. As I churn through my notes in each study session it tracks my progress in an immediately understandable pie chart and will populate the lesson with new notes as necessary.

You can also tell Mental Case that you’re either done with a note, or that you need to treat it like you’ve never seen it before. I wish I could do the same with people.

If you have a case that is thematic, such as a language you’re studying, and you’d like to just work on that, then you can review that case independently. This is a nice feature, and one that is more in line with traditional flash card apps. Use it, but by all means don’t forget to work with the dynamic Lessons as well.

Here’s some of the things I have in my Mental Case right now:

  • Important Dates that I really should have memorized
  • People whose names I really, really should remember better
  • Language study (vocabulary, declensions, you name it)
  • Photography self-tests (name this picture, this photographer)
  • ...
  • Vocabulary words

Mental case has a full 30 day free trial so go, get it now and give it a spin. I’d love to hear how you use it too.

Screencast and Slideshows

Here’s a screencast that very briefly demonstrates basic usage and shows a glimpse of a sexy slideshow theme. Note that the lovely slide transitions (the beloved spinning cube) are not visible in the screencast due to low framerate. There are a lot of user selectable themes and transitions, so be sure to check the mental case prefs when you install the trial.


Aliases: Flashcard software, Flash card software, Flash cards, Memorization software, Self-quiz software, Quiz software

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