Studying tools: error log and Anki

The end goal of studying for an exam or subject is to achieve mastery and fluency in all question types. This is mostly a matter of master of processes, but it also involves mastering content. Now, it’s possible to master content and processes with no plan, but it’s easiest to do it deliberately.

To master processes, I recommend that my students utilize an error log. I’ve built an error log for each exam I teach, although my GMAT error log is by far the most detailed. I’ll use that as my example.

My GMAT error log is based off of the Official Guide to the GMAT, a massive compendium of GMAT questions made by the creators of the GMAT. It contains the questions in the guide, organized by difficulty and type, along with answer explanations for the questions. So far, this is obviously useful, and likely not too different from what a student might wish to have themselves.

However, what’s most useful about the error log is actually the format. Here’s how I organize each row:

The first six cells are what you’d expect. The first colored cell is the important one. It’s the date that the problem was done, highlighted red for incorrect. In the corner, the tiny black triangle means that I’ve added a note to the cell. The note explains the correct process for solving the question.

The next cell, highlighted yellow because I was unsure, was done the next day (1/2/2019), to try to internalize the process and get it into short-term memory. I once again added a note. Then I repeated the next day, and cemented it in short-term memory, (highlighted green for correct). Finally, the week after, I tried the question again, got it correct, and confirmed it in my long-term memory.

The final cell is my note to myself as to the process that I had trouble with: modifying algebraic expressions.

This error log format is key. Having the questions already organized by difficulty and type is helpful, and a big time saver. However, the most important part of the error log is using it to get correct processes in short-term and long-term memory, and then to generalize the process from the current question to future questions. The highlighting makes it easy to see which processes are not yet mastered (i.e. those that are still read or yellow).

The date to redo the problem (i.e. 1 day if wrong or tricky, 7 days if correct) is based on spaced repetition. Students forget processes easily. It’s important for them first to get the problem into their short term memory, and then into their long-term memory.

Spaced repetition is also useful for memorizing content. Fortunately, there are already free tools built to do so. I recommend Anki, a flashcard app that relies on spaced repetition.