Unfortunately, most students mock the mere suggestion of using flashcards to study. Seeing this academic staple as some outdated deterrent to progress, these students instead turn to newer technologies (Quizlet, Anki, etc.) or choose another study method. While we sometimes encourage the use of Quizlet and other modern flashcard apps, sometimes the tried and true three-by-five index card is preferable. As we often point out to students, Quizlet is not the improvement of the flashcard; instead, it is a slightly nuanced imitation. Quizlet has its pros and cons, and so do old-fashioned flashcards. However, students often overlook the flashcard’s pros and accentuate its cons.
Flashcards have been around forever for a reason: they promote active recall. As we discussed in a previous post, active recall highlights the need to actively stimulate memory during the learning process. Flashcards often get a bad wrap because they aren’t used properly; they are used inefficiently. For instance, students sometimes use flashcards (and digital flashcards) with complex, convoluted definitions, meaning one of two things occurs: 1) students don’t learn anything, or 2) they only learn the first two or three words of a definition rather than its essence. Don’t blame the idea of the flashcard; blame the person writing the flashcard.
With a few minor tweaks, your student can use flashcards the right way, propelling them to efficient, enjoyable learning. The principles outlined below explain the right way to make and use flashcards.
Writing Flashcards is Studying
Apps like Quizlet and Anki allow students to study flashcards without writing them. While this shortcut is permissible occasionally, more often than not, students should write their own flashcards. Downloading flashcards is ok when time is scarce or the learning material is uniform in nature. However, that is rarely the case, or at least, it shouldn’t be. Writing the flashcards is studying.
The ritualistic nature of writing one’s own flashcards allows for other critical components of the learning process. First, the act of consolidating information into a few essential parts boosts understanding. Second, when a student learns to write definitions or concepts in his or her words, it mimics the technique of teaching to learn, which we discuss at length in our post about elaboration as a study tactic. Third, flashcards allow a blank canvas for a student to engage his or her own learning style. Some students learn biology best through its logical building blocks, drawing inferences, and making syllogisms to build understanding. Others learn biology by drawing out diagrams and flowcharts to understand concepts in relation to one another. Still, others prefer learning in pictures to help them remember. Writing flashcards gives a student the freedom of learning design.
Ultimately, when a student engages in the process and personalizes his or her learning, it creates deeper neural pathways. While downloading pre-made flashcards seems like a time-saver, it is often inefficient in the long run when the information just doesn’t stick.
Flashcards Can Be More Than Words
To whoever started the myth that flashcards have to be just words and definitions, why are you making everyone’s life more difficult? Seriously, why do students think the flashcards they use have to be so bland? If anything, the brain craves novelty, and it thrives off of rhyme, color, pictures, and narrative. Flashcards should try to include as many of these components as possible.
When writing flashcards, students should utilize pictures and words. They should also mix in mnemonics and rhyme schemes where appropriate. Narrative also helps. For instance, if a student has to learn the first ten elements of the periodic table, turning each element into pictures can supercharge learning. Even better, turn each element into a superhero sketch and make up a story about how these characters interact. Drawing little cartoons into flashcards to break up the humdrum definitions makes learning fun and memorable.
But Don’t Overcomplicate the Cards
One of the biggest mistakes with flashcards is complexity. Students try to pack each card full with as much information as possible, thinking that it saves time in the long run, and well, it doesn’t. As we discussed in the first paragraph, when students write a paragraph for each definition, they often only learn the first three words. Instead, opt for simple definitions that capture the necessary idea. It’s perfectly acceptable to break up a definition or idea across a few cards. In fact, the act of breaking the concept into its composite parts boosts learning.
Study Them Correctly
Lastly, students need to study flashcards correctly. Students’ two biggest mistakes when using flashcards are only learning them in one direction and not answering them aloud.
Answering aloud stimulates many areas of the brain in the learning process. Further, it makes a student commit to an answer choice before they flip the card over. Frequently, students subconsciously accept an incorrect subvocalized answer by brushing it off with a quick, “oh yeah, I knew that.” Answering aloud usually solves this problem.
Also, flashcards are meant to be studied in both directions. For example, when students walk into a Spanish test, they should know how to go from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. The same goes for biology, history, Japanese, geometry, chemistry, and every other subject a student encounters. Mastery of the material necessitates flexibility with the stimulus. Get beyond rote memory by studying the flashcards in both directions.
Flashcards are not the end all be all. In fact, we recommend using a wide variety of study methods. Part of our tried and true executive functioning curriculum teaches students to develop an arsenal of study strategies to succeed far beyond this school year.