Flashcards are flashier than you think

Flashcards are an easy way to be more active during your study sessions. Active study is more effective at retaining and understanding new information, as described in the introduction to this series. It’s about studying smarter, not harder. That said, using flashcards the right way will make the study sessions even more effective.

What is a flashcard?

A flashcard is a small piece of card that has a question or term on one side, with the answer or definition on the other side. By using the question side as a prompt you try to recall the information on the back. A whole deck of flashcards is useful for recalling concepts, lists of items or definitions.

Using flashcards to practise recalling musical notes

 

Learning music theory with a piano app and flashcards.

Flashcards are a form of active study

You read the question side of a flashcard and spend a moment thinking about what is hidden on the other side before checking. Your brain must be active and engaged to recall the information. This is more effective than reading a definitions list over and over again with the answers right in front of you as this does not require your brain to be actively thinking about the concepts.

As simple as they are, having a good flashcard design is important

Here are 5 tips to making effective use of your flashcards.

1. Make the flashcards yourself

Making flashcards is a form of active study – manipulating information into a new form. Deciding what information to put into your flashcards will be more meaningful to you, and therefore more likely to remain in your long term memory, than flashcards obtained from another source. The time that can be saved obtaining pre-made flashcards is not worth it.

2. One concept per flashcard

Don’t let your brain be tricked into thinking it knows more than it does. If you test yourself on a list of items, you run the risk of recalling two, flipping the flashcard over, seeing the third and thinking “oh, yeah – that one too”. This can lead to the illusion of competence – thinking you know more than you actually do.

A list of

 

Avoid putting too many items on one flashcard wherever possible

3. Tell someone your answers

By telling someone the answer (or at least saying it to yourself out loud) means you have a fully formed answer before checking the reverse of the flashcard. If you don’t say the answer out loud there is a good chance that your predicted answer is left in your mind as a hazy connection of ideas, concepts and key terminology. Don’t give your brain a chance to think, “that’s what I meant” or “that’s what I would have said” after checking the answer, giving you the illusion of competence.

4. Swap and shuffle the flashcard order

Our brains are an incredible pattern recognition machine. You probably sang your ABCs long before you knew what letters were or their symbols by recalling the pattern of sounds. How easily can you say the alphabet backwards? It’s the exact same collection of sounds but without practice, it’s hard to do. The problem is that a test is not going to look like your flashcards – the information the test asks you to recall will be a jumbled mess. You will have a better recall of the information if you frequently shuffle the order of the flashcards and swap whether you look at the “question” side first or the “answer” side first.

5. Add visual elements to the flashcards

Written language has not been around that long, compared to the scale of all human history. Adding visual cues to accompany written terms is a powerful memory retention technique that can work alongside flashcards. Add a humorous image that will aid in memory recall. Some people are so good with their visual recall that they can “see” the words along with the accompanying picture when recalling the information during a test.

A flashcard on white blood cells has a cartoonish image of a cell holding a sword.

 

Adding visual cues is a powerful memory recall technique

A final piece of advice

Pieces of lined paper from a notebook or printer paper are not great for making flashcards. These are too thin resulting in the answers being visible from the other side. Special flashcard sets (such as these options from Officeworks) are thick enough to avoid this issue. They can also withstand frequent handling, pre-cut to a good size and won’t break the budget. No affiliate marketing at work here, I just wanted to give you the heads up before you commit to making a whole bunch of flashcards from that paper-thin(!) notebook paper.

Happy flashcard making!

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