Active recallFlashcardsStudy strategies

The ultimate portable study tool: How to make, use and organise flashcards

Flashcards aren’t just for kids. They’re for everyone.

I’m a big fan of this study strategy. In fact, I’ve recently developed a habit of carrying flashcards around with me wherever I go.

That’s the beauty of flashcards. They’re small and portable. Unlike a heavy textbook, they’re easy to throw in your bag or pocket.

If you have a spare 2 minutes, you can pull out your flashcards and start quizzing yourself.

For example, the other night I was waiting at a cafe for a friend. My friend was running late. Instead of feeling annoyed, I saw it as an opportunity to sneak in a little study. So I pulled out my flashcards and started testing myself.

Research shows this strategy works. A study conducted at the University of Kentucky found psychology students who used flashcards to study for all three of their exams had significantly higher exam scores than students who didn’t use flashcards at all or only used flashcards to study for one or two exams.

Many students assume they know how to create and use flashcards. This strategy seems straight forward. Write a question on one side of the card. Write the answer on the back of the card. Look at the question. Try to answer the question.

But there are simple things you can do to improve the effectiveness of your flashcard technique.

Here are my top tips for making, using and organising flashcards:

Making your flashcards

1. Decide on your flashcard preference

What should you do – make flashcards by hand using index cards or with an app?

The choice is yours.

My personal preference is to make flashcards by hand. I like being able to draw pictures and use different coloured pens. I also like to study without getting distracted by my phone (so I usually put it on silent and place it in another room).

All that being said, there are several free flashcard apps that are well worth checking out, such as Anki, Memrise and Quizlet.

2. Draw pictures and symbols

Wherever possible, replace text with pictures and/or symbols. This forces your brain to really think about the information rather than just engaging in rote memorisation.

An example of one of my flashcards

Messy pictures are particularly good because they can make you think, “What was I trying to say with this picture? What’s this all about?” The harder your brain has to work, the deeper and more durable your learning will be.

3. Less is more

Don’t cram too much information onto your cards. Keep your cards simple (one question per card). If you clog your cards up with too much text, you’ll feel overwhelmed and put off by the sight of them.

4. Use different colours

If you end up making a lot of flashcards for a subject, it’s easy for your cards to become a jumbled mess. Sometimes you’ll pick up a card and you’ll find yourself looking at the answer rather than the question. But if you use a set colour for the question (e.g. blue) and a different colour for the answer (e.g. green), this will make it easier for you to organise your cards and practice later on.

5. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Unless you’re drawing lots of pictures to illustrate information, you don’t get a lot of benefit from creating flashcards. The value comes when you test yourself with them.

You can save a lot of time by accessing pre-made sets of flashcards. Check out Anki and Quizlet to see if any students have uploaded flashcard decks for your subject areas.

A study deck uploaded by a year 11 student on Anki

But use your judgement. Some flashcard decks are better than others. Check your syllabus to see if the study deck covers all your bases. If not, you’ll need to create additional flashcards to fill in any gaps.

Using your cards

6. Practice with friends

One of my fondest memories of studying for a psychology exam involved a set of flashcards. One lunch time, my psychology friends and I went to a café, ordered lunch and tested each other with flashcards. It wasn’t stressful. It wasn’t competitive. It was fun. And we all ended up acing the exam.

7. Turn it into a drawing game

If you have a deck of flashcards that contain different concepts you need to learn, shuffle your cards, pick a concept card and give yourself 2 minutes to draw out the concept. By doing this, you’re combining two powerful study strategies: active recall and dual coding.

8. Make sure you’re doing active recall

It’s tempting to read the question and then automatically flip the card to read the answer. But this is a lazy and ineffective way to study. You will only get benefits if you to try to retrieve the information from your brain before looking at the answer. This strategy is called active recall (aka retrieval practice)

Here’s what I do . . .

I read the question and then I write and/or draw out the answer on a whiteboard. Only once I’ve attempted to answer the question can I flip the card over.

9. Cut yourself some slack

If you find yourself getting a lot of questions wrong and/or you can’t retrieve anything from your brain, don’t beat yourself up. This is normal. Active recall with flashcards is challenging to do. But that’s what makes it highly effective. If your brain is straining a bit, you’re on the right track. Keep going.

10. Build in spaced practice

Some students drill themselves with their flashcards, practicing over and over again, as if they were practicing shooting basketball hoops. Don’t do this. Cramming is painful.

A study by Dr Kornell at the University of California found it’s far more effective to space out your study with flashcards than it is to cram. The more times you retrieve the information over a period of time, the stronger the neural pathways become in your brain.

How much space should you allow between study sessions?

Memory champion Dr Boris Konrad recommends doing five repetitions (i.e. active recall sessions) at the following times:

1. One hour after learning the material
2. One day later
3. One week later
4. One month later
5. Six months later

An example of spaced practice: Testing yourself on the skeletal system

The flashcard app Anki builds in spaced practice. This means there’s no need to write yourself reminders or create complex study plans. The app will notify you know when it’s time to practice.

11. Create a tiny flashcard habit

I’ve developed a tiny habit with my flashcards. I keep a set of flashcards in my car. When I stop the car and undo my seat belt, I pickup one flashcard and test myself. Then I celebrate immediately by swinging the car door open and saying, “Boom!”

Most days I test myself with about 10-20 cards before getting out the car. But one card is my minimum. You can learn more about creating tiny habits here.

12. Don’t discard a card if you get it right

Often students will discard a card if they get the answer right. They think, “I know it now. There’s no need to keep studying this”. But discarding cards too early can backfire.

Doing active recall once is a good start but it’s not enough when it comes to long-term learning. Aim to retrieve the information correctly at least three times over a period of time before your test/exam.

13. Move your body

If you’re like me and you don’t like to sit for long periods, pick up your flashcards and head outside. Start walking. When it’s safe to do so (e.g. when you’re not crossing a busy road), test yourself. If you prefer swimming over walking, check out Jack’s flashcard method here.

Organising your flashcards

14. Get a storage container for your flashcards

I keep all my flashcards in a plastic storage container that I purchashed from Bunnings. Each section is labelled alphabetically. I also label each study deck with sticky notes.

You could use a shoebox for each subject and lacky bands around different topics. Your system doesn’t need to be fancy. What matters is that you can access your cards quickly and easily.

15. Use rings

It’s not fun dropping your flashcards and having them scatter all over the floor in a jumbled mess. This has happened to me. Don’t let it happen to you.

Officeworks sells packs of metal hinged rings that you can use to keep your cards together (just punch a hole in your cards and thread the ring through). Alternatively, you have the option of purchasing pre-made sets of study cards that come with a hinged ring.

To sum up

Using flashcards to prepare for tests and exams can fun, fast and easy. This is a simple strategy that you can weave into your day. For instance, instead of scrolling through your phone to pass the time, pull out your flashcards and start flipping.

When you use this strategy correctly, it delivers results. But like anything in life, if you’re not used to studying this way it may feel a bit strange at first. Persevere. The results will be worth it.

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