The Power of Flashcards
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be able to handle learning with ease, while others are constantly fighting a losing battle? The main difference is not in their IQ scores but lies in the strategy they use with learning.
One of the most effective learning strategies is using flashcards to aid memorization. In one psychology study conducted at the University of Kentucky, researchers found that those students who had used flashcards in their exam preparation achieved significantly higher marks in all their exams than those who didn’t use flashcards or only used sparingly.
What exactly are flashcards?
Traditionally, a flashcard is a card made of paper with the question on one side, and the answer on the other. The card itself serves as a divider which separates two pieces of related information by placing each of them on a different side. By looking at the question on one side, learners can test themselves by trying to recall the answer before flipping the card over to check the answer written overleaf.
The concept of flashcards is not new. The history of this learning aid can be traced all the way back to the 19th century when English educator Favell Lee Mortimer created a set of flashcards of phonics.
Today flashcards are being used by students, teachers and language learners all over the world. The popularity of flashcards is a good indication that it works.
There are several benefits of using flashcards.
- Flashcards engage active recall.
Comparing to reading or listening passively, flashcards forces learners to engage their memory to actively remember new information. For example, if the question on the front of the card is “what is the Japanese word for Dog?”, you would try to search in your memory bank for that specific piece of information. If you don’t know, you would flip the card over and see the answer as 犬 (inu). This process establishes the first association between “the Japanese word for dog” and “犬 (inu)”. And every time you revisit the flashcard, the connection is being strengthened.
Flashcards can engage multiple sensors.
According to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, not everyone learns in the same way. Some people learn by seeing the material, some prefer listening, while others learn by doing and interacting. The good news is flashcards can be used to cater for all types of learning styles. With the advance of the computing technology, flashcards are no longer limited to the physical form. Flashcard software and apps allow multimedia to be included in the cards. Sounds, pictures and even videos can be made into flashcard to facilitate the learning process.
Flashcards engage your metacognitive faculties.
Metacognition is a fancy word for self-reflection. The act of revealing the answer side of a flashcard is a self-assessment process. Essentially, you are asking yourself “how well did I go with answering that question?” Self-reflection has been known to strengthen the memory.
Flashcards allow you to gauge your process.
Each learning activity has a set of specific learning objectives. The whole idea of having an exam at the end of a course is to assess how many learning objectives you have successfully achieved. The good news is that you don’t need to wait till the exam to find out about your progress. Flashcards can be made according to the learning objectives. If you can successfully answer all the questions in your flashcard collection, you should be able to ace the exam at the end of your course.
How to use flashcards?
The first thing you need to do is to have some flashcards. Depending on the subject you are trying to study, there are several sources of flashcards.
- Flashcards can be purchased.
Obviously buying flashcards that are ready-made can save you a lot of time and energy. But many physical flashcards sold online are most tailored towards pre-school education covering basic words and simple math. For adults learners, they are not very useful.
Flashcards can be sourced for free.
This is one of the advantages of using a flashcard software such as Anki. Electronic flashcards are made by users then shared across the platform. All you need is the software and decks of cards downloaded from the internet, and you are ready to go. Those flashcards usually cover a wide variety of subjects ranging from anatomy, chemistry to language and law. The downside is that you don’t have control over the content of the flashcards.
Flashcards can be made from scratch.
This is my favourite way of acquiring flashcards. Yes, it does take a bit of time at the beginning to make them up. But it is well worth the time in the long run because making them from scratch gives you the ultimate flexibility. You can decide on the question you put on the flashcard. You can choose the type of media you use being pictures or sound. You can decide on the number of flashcards you make and the scope of the subject to cover.
I used to make my cards using “5 by 7 index cards”. Nowadays, I create flashcards electronically using either “Mental Case” or “Anki”. It is not only more economical because you don’t have to constantly purchase index cards, the software can also offer other benefits such as scheduling study sessions according to a Spaced-Repetition algorithm.
When flashcards are combined with the spaced-repetition principle, it gives you the most effective learning tool for long-term success.
What about more complex questions such as those require longer answers rather than just a short phrase or word?
The format of the flashcard is just to separate the question from the answer. There is absolutely no limit on what you can put on the answer side of the card. If you decide to write down a whole page of information to answer one question on a single card, it will not only take a heck of a long time to go through a single deck of cards but also stretch your “mental muscle” to the limit.
The solution in that occasion is to break down the long answer into small segments. Put each segment onto a card by itself then come up with a question tailored for that answer.
Have fun with flashcards!