What are flashcards?

Flashcards are small note cards used for testing and improving memory through practiced information retrieval. Flashcards are typically two-sided, with the prompt on one side and the information about the prompt on the other. This may include names, vocabulary, concepts, or procedures. For example, one side of the card may say, “Augusta,” and the other side, “The capital of Maine.” Usually, there are several flashcards that, as a group, represent a category of information you’re trying to remember, learn, and master.

What are the benefits?

Using flashcards can be a very effective self-testing approach. Even the act of making flashcards is a way to “work” the information, challenging you to think about which information to have on one side and the related description on the other. This also frees up some memory, since you will have a physical stack of cards with the information instead of trying to store individual facts, names, or terms in your mind. Flashcards are often part of spaced practice, and repetition helps you figure out what information you can remember easily and what needs additional effort. From a time management perspective, flashcards allow you to take advantage of short amounts of time that become available throughout the day or week, in addition to during planned study sessions.

How do I use this approach?

Traditional use of flashcards is for memorization only. It is important to use the flashcards multiple times. Just like the first time you review any relatively new information, the first time you use the flashcards may be a bit overwhelming or frustrating because of the “forgetting” that has occurred. Here’s the good news: with repetition, you will remember more and more, therefore forgetting less and less. The “forgetting curve” levels out, and the learning becomes durable. (Essentially, this means you will remember the information long-term!)

While there is some value to remembering key terms and other information, it’s important to remember that in college there is far less memorization than in high school, as learners need to be able to apply and make meaning of information. Below are the steps to create your flashcards, along with approaches to test memory and make meaning of the information as you go along.

Making Flashcards

  • Buy or construct your cards. A set of index cards is usually inexpensive to purchase. You also can print off cards from a template.
  • Choose the category of information for your “deck” of flashcards. Instead of turning every piece of information from the class into a card, consider making a deck of related terms, facts, or formulas.
  • Select the most important information within that category. This can be a great opportunity to predict which information will likely be on the exam, and think about what are the most critical ideas. Often there are hints about this, such as bolded terms in the textbook or concepts that your professor emphasized or repeated in class.
  • Personalize the cards to make them unique to YOU. Include images that trigger your memory. Add cues that came to mind when reading actively or taking notes in class.

Memorizing Individual Cards

  • Look at the prompt on the first card, and explain the related information listed on the back without peeking. Try to say the information out loud, and then flip over the card to see if you were correct and thorough.
  • If correct, move the card to a separate pile. Make sure not to fool yourself by peeking when you get stuck. It’s common to be stuck, peek, and tell yourself, “Oh yeah, I knew that.” If you could not remember without looking, you did not know it!
  • If not correct, put the card on the bottom of the pile to revisit again during that study session. This helps you to spend more time with what you remember the least.
  • Revisit each stack as often as your time allows. The more “swipes,” the more it will become “memorized.” Continue to put aside cards for less-frequent review once you have been able to retrieve the information a number of times.

Making Meaning

  • Ask yourself questions about individual cards. Once you can remember the information on the back associated with the prompt on the front, raise questions such as, “What else is this related to?” “Why is this important?” “How would I apply this information?”
  • Group cards together in themes. Taking this additional step forces you to ask yourself, “Which cards have something in common with others?” Also, this serves as a form of chunking, which helps you to remember information together instead of separately.
  • Create a mindmap with the cards. Explain all the connections you see between individual cards and between groups of cards. A related strategy is to use yarn or string to literally connect cards together.
  • Use flashcards in groups. Get together with peers from class during a planned study session, and test each other using the cards. You can even tackle the flashcard making process as a group, discussing which concepts you think are “flashcard worthy,” and why. You can even make a game of using flashcards in a group, such as a Jeopardy-style contest.

Are there any related technologies?

There are several websites that can be used to create flashcards. In addition to making physical cards, you also may choose to use a platform to make virtual cards. If you are taking a group approach, you can use Google Docs to construct the cards together. There are also apps (such as Quizlet or StudyBlue) for use on smartphones, which can be very convenient for accessing your flashcards from anywhere.

Where can I get more information?

CollegeInfoGeek offers a great video on flashcard study tips.

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