Step Up your Reading: How to Use Flashcards Effectively

Step Up your Reading: How to Use Flashcards Effectively

I remember the first time I learned about flashcards. I was getting ready for an exam and had no clue about the science behind them or how amazing of a study tool they could be. I tried using it on an app to learn new vocabulary words, and I thought, “Hey, that’s pretty cool!” And that’s pretty much all there was to it.

I had no idea that it was actually very different from what I thought. Let’s skip ahead to after the exam, which I didn’t do well on, by the way. I came across a blog post by Katie Azevedo on School Habits about different ways to use flashcards effectively. It was at that moment that I realised I knew absolutely nothing about flashcards.

Do you have any similarities to me? Do you believe you have a good grasp on using flashcards, but in reality, you might not? Are you using flashcards, but not getting the results you want? Maybe you’ve never heard of flashcards before. No worries, I’ve got you covered. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of flashcards and how you can use them more effectively. Many people may not realise that they are using them incorrectly, so I will also provide some tips on how to use flashcards effectively.

However, let’s begin by understanding what flashcards are.

What are Flashcards?

Flashcards are typically made of a card that has a question or prompt written on one side, and the answer on the other side. That’s all.

Flashcards for science
Image by Birmingham City University

As you can see in the picture above, there is a question on one side and the corresponding answer on the other side. 

Now, why is it that something which seems so simple can be an effective strategy for studying?

Let’s explore the 5 importance of using flashcards. 

Importance of Flashcards

1. It helps strengthen your ability to remember information by actively recalling it.

If you’ve been keeping up with our posts and content, you probably already know that active recall is a highly valuable technique for learning. When I teach, I like to talk about the Pomodoro Technique. This means you read for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break. During the break, you actively try to remember what you read during the first 25 minutes. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should definitely check it out here.

Anyway, the point is, when you use flashcards, you’re actually making yourself actively recall information, which is beneficial.

By the way, practising this skill is important because you’ll need it for your exams. If you’re interested, we have an article with tips to help you excel in your exams.

2. It helps you focus on one piece of information at a time.

When using a flashcard, you are only able to view one part of it at a time.

So, you might be wondering, what’s the big deal? How does that make it special? Yes, it does. Flashcards allow you to focus on one piece of information at a time. This is what sets flashcards apart from your notes or textbooks.

When you’re not trying to focus on too many things at once, it becomes easier to remember the information you come across. Do you understand?

3. It helps improve retention. 

Creating flashcards involves two steps: First, you need to make them, and then you can study from them. By following this two-step process, you will be able to retain more information.

4. It helps improve understanding of the material.

You can study the flashcards from both sides. Doing so improves your understanding of the material.

5. It’s a fantastic study technique that works well for all types of learners.

Using flashcards is a great way to study for people with different learning styles. It works well for those who are visual learners, kinesthetic learners, and even auditory learners if someone tests you by reading the cards aloud.

Yes, they really are that great. Now let’s talk about some mistakes I made while using flashcards. 

Mistakes I made while using flashcards

Ways you are using flashcards inefficiently

Here are some ways you might be using flashcards inefficiently:

1. Not making the flashcards yourself

There’s only so far you can go when you do not make your flashcards yourself. Making your flashcards yourself is a learning process on its own and you don’t want to skip that part.

For me, I skipped that whole process and used a premade set of flashcards on an app, which didn’t quite end up well. I was learning vocabulary and found myself mixing up words and their definitions a lot on the exam. 

For others, it just looked familiar. I knew I saw them while studying but I didn’t quite know them. This is a situation called the illusion of competence in learning. This happens when you think you know something that you actually don’t – a situation that usually arises when your brain mistakes recognition for recall. 

This brings me to my second mistake which was….

2. Rote memorizing

When you focus on memorization instead of actually learning the material, then you are using flashcards inefficiently.

What happens is that you recognise the content when you see it or you’re asked a question about it but you don’t actually know it.

You see, our brains are really good at recognizing things we’ve seen before. However, recall isn’t the same thing – recall is the act of retrieving something from memory without an explicit cue.

And the last is…

3. Over-using flashcards, or using them when a different tool or study method would be more effective

I’m actually not surprised I mixed up those words in my exam. I only engaged in the use of flashcards when I should have been utilizing other methods.

Flashcards are great but they’re not the only study method available. They are also not best used in isolation but in combination with other methods.

Now, let’s get moving into the real deal. 

How to Use Flashcards Effectively when Studying/Learning

Because they’re so great, I’ll share with you Thomas Frank’s 8 tips for making and using flashcards effectively.

1. Make your flashcards yourself

Remember the first mistake I made when using flashcards? Well, you do not want to repeat that same mistake.

Making your own flashcards is a more effective way to learn and retain information. This is the only way you can own your flashcards.

To make them yourself, you’d have to first read the material, wrangle it in your brain, and create something new and unique with it, such as words, pictures, and explanation methods. This process creates strong neural pathways that enable easy retrieval of learned information. You do not forget so easily something you did by yourself.

2. Mix Picture and Words

Mixing pictures and words on your flashcards can make them more memorable, as our brains are more sensitive to imagery than words. A 1985 study found that adding descriptive sentences or single terms alongside pictures can increase the brain’s ability to recall what you’re studying.

Using mnemonic devices to create mental connections can also help remember information. The brain is adapted to remember things that are out of the ordinary, so make your associations crazy and remember them for yourself.

3. Use Mnemonic Devices to Create Mental Connections

A mnemonic device is anything that helps you build an association between two pieces of information in your mind.

A classic mnemonic that almost everyone knows is ROYGBIV – the acronym that helps you remember the order of the colours in the visual light spectrum. Rhymes make good mnemonics, too.

I remember listening to one someone told me he did for Avogadro’s Law. Ever since he sang it to me, I never forgot or mixed up Avogadro’s law again.

You can make things like this for yourself on your flashcards, as well. It doesn’t have to make sense to anybody as long as it makes sense to you.

4. Write only one question per card

This is something common among students. Including multiple facts on one card increases your chances of running into the illusion of competence.

This is what happens when you think you know something that you actually don’t – a situation that usually arises when your brain mistakes recognition for recall.

Our brains are really good at recognizing things we’ve seen before. However, recall isn’t the same thing – recall is the act of retrieving something from memory without an explicit cue.

When you study a flash card with multiple facts on it, you risk making this mistake. Because you have multiple facts on one card, you skim through one of them thinking you’ve known it meanwhile you only recognized it.

To reduce this, stick to one fact or question per card, nothing more.

5. Break Complex Concepts Into Multiple Questions

This tip builds off of the previous one, but it’s important enough to have its own spot on the list.

See, some concepts or ideas are too complex to be encapsulated in one question. These kinds of concepts need to be broken down into multiple questions to be studied well using flash cards.

So instead of trying to squeeze too much information into one flashcard, break it down and put it into multiple flashcards. This will help you avoid the illusion of competence.

6. Say Your Answers Out Loud When Studying

Saying your answers out loud helps you to commit to your answer before checking the other side of the flashcard. This is very helpful.

If you can get a friend to quiz you based on your flashcards, that will be much more helpful.

7. Study Your Flash Cards in Both Directions

A common mistake students make is studying their flashcards from one direction alone. 

For example, the chemical symbol for the element beryllium is Be. If you’ve got a flash card with the symbol and the element name on either side, but you only ever ask yourself, “What does Be stand for?”, then you might run into a test question like:

“What’s the chemical symbol for beryllium?’

…and totally choke on the answer. So learn to build those bi-directional pathways.

8. Don’t treat flashcards like a silver bullet

Flash cards are only one method of reviewing material, and there are many more effective methods depending on the material and the learning process. Instead of using flashcards, you could write an explanation in your own words, create a quiz, take a practice test, work on practice problems, or create mind maps or Venn diagrams.

Flashcards are good for learning definitions and vocabulary words, but they are not suitable for information that fits into a larger visual or organizational hierarchy. Instead, learning the groupings and using other mnemonics can help memorize the entire table from memory and identify the number of boxes.

Final Words

I am certain you have learnt ways you can use flashcards effectively now. All these is not going to work if you do not put it into practice, so apply them and let me know if it works for you.

2 thoughts on “Step Up your Reading: How to Use Flashcards Effectively”

  1. InterestingI haven’t heard about flash cards before. But now I haven’t only learnt about it, I have also learnt how to use it effectively. Thank you ☺️

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