Flash Ah, Ahhhh……..Cards


I can’t believe I have not written about flashcards before. They are an incredibly popular learning tool and have moved relatively seamlessly to digital in recent years. Research published earlier this year found that 78% of students said they had used digital flashcards and of those who used both the digital and paper version, 60% preferred digital, largely because of their convenience and ease of use.

What is a flashcard? – essentially its a card with a question on one side and the corresponding answer on the other. You pick up the card and read the question, maybe it says, who was the 77th Prime minister in the UK? you then attempt to recall the answer in your head before flipping the card over to reveal the name “Boris Johnson”. Interestingly, in that same survey only 53 % of learners turn the card over to check if they were right, something we will discover later is not a particularly good idea. Which highlights another problem that might be happening, students are using flashcards, just not correctly.

Why do they work?
Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because lots of students use flashcards, they are good, but in this instance they are. Flashcards force students into doing things that we know are good for learning. For example, they are excellent for retrieval practice, spaced practice and interleaving, in fact, they support most of the evidenced based learning techniques. Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.

Retrieval practice – The process of reflecting back and having to retrieve a memory of something previously learned is very powerful. When you look at the card and attempt to recall the answer the brain is working hard, this will result in the reinforcement of neural pathways, in simple terms you are learning. And of course, it requires effort, that’s the reason it works, don’t do as it would appear 47% of all learners and not check if you were right or flip the card over too soon.

Spaced practice – Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming, you effectively take the same amount of time to study, just do it over a longer period. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have studied over time it boosts what is called retrieval and storage strength but if you study in a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. Flashcards can be used intermittently, effectively spacing out you’re learning, a good way to do this is to use something called the *Leitner system. Let’s assume there are three envelopes and on the first is written, “every day”, on the second, “every other day” and on the third, “once a week”. All flashcards initially start in envelope one, if you answer a flashcard correctly it moves into envelope two, if incorrectly it stays in envelope one. Each time you get a card correct, you move it to the next envelope but if you get it wrong, you move it back to the previous one. Eventually, in theory at least, all cards will end up in envelope three. Here is a video that shows exactly how it works.

*The Leitner system was developed by the German science journalist Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s.

Interleaving – Interleaving is simply studying different topics as opposed to studying one topic very thoroughly, this latter process is called blocking. Repetition is one of the main benefits of using flashcards, the process takes place naturally as you go through the pack several times, however that same repetition can make the process easier, because the brain will begin to remember cards by association with each other. This is not the same as remembering the information on the card, because if you change the order then the association is broken and you will forget. A simple technique is to shuffle the deck each time you go through it.

Paper based or digital
The evidence to support using paper-based flashcards or the digital version is mixed with some suggesting that digital is better, Azabdaftari & Mozaheb, 2012 and others Gilbert Dizon and Daniel Tang concluding that there is no significant difference. Although they do acknowledge as our earlier research did that students prefer digital when asked.

The arguments are that digital is more convenient, for example everyone carries a mobile and they easier to create and use due to the sophistication of some of the Apps available. However, in contrast producing your own papers-based cards, deciding what to put on them or how they should look, together with their tactile nature makes the learning more effective.

My advice, do whatever works best for you. Perhaps using an app such as Quizlet, Brainscape or the very popular AnkiApp for one subject and produce your own paper based cards for another.

I should have written about flashcards before, they are a hugely effective tool that utilise many of the best evidenced based strategies. Don’t worry about the, “should I use digital or paper” debate, it really doesn’t matter, try both.

And one last tip, don’t leave the use of flashcards until the end of your studies. To maximise their value start using them about a month before the exam, not the night before! Oh, and why not rate yourself in terms of confidence in getting the correct answer before turning the card over, it’s just another way of deepening learning through reflection.

You might find this helpful, it shows 5 ways to use flashcards, although in fairness some are just good note making skills, but then what’s wrong with that.

Cramming works, but only until tomorrow


I have written about cramming before or to be precise it was in the title of a previous blog but the main focus was on the benefits of attempting exam questions. As a result, I feel I should say far more about what many students reluctantly admit is their most commonly used study method.

Cramming is the process of leaving everything until the last minute and then studying intensely in a relatively short period of time. Students know they shouldn’t do it and yet the “cramming badge of honour” is often worn with pride. It is accompanied by the boast, “anyway I work better under pressure”.

Better under pressure

Yerkes and Dodson (Yerkes-Dodson Law) famously put rats in a maze and administered electric shocks as they attempted to choose between a black and white door. They noticed that mild shocks improved the rats’ performance until a certain point, after which it greatly decreased. A chart of the shock strength versus performance takes the shape of an inverted U. And although there has been some criticism as to the exact findings, the concept that people perform better under pressure is true but only to a point, and of course judging when that point is reached is personal and arguably impossible.

The conclusion therefore has to be that creating a stressful situation by leaving everything until the last minute is not a particularly sensible strategy. An exam environment brings its own high level of stress without you having to manufacture your own.

Back to cramming

In June and July, I identified 6 scientifically proven learning strategies, and it is here that we can find the answer to the question, does cramming work?

Spaced practice is the process of studying over time compared with studying the same content but intensely at the end, normally prior to a test. The results as to which one is best is conclusive, spacing your learning is far better because you will not only improve what is called retrieval strength but also storage strength. The implications being that you will you be able to recall what you have learned quickly and the information will be stored waiting for when you might need it in the future.

However, studying at the end, effectively cramming also works, it has to, students have been using this method of revising since the very first exam. But, and there is a but, it only helps with retrieval strength, that is you will only be able to retrieve the information for a short period of time, perhaps as little as a day. Should you want to recall what you learned at some point in the future it won’t be there. The reason, a short burst constantly topped up will keep the information in short term memory but due to the lack of time the brain is unable to consolidate what you have learned, effectively taking it into long term memory. There is some evidence to support the view that this consolidation takes place when you are a sleep, something else that students who cram often don’t get, but that is a sufficiently large enough topic it would need a future blog.


Cramming does work for short term chunks of information for example formulas, key words that remind you of knowledge stored in long term memory, formats, illustrations etc. Simple memory techniques such as acronyms and acrostics are great and should be used, they are part of the tool kit of a professional student. But they are in addition to a more structured and spaced out way of learning, not an alternative.

Here are a few more resources.

This past blog gives specific advice – Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

Video (5m) – How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS – This is worth watching 472, 000 others have.

Video (2.5m) – How to Cram for a Test.