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.
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.