Flash cards are a very useful revision activity for many reasons. They work across all subjects, they can be used with the recall of facts, dates, quotes, definitions and more. They are a very simple technique for learners to use – low effort but high impact. As well as being an effective learning strategy flash cards are also popular with students. In a research survey carried out in 2018 more than 50% of college students reported that they do use flash cards to study.
I know I'm biased but I have never met anyone with the work ethic my daughter has. She embraced the whole knowledge retrieval/flashcard approach throughout her GCSEs; she's now in Year 13 and these are her A Level Biology flashcards. This strategy is tried and tested! pic.twitter.com/NSBMaxJ18p
— Andy Byers (@Framheadteacher) November 17, 2019
However, as with most things in education we do need to take care and be cautious when it comes to encouraging and instructing our students to use flash cards. They can be an effective technique but that depends on how they are used by students, when they are used by students and what content is included. Dr Pooja K Agarwal, cognitive scientist and creator of retrievalpractive.org has observed that, “Lots of students use flash cards. But using flash cards doesn’t guarantee they’re using retrieval. In fact, students could be wasting their time“.
Retrieval practice with flash cards
The main purpose of flash cards should be self-testing to strengthen information in long term memory and provide instant feedback to identify gaps in students’ knowledge. I have seen collections of beautiful flash cards with detailed notes and diagrams filling each card. I have known students to spend hours literally transferring information from a textbook to a flash card. This does show students are revising, investing time, effort, and energy into their studies but often they are simply copying their notes onto cards and re-reading, which we know are not the most effective study techniques.
This directly links to the work of Professor John Dunlosky, where he ranked different study strategies in order of how effective they are. Retrieval and spaced practices were considered to be the most effective and lower down were re-reading, highlighting and summarisation.
When students use flash cards that contain a question on one side and answer on the other (or keywords and definitions on the back) this promotes self or pair testing ensuring active recall – retrieval practice is actively taking place. It is vital students include the answers when creating flash cards because this provides the necessary instant feedback and guidance. This feedback also informs students as to what they need to return to and focus on. Using flash cards for testing is simply the best way to use flash cards. The mantra I share with my students is that ‘flash cards don’t need to be flashy‘. Question and answer: simple.
It is important that students consciously recall the answer to the question on their flash cards, either verbally or through writing. The reason for this being that many students can struggle to self-test. They may see a question and think or assume they know the answer and, before consciously recalling it, they have turned over to read the answer and told themselves they knew it. In reality, they just recognised the answer instead of actually going through the retrieval process. They can easily cheat too so they need to have self-discipline. Students should say the answer out loud or write the answer down before checking. It’s not difficult to grasp, but it’s surprising how flash cards can be used in different ways, impacting how effective they are as a learning strategy.
Spaced practice with flash cards
Once students have their flash cards that contain questions and answers to self-test they then need to ensure that they space out their revision in regards to when they self-test. We don’t want students to use flash cards as a method of intense last-minute cramming before an exam. A great strategy to ensure spaced or distributed practice is known as the Leitner system, named after Sebastian Leitner who developed this method in the 1970s. An excellent explanation of how this works can be seen in the video below posted by primary teacher Jon Hutchinson. I have shared this video with colleagues, students and parents all of whom have been appreciative and many of my students now use this system.
Interleaving with flash cards
I instruct my students to shuffle and mix up their revision flash cards when using them in case the students begin to recall facts in a specific sequence; this isn’t helpful in the long term. Interleaving is often viewed as quite complex and students tend to initially reject this idea because it can feel uncomfortable and disorganised but it is actually another powerful study strategy. Interleaving requires students to switch and alternate between topics within a subject whilst they study in order to improve their learning.
There is a short but useful video by the Learning Scientists that explain the concept and benefits of interleaving that you can view here. Author and director of No More Marking, Daisy Christodolou delivered an excellent ResearchEdHome presentation where she spoke in-depth about how students should use flash cards to support their long term memory and learning. Daisy focuses on the example of using Anki to create digital flash cards and she also promotes the concept of mixing up flashcards in terms of topics and subjects to make it more challenging, effortful and effective with interleaving.
Top tips for using flash cards
- Use different colour flash cards for different subjects, such as green for science and pink for history, or use different colours for different categories or topics. Colour coding is purely to help with organisation, not recall.
- Aim to include one question per card or limit the number of questions. This is to avoid confusion and make it explicitly clear where the gaps in knowledge are. Sometimes my students include a relevant bonus question, allowing an opportunity for further elaboration on the original question. The flash card may not even require a question but instead a prompt, a word/phrase or image that students can use to recall as much as they can before flipping the card to check the accuracy of their answers.
- Don’t make questions on flash cards too ambitious. I am not implying that flash cards questions should be easy, but a long essay style question is obviously not suitable. Extended questions should be used for practice essays or essay planning; flash cards should be used as one method, not the only method of revision. Keep flash cards concise and clear.
- We should remind students that flash cards don’t need to be stylish or expensive. Flash cards can be purchased cheaply as a pack or alternatively sections of cards can be cut and divided up or post-it notes can be used. Easy.
- Creating flash cards that cover the content of a two-year exam course at GCSE or A-Level can be overwhelming. Students should consider creating flash cards from the beginning of the academic year and continue as the course progresses. Eventually, they will have created a collection of useful flash cards and as the exams approach they will be so pleased that they did so that they can dedicate their time and efforts to the retrieval process.
- Encourage parents or peers to get involved with flash cards by asking the questions and checking answers. Often parents are keen to support their children with revision and this is a way they can do so and will ensure retrieval is taking place with students verbally answering questions.
In addition to the Retrieve – Re-order – Repeat advice above, I would also add – Reflect. Students can reflect on the gaps in the knowledge, their level of confidence and ability to recall information, was it easy and quick to retrieve information or a struggle?
Finally, a question that I have been asked and one I am still reflecting on is whether students should create their own flashcards or use existing pre-made cards available? This is a difficult question because my initial response would be to encourage students to create their own flash cards. If teachers create flash cards for their classes this can potentially become a huge workload issue as they are very time consuming to create and could also take away a valuable opportunity that will benefit students, especially if they continue with higher education and will need to study independently in the future.
The issue with students creating their own flash cards is that they will need a lot of support, guidance and even modelling from the teacher in order to fully understand how to include and create relevant Q&A’s as well as pitching the level of challenge as desirable, which isn’t easy to do.
There are some ready-made flash cards available online or to purchase but it’s important that they are also relevant and provide the correct and appropriate level of challenge too. I don’t have an issue with my students using paper or digital flash cards my main concern with the digital option is how does this impact their daily screen time? Many digital apps do have lots of great features such as recording progress, reshuffling questions, the ability to share flash cards with peers and more. Ultimately, that will be down to students personal preference and choice.
There is also a useful blog by the Science of Learning experts Bradley Busch and Ed Watson, founders of Inner Drive, about Flashcards: what, when, how and where?
There are more top tips as to how to use flashcards in the video below, that you can share with your classes.
References & further reading: