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When and how to use Flashcards

Flashcards: What, when, how and where?

3 min read
  • Retrieval Practice
  • Study skills & exam prep

When revising, many students spend hours re-reading their notes and highlighting the most important phrases. However, such revision practices are ineffective as they do not allow for good retention of the material for later recall in exams.

Instead, a more efficient strategy would be to encourage students to use flashcards (where students write questions and test themselves at a later date). To help with this, we have put together a guide looking at the what, when, how and where students should use them to thrive in exams. So, how can you use flashcards for revision?

Flashcards: The what

The majority of students understand that flashcards can aid revision as they help them recognise what they have learnt and what they still need to work on.

But recent research has found that only 34% of students reported using flashcards extensively. Furthermore, most of them don’t appear to realise that flashcards can be used to learn a wide range of material. Whilst 83% of students report using flashcards to learn vocabulary, only 29% use them for learning key concepts.

Flashcards: The when

Students understand that for information to be recalled in exams, it should be practiced over and over again; but they are often unaware that the timing of their practice is just as important.

Research has shown spacing (where students implement a lag either within or between practicing material) to be a powerful technique. This works because allowing time for information to be forgotten and re-learnt actually cements it in the long-term memory. The longer they want to remember something, the more spaced out it should be.

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Flashcards: The how

To revise more efficiently with flashcards, students should interleave their revision. This means mixing up the topics on their flashcards, so that they don’t get stuck recalling the same information on autopilot.

The key here is not to stop when they first get it right, but to do so when they don’t get it wrong.

Flashcards: The where

Students need to revise in a quiet environment, as research has shown that those who revised with distractions nearby (such as music) often perform worse. The benefits of revising in silence were further highlighted by another study which found that those who revised in quiet conditions showed more proficient recall in their final exams,

Similarly, when participants were made to feel a specific emotion when learning material, they were found to recall more information if a similar emotion was induced during their exam. This all suggests that having a similar context for revision as will be present in the exam can improve outcomes.

Final thoughts

Flashcards offer a potentially very useful tool for students during their revision sessions. However, to be used skillfully and for maximum effect, there are some simple strategies students should use.

This include using them regularly, mixing up the topics within them and doing so somewhere free of distractions. If they do this, they have the best chance of doing well in their upcoming exams.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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