What are flashcards?
Flashcards provide an easy and effective way for students to test themselves and recognise what knowledge they already have and what they need to work on. This is done by students writing themselves a question on one side of the flashcard and then answering it on the opposite side.
Research has found that the most common revision strategies used by students are ineffective at facilitating recall. Students often re-read their notes and textbooks when revising, whereas a more effective approach would be to use flashcards. This is because revising with flashcards uses a concept known as Retrieval Practice, which forces students to generate an answer to a question. Students have to engage with the material, creating stronger memory traces, which improve retention and recall and subsequent exam performance.
Who are flashcards for?
Flashcards offer an effective way for students of all ages to revise for exams. Teachers should encourage their students to make flashcards for revision and could even create their own set of flashcards for their students to use.
Retrieval Practice has been scientifically proven to help students revise for exams. Not only do 92% of students report that the strategy helped them learn, 72% also report that it made them feel less nervous about their upcoming exams. Retrieval Practice has also been proven to be effective during times of stress (i.e. final exams).
Students need to ensure that they are returning to their flashcards over and over again, but also that they are using a technique known as Spacing, where a sufficient lag time is left before the information is revisited. Students should also use Interleaving, which involves mixing up the flashcards to contain questions from different topics within a subject. Interleaving is effective as it prompts students to think deeper about the question and helps make links to other topics.
Students should revise with flashcards somewhere that is quiet. Research has shown that those who revise in a quiet environment show more proficient recall in quiet exam conditions as well as when there is background music or white noise, something that may be useful if other exam candidates are distracting.
Once students have bought the flashcards, all they need is a pen and their notes/textbook. Flashcards can be used on the go, as unlike some of the more complex online revision tools no computer or internet connection is needed. Students could perhaps get into the habit of testing each other using their flashcards on the bus/train journey to or from school. Flashcards can be time consuming to make, but once this process is complete they can be used many times over. Teachers could perhaps incorporate flashcards into their lessons, allowing students 10 mins at the end to write out a few flashcards based on the lessons’ content and test each other. Flashcards offer an effective way for friends to revise together, which makes the process more enjoyable and can further enhance memory.
Students can tailor their flashcards to place more emphasis on topics they have less knowledge of. When testing themselves, students need to be aware that people often tend to overestimate the correctness of their answer when answering in their head. Therefore, students need to write their answers down, or at the very least say them aloud.
Students also need to check their flashcards answers with external sources e.g. textbooks to ensure they are not ingraining incorrect answers in their minds. Furthermore, flashcards should not be used in isolation, as they do not give students an in-depth understanding or test their abilities to apply information to new contexts.
Flashcards are low cost – students can buy 100 flashcards for as little as £1.50 from Amazon. There are also many websites where students can create their own flashcards for free.
- Scientific basis – using Retrieval Practice has been scientifically proven to be the most effective way to revise
- Low cost – materials needed to make flashcards are very very cheap
- Tailored – students can tailor flashcards to work on their weaknesses
- Accessible – can be used on the go
- Revise with friends – testing friends using flashcards is an effective way to revise together and makes the process more enjoyable
- Time constraints – writing out flashcards takes time which may be limited
- Cannot be used in isolation – flashcards shouldn’t be the only revision technique students use as they only check memory of certain information. Flashcards do not encourage an in depth understanding or give students the opportunity to apply information to new contexts
- Risk of incorrect answers being learnt – students need to ensure that they double check their flashcard answers with external sources to stop incorrect answers being ingrained in their minds
Alternatives to flashcards
- Brainscape – one of many websites that allow students to create flashcards online and then test themselves. Each time students answer a flashcard, they are required to rate how well they knew the answer, with this determining how frequently the flashcard is shown. Brainscape also allows students to use flashcards on a wide variety of topics that have been created by others. Whilst this could save students time, they will need to double check that the answers are correct.
- Seneca – this is an online platform that students can use to learn information before testing themselves. Teachers can use Seneca to set homework tasks and track their student’s progress as well. To read our review of Seneca, click here.
- Past papers – completing past exam papers is an effective way for students to check their understanding. It also gives them an idea of the format of the exam paper and the way in which the questions will be presented.
- Multiple choice tests – a method which also uses Retrieval Practice and hence improves memory. Multiple choice tests are a particularly useful tool for students when starting their revision as it doesn’t require them to instinctively know answers but instead whether they can identify the correct answer amongst other options.
If students are looking for more information on how to maximise their revision and prepare for exams, our blogs may provide some further guidance. Here are 5 to get you started:
- Flashcards – What, When, How and Where
- Harnessing the Testing Effect
- How to Actually Use Retrieval Practice
- Intended vs Actual Revision Behaviour
- 13 Questions to Improve Revision
- 9 Ways to Manage Revision Stress
For more information on revision and exam preparation, click here.
Along with their low cost, flashcards have been scientifically proven to be one of the most effective revision techniques. Therefore, students need to ensure that they are using them in the best possible way by mixing up exam topics, spacing out their revision and checking their answers with external information. However, flashcards should not be used in isolation, as they do not encourage an in depth understanding of the topic or give students the opportunity to apply previously learnt information to new contexts.