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Kaplan’s Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith’s revision tips: Flashcards

Flash cards on a desk next to a laptop
Stuart Pedley-Smith
By Stuart Pedley-Smith, Kaplan Head of Learning Link to Stuart Pedley-Smith's LinkedIn profile

Revising before your exams can be a stressful process. While the days are counting down to your exam, have a read of Kaplan’s Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley-Smith’s tips on why flashcards may just be your best friend.

Flashcards 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 versions, 60% preferred digital, largely because of their convenience and ease of use.

What is a flashcard?

Essentially, it is a card with a question on one side and the corresponding answer on the other. You pick up the card and read the question, and then attempt to recall the answer in your head before flipping the card over to reveal the name.

For example:

Who was the 77th Prime Minister in the UK?

You would then try to think of the answer before flipping the card over…

Boris Johnson

Interestingly, in that same survey only 53% of learners turned the card over to check if they were right, something that we will discover later is not a particularly good idea. This highlights another problem that might be happening: students are using flashcards, just not correctly.

Why do they work?

Of course, just because lots of students use flashcards, it doesn’t mean that they are good. However, 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 evidenced-based learning techniques.

Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.

Retrieval practice

The process of reflecting 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 simpler terms - you are learning.

And of course, it requires effort, that’s the reason it works. Don’t do the same as 47% of all learners and not check if you were right or flip the card over too soon.

Spaced practice

Spaced practice is the opposite of cramming, you effectively take the same amount of time to study and do it over a longer period. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have previously studied, over time it boosts what is called retrieval and storage strength. However, if you study for a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. Flashcards can be used intermittently and effectively by spacing out you’re learning.

A good way to study via the spaced practice technique is by following the Leitner system. For example, let’s assume there are three envelopes. The first is written, “every day”, the second is “every other day” and the third is “once a week.” All flashcards initially start in envelope one, and if you answer a flashcard correctly it moves into envelope two. If you are incorrect, it then 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, all cards will end up in envelope three. Watch a video that shows exactly how it works.

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 concluded that there is no significant difference. Although they do acknowledge, as our earlier research did, that students preferred digital when asked.

The arguments are that digital is more convenient. For example, everyone carries a mobile phone, and digital cards are easier to create and use due to the sophistication of many mobile applications. However, in contrast, producing your own paper-based cards and deciding what to put on them, or how they should look, can make your learning more effective.

My advice is to do whatever works best for you. Perhaps, use an app such as Quizlet, Brainscape, or AnkiApp for one subject, and then produce your own paper-based cards for another.

Conclusions

Flashcards are a hugely effective tool that utilises many of the best evidenced-based strategies. Don’t worry about the, “should I use digital or paper?” debate, it doesn’t matter - try both.

And, one last tip: don’t leave flashcards until the end of your studies. To maximise their value, start using them around a month before the exam, not the night before. 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.

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