How To Study with Flash Cards More Effectively

Practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent. Flashcards can be a fantastic study tool, but if you want to learn the subject matter deeply, you’ll need to study with them properly.

Many of the ways people take advantage of flashcards primarily help them to rotely memorize the content they’re trying to learn. That could be helpful for you, but it depends on what sort of exam you’re studying for and how much you care about the subject matter.

But there are so many more ways to use flashcards than mere memorization.

Decide Your Goals and Collect Information

This step is one of the most important in the whole process. Your specific studying goals are the roots from which the whole of this experience will grow, and it is crucial to make a plan that aligns with what you care about.

Hopefully, you’re studying this content to learn it effectively. But sometimes, we all end up in classroom situations where we enroll in classes we don’t care about, whether because we don’t think it will be useful later in life or it just doesn’t interest us.

When you study with flashcards, you first need to collect a list of crucial words and concepts – and your specific study goals will change what information you collect there.

Studying to Learn

If you are taking on these flashcards to learn the subject thoroughly, that will have a foundational impact on the most effective way to study it. But there are several different kinds of “real” learning techniques which you can strategize.

First, consider whether this is something you want to learn intrinsically or because you will get some use out of it.

For example, you might be an aspiring engineer – you will need to make use of your trigonometry class. If your teacher has noted anything especially relevant to your area of interest, make sure you focus on that information as you study.

Also, you should consider reaching out to your teacher and asking them what specifically in your class will be useful to you later in your specific career.

But maybe you think something is super interesting, and you want to learn it well to advance further in the field or have interesting conversations about it. If that’s the case, you’ll want to cover all the information you can, including information that probably won’t be on the test but you find interesting nonetheless.

Studying to the Test

If you’re only studying to succeed on the test, there are a couple of different ways to collect your information. If your teacher has given you a study guide, you’re all set here: you can simply work off of that.

But if you are one of the many unfortunate people who lack a guide, you’ll need to revisit notes and readings. Make sure to note any concept that the teacher lingered on in class. Also, if your textbook puts keywords/key concepts in bold, you can use those as a starting point for flashcards.

Figure Out the Best Methodology

Half of any good study plan is strategy, and the other half is execution. And there are so many different ways you can study with flashcards! Some of these will work better for deep learning, like pictures and mnemonics, while definitions are better for rote memorization and studying for the test.

One of the most critical things in methodology to consider is that it’s much better to make flashcards of your own than use someone else’s.

Even though it can feel like a studying hack to skip the process of making the flashcards right through to studying them, that’s ignoring a whole part of the point. The actual process of writing the content down on the cards is a significant part of what helps you memorize it – it’s called the metacognitive effect. if you take someone else’s cards, you miss out on that.

Method 1 – Definitions

Definitions are one of the classic ways to use flashcards – you write a keyword on one side and the definition for it on the other.

This strategy lends itself most to rote memorization – you likely won’t be doing much deep learning by going with this approach. That said, it can be really helpful, especially if you know that the teacher will primarily be asking you things that are related to these definitions.

If you don’t have a clear set of keywords to know, or if you want to learn the content in front of you deeply, this won’t be as helpful.

Virtual Flash Card Services

There are several potentially useful virtual flashcard services on the internet that work primarily well for the definitions method. These have both advantages and drawbacks – they are portable and easily accessible no matter where you are, especially if you’re using a service that has an app on your phone.

That easy accessibility means you can pull it out and practice at any point that you would pull out your phone otherwise – waiting in line, watching a boring movie, etc.

But that ease can also prove a drawback. First, it weakens the metacognitive effect on your learning. Instead of physically writing out these definitions, you’re only typing them out, which is a less effort-intensive process for some people. It can also motivate you to choose card sets that already exist since many of those are available on these services.

They also typically limit you to only working in text, which works well for the definitions method. However, if you want to incorporate any pictures or visual mnemonics, you’ll likely be out of luck.

Method 2 – Pictures

Pictures are one of the best ways to study flashcards because our brains are incredibly sensitive to visual stimulation, which is connected to the psychological concept of the Picture Superiority Effect. We’ve been able to see much longer than we’ve been able to read and write. Because of that fact, our brains had a much longer time to evolve visual sensitivity than reading sensitivity.

The best way to take advantage of this is by combining pictures and words. When you do so, you use both visual and linguistic processing mechanisms to make the content stick to your memory much better than it otherwise would.

There are several different ways you can leverage pictures for your study tools. We recommend writing the word or concept that you need to remember on one side of the card, then writing the definition and a picture that represents it on the back.

You don’t have to do a picture for every card if you go with this approach, also! You can use it to highlight concepts that are particularly important or challenging for you to understand if that’s easier.

Method 3 – Mnemonics

The final method we’ll discuss uses mnemonics – these are fun little tricks you use to nail something down into your head more thoroughly than a picture or set of words would. They can take many, many different forms.

One popular mnemonic form is the acronym. If you have a set of different words you need to remember, you can try to make an acronym out of it that will help you remember them.

For example, consider PEMDAS or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. Both represent the proper order of operations in arithmetic: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction.

You can also make up a little song to help you remember. There are some well-known mnemonic songs, like the Animaniacs’ US States and Capitals song. The famous English alphabet song to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star is also another such example.

But really, a mnemonic device can be anything. It can be a little story, like a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood starring rain to help you remember the Nitrogen cycle. Or it could be a short comic you make around an equation to help you remember how logarithms relate to exponents.

Regardless, it might be challenging to make a mnemonic device for every concept on your list – try to do so for things that you’re especially intrigued by while combining it with pictures and definitions.

Prepare and Practice

Now, you need to write down your flashcards! As we’ve established, this part is key, but it can also be boring. We recommend you make this part fun in some way if you can.

That can look like doing it with some friends from class (if you’ll be able to focus), listening to some fun music or a podcast, or drinking something especially tasty while you do it.

Now you need to practice them!

The classic way to practice this method is by shuffling the cards together, drawing a card at random, looking at the “word” or “question” side, and then answering it.

This method is a classic for a reason! But you can also work in pairs or groups, taking turns going around and asking other people the questions on the flashcard. If you can stay focused, studying with others will give most people a more communal and memorable experience than studying alone.

Final Thoughts on Studying with Flash Cards

Flashcards can be an incredibly useful study tool, but you’ll need to do it properly if you want to get the most you can out of it. As long as you strategize well, choose an approach that fits your goals, and practice thoroughly, we’re sure you will succeed.

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Michelle Tsou

Contributor at ExamCave. Michelle graduated with a BA in English from Portland State University. She hopes to one day run her own test-prep organization.