Flashcards are one of the most popular learning tools for route memorization. Unfortunately, most people use them wrong.
In my free speed studying course, I share many different tools for learning faster. One of the things we cover is the mistakes students often make when using flashcards. Here are some of the more common mistakes:
Mistake #1: Not Making your Own Cards
The actual process of creating flashcards is important.
Your deck of flashcards should not just be “dictionary definitions.” Turning knowledge into cards is valuable for the same reasons it’s important to not take word-for-word notes: when you try to express information in your own words, you process the information. When you process it, you have to recreate the ideas in a way that makes sense to you. The process of retrieving and reorganizing the information actually strengthens the memory.
When you study flashcards which you created, you’ll remember the context in which you created them. If you’re studying a word in a foreign language, for example, you can include an example of a sentence that gives you trouble or some hint at the subtleties of the words which you’d miss by just writing a dictionary definition. In short, you can customize the card in a way that captures the exact challenges you face with that bit of information.
Mistake #2: Studying in One Big Session
If you sit down for one massive “cram session” with your cards, you’re hurting your learning.
The best way to use flashcards is as a quick impromptu study session. 15 minutes at the bus stop and a 30 minutes between classes is better than hours and hours of continuous study at the end of the day, thanks to the rules of perfect practice. If you graph your progress, like I love to do, you’ll quickly discover that most of your progress seems to happen in between study sessions.
Here’s a surprising truth:
The goal of flashcards isn’t to get them right.
It’s to remind yourself of knowledge you’ve forgotten.
Researchers who have studied memorization developed a technique called “spaced repetition” for this reason. The major insight that they had, as a result of analyzing thousands of hours of study, is that you want to prompt recall just as something is about to be forgotten. This is where flashcards really excel, and why tools like Anki have popped up (see the bonus section, below, for more about Anki).
Mistake #3: Practicing Mindlessly
Do you know every fact in your deck equally well?
Certainly not. So you shouldn’t be lumping them all together into one big pile.
If you’re “zoning out” or going into a “robotic” mode when you use your flashcards, you’re wasting time. You should think about each card. Use the word in a sentence, remember some places you’ve heard it, say it aloud to yourself, etc. Engage with the content, don’t just say “yes, I know it” or “no, I don’t.” In fact, the spaced repetition concept from above would even suggest that you rate how well you know the card on a scale of 1-4. Then you sort the cards based upon how well you know them and study the ones you struggle with the most first before coming back to the ones you know better.
If all of this sounds hard to manage, there’s a better way.
Bonus: Not Using Flashcard Software
Some people like to study flashcards by hand, but flashcard software has some major advantages.
Anki is the gold standard of flashcard software, available for Mac, PC, mobile devices, etc.
What makes Anki so special is not just that it syncs your studies with different decks across different devices. What really sets it apart is that it uses the “spaced repetition” algorithms (above) to maintain your decks for you. In other words:
Anki will ensure you’re studying the best things for you to be studying at any point in time.
As you get better with some knowledge, it will stop appearing as frequently. The items you struggle with will appear more often. All of this is based upon the spaced repetition algorithms, so the app is not just “guessing” at when to show you the information. It’s using real scientific research to make the decisions.
The Best Way to Use Flashcards
So if you really want to improve your learning with flashcards:
- Create your own deck in Anki (or if using real cards, then mimic it with your own SRS organizational system)
- Study it whenever you have a few minutes to kill. Embrace the small minutes of downtime you’d normally use to check social media.
- Engage in the content. Say the words to yourself, use them in an example, and don’t rush through the cards.