What are flashcards?

Flashcards are a set of two-sided cards that you use to review and test yourself on information that you need to memorize. When using the flashcards, you look at each card’s prompt or question side in turn, followed by the answer side. Initially, you may just review each side, but after repeated viewings, you can test yourself by trying to remember the answer before looking at the reverse of the card.

Flashcards can be physical cards or can be digital.

Why use flashcards?

There are three main reasons to use flashcards:

  1. Flashcards encourage you to learn actively – to put effort into your learning rather than just passively reading the material you wish to learn. You will be actively learning when you are creating the flashcards, as well as when you are using them.
  2. Flashcards encourage you to repeatedly engage with the learning material, which enhances long-term memory.
  3. They enable you to self-test. Check your progress by taking note of how many flashcards you are getting correct.

When should you use them?

Flashcards are helpful when you have a large amount of factual information to memorize. They are particularly useful, for example, when learning vocabulary for a foreign language, or learning anatomy terms, but are also used in history, geography, biology, and chemistry…. They can be used any time that you have a list of facts or concepts to memorize.

They are less useful when you need to learn more complex or higher-level learning. If you are likely to need to analyze, compare, evaluate, or explain information when you are tested in your course, you will need to use other study strategies to learn that material. For this sort of knowledge, learning by teaching is a good alternative.

How to create flashcards

  1. Decide whether you will create physical or digital flashcards. (For help making this decision, read the “Physical or Digital?” section below.)
  2. Look through your learning content and make a list of facts or concepts that you need to learn. It is a good idea to do this after each class.
  3. Add your list of facts or concepts to the cards. Each card should have one question/prompt on it, with one answer on the back

Things to consider when making each card

Make use of your learning style (find out what it is using the VAR+ learning styles questionnaire). If you have a Visual learning style, include diagrams, drawings, photos, and colors on your cards. If you have an Aural learning style, it may be helpful to include audio prompts (if you are using digital flashcards).

You don’t need to use complete sentences on the prompt side – you only need to include enough information so that you know what information you are being prompted for. For example, if you are learning a list of capital countries, instead of writing “What is the capital of Argentina?” in your prompt, you could just write “Argentina”.

In some situations, it is helpful to plan your cards so that they are reversible and you can learn them both ways. For example, when learning foreign language vocabulary, you might first look at the foreign side and try to remember the English translation, and once you have mastered that, you could turn the cards over to start with the English side and try to remember the foreign translation.

Why only one answer per card?

You may be tempted to include a list of answers on one card.
For example:

What bones are in the arm?
radius, ulna, and humerus

The problem with this is that you will be tempted to think you have learned the card even if you don’t recall all of the answers on the back card. You may think of “radius” and “ulna”, and when you view the answer, you see “humerus” and tell yourself that you do remember that too because you recognize it even if you did not recall it.

Physical or Digital?

Students generally prefer digital flashcards, and these do have some advantages over physical cards:

  • You can get started with digital cards right away, without having to first source suitable card material.
  • Audio can be used on digital cards.
  • It is easier to share sets of flashcards that are created digitally.
  • Digital cards can be used on multiple devices and in various locations, without having to carry physical cards around.
  • Digital flashcard systems can use optimized algorithms to help you learn the material more efficiently.

But you can create your flashcards on physical cards (don’t use paper – it is too thin if you can see the answer through the paper). Both methods can work well, as long as you understand the importance of spacing your repetitions.

Studies have found that the frequency and spacing of repetitions are very important for the effectiveness of flashcards. The advantage of a good digital flashcard application is that it will control the repetitions for you – optimizing the algorithms that control the flashcard repetitions is an important area of development in the digital flashcard industry. However, if you understand how to use flashcards effectively, there is no reason that you cannot get a good result with physical cards. (For more information about this, read the “How to use flashcards effectively” section below).

In “Comparing the efficacy of digital flashcards versus paper flashcards to improve receptive and productive L2 vocabulary” (2017) 1https://polipapers.upv.es/index.php/eurocall/article/view/6964, Dizon and Tang found little difference between the vocabulary gains made by those using digital flashcards compared to those using physical flashcards, as long as the use of physical flashcards incorporated appropriate learning strategies. They did, however, find that most students preferred using digital flashcards.

Ready-to-use flashcards?

It is possible to purchase flashcard sets – both physical and digital. But be aware that you will be learning while filtering your content and creating your flashcards yourself, not just when you are using your completed flashcards. So it is OK to spend some time creating your cards. Your own cards will better reflect the material you need to learn, and by the time you have created them, you will have already done a considerable portion of the learning!

How to use Flashcards effectively

Even if you plan to use digital flashcards, it is worth understanding the basics of how they should be used to be most effective, as this is an important consideration in selecting a digital flashcard application. If you are using physical flashcards, understanding how to use them effectively is vital, as studies have shown that how students think flashcards work best is not how they actually work best.

The main factors that determine how well the content of a flashcard is learned are:

  1. the number of times it has been reviewed.
  2. the way that the reviews are spread over time.
  3. the time since the last review.

A considerable amount of research has focused on optimizing the use of flashcards. The most important factors are:

1. Recognition vs Recall

Be aware of the difference between recognition and recall. When we repeatedly see information, we recognize it as familiar, and this can give us the impression that we know it. But when learning, you need to be able to retrieve the information from your memory or recall it.

So, when using your cards, test your recall by saying the answer (out loud is preferable, but in your head is OK too) before looking at the back of the card.

2. Spaced repetition

Repeat your use of the cards, but make sure you spread your repeats out over time.

Students generally think that breaking their flashcard sets up into smaller subsets works best, but this is not the case! It is much better for your long-term memory if you use larger sets of flashcards and repeat them over time. For example, if you have 70 flashcards, it would be better to review the full set once each day of the week, then it would be to review a different subset of 10 multiple times each day of the week.

In “Optimising Learning Using Flashcards: Spacing Is More Effective Than Cramming” (2009) 2https://web.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kornell/Publications/Kornell.2009b.pdf Nate Kornell found that:

Studying one large stack of flashcards (i.e. spacing) was more effective
than studying four smaller stacks of flashcards separately (i.e. massing). Spacing was also more effective than cramming—that is, massing study on the last day before the test. Across experiments, spacing was more effective than massing for 90% of the participants, yet after the first study session, 72% of the participants believed that massing had been more effective than spacing.

3. Focus your time and effort on difficult items

Spend more time on items that you are having trouble with, and less time on items you are easily recalling. Do this by removing items that you are repeatedly getting correct. But do keep those items aside to review again later, as it is very possible that you have only stored them in short-term memory.

The Leitner system is one way of organizing your flashcards so that you focus on difficult items if you are using physical cards. If using digital cards, be sure to select a system that manages this for you. You can read more about the Leitner system here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitner_system

4. Beware of the leeches!

Don’t waste time excessively repeating cards that you continually get wrong – cards that leech your effort with little reward.

If you repeatedly forget the answer to a card, change your tactics. Try these strategies:

  • Identify other cards that you are confusing the leech with, and review them separately.
  • Temporarily remove the leech and add it in again later, when you have learned a majority of the other cards.
  • Improve the content for the card – perhaps the content of the card can be broken down into multiple simpler cards, perhaps you could add a diagram, image, or some audio…
  • Improve your general understanding of the content on the card – find out more about whatever it is you are having trouble understanding. If you do not fully understand something, it will be more difficult to remember.

5. Review all cards before a test

You may have forgotten a card that you were able to recall earlier on and have not used recently, so make sure you review all of your cards before a test or exam.

Suggested Digital Flashcards

If you are looking for a good-quality digital flashcard application, try Anki.

  • has versions available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iPhone/iPad, and the web.
  • supports audio, images, and video
  • allows you to customize the spacing of repetitions to optimize your learning
  • will help you identify leeches
  • it is free!

What’s Next?