The University 411: Flash Cards are for Everyone

The benefits of flash cards is that they’re versatile. You can make them out of everything from proper full-sized index cards, to apps (yes there are apps for this!), or even torn scraps of paper. I used to keep little sandwich bags full of torn up pieces of paper. They’re also convenient. They’re not the same weight as a heavy, lar textbook that you need to carry around everywhere. Which means you can slip them out while you’re waiting for class to start or on the bus.

The age old question ever since they decided to give people grades for their education: how best to study? There are of course countless ways to study for an exam situation and we’ll talk about one of them today: Flash Cards. Flash Cards are for EVERYONE, for any field of study, and for all ages.

But how best to use flash cards? There are multiple ways to go about this but first and foremost, don’t wait until the week before exams to prepare flash cards. For one, you’ll end up spending too much time on creation and not enough time actually using them. But also, as we talked about with note-taking, you want to review the information almost immediately after you learn it so that you can start processing that short-term memory into long-term memory. So if you’re re-writing your notes, you might want to consider creating flash cards at the same time or in lieu of re-writing in a notebook. Once you’ve done that, you should review your flashcards regularly, at least once a week. This means you’ve started studying as soon as semester starts and you’re not cramming in information right before the exam.

Whenever possible, your flash cards should have two sides: One side as a prompt – or word or a concept – and the other side with the related information. This way you can test yourself by reading the face card as a prompt and supplying the answer before your turn it over to check your response. Ideally, you should be able to use both sides as a prompt. For example, if you’re taking a language class, let’s say Spanish, and you’re making flashcards based on vocabulary. When you test yourself with your flashcards, can you look at the Spanish word and recognize the English translation? How about vice versa? Can you also look at the English word and supply the Spanish translation? If you’re unable to supply the answer using either side as a prompt, then you still haven’t mastered the concept.

When you’re reviewing your flashcards, divide them into two piles: cards that you know the answer to quickly and easily, and cards that you struggle with. This latter pile is the one you should focus on with *studying*. BUT don’t discard or ignore the cards from the first pile. Remember to review them occasionally to make sure you haven’t forgotten the information. If you have, move them back into your study pile. (If you’re using an app, find one that has a feature where you can decide to ignore or disable a flashcard temporarily.)

I’m of the opinion that flashcards can be used in every field and for any age group. They’re more likely used in fact-heavy fields, where you need to memorize information for multiple choice or fill in the blank like the bones of a body. But take a moment to consider what sort of test questions you will have and how you can utilise flashcards to help you. Things like conceptual knowledge and terminology (like what the heck is the difference between negative reinforcement and positive punishment? How do you conjugate a verb?). Maybe you need to remember equations and formulas. Or do you struggle remembering key names and dates? If so Maybe, think about what names and dates appear in your notes.Maybe you need to memorize the name of a painting plus the painter and date (put name of painting on one side, and date and painter on other). I always struggled with names; I still remember – 18 years later – writing a history exam with an essay response and completely forgetting the name of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So I used a completely different first name EVERYTIME I wrote down Archduke, from Phillipe to Fitzgerald. Learning from that lesson, when I switched majors to literature, I made sure to study the names of all the characters in the novel or play.

While these examples focus more on short and simple facts, you can also use flash cards for big concepts. So you know the name of a painting and painter, but what next? What’s important about the painting? Or your on top of Spanish vocabulary but you’re still not sure how to conjugate a verb. Think about how to use flash cards irregardless of your field of study or type of exam questions. Even if you’re expected to answer essay questions think about what knowledge you need to memorize in order to get a good grade and turn that into a flash card to help you study. Think about this early, as you review your notes, so you can start creating and carrying around flash cards well in advance of your exam. You’ll thank yourself later when you’re not up all night desperately cramming.

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