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Flashcards: Are you using them effectively when learning?

By Inez Zung* and Megan Imundo


*Inez recently earned her undergraduate degree at UCLA and will begin her PhD at UC San Diego in Fall 2021.


This post was originally published on April 13, 2020 on Psychology in Action.


Flashcard use is often recommended as an effective way for students to learn. Popular media sources list flashcards as a fun and easy way to study (e.g., Smith & Weinstein, 2016) and researchers back this recommendation for a number of reasons (e.g., Hung, 2015). Perhaps in part due to these recommendations, undergraduate students report using flashcards as a common study strategy when preparing for exams (Wissman, Rawson, & Pyc, 2012). One such reason is that flashcards promote self-testing if used in the traditional method of putting a word or question on one side and the definition or answer on the other. Testing is beneficial for learning because it requires effortful retrieval of learned information, which in turn strengthens the memory for that information (e.g., Bjork, 1975; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). In the typical flashcard format, students can test themselves by looking at the question or word side, generating an answer, and then checking to see if they gave the correct response by turning the flashcard over.


Using flashcards also promotes spaced learning. The spacing effect refers to the benefits to long-term learning from spacing studying across multiple sessions, as opposed to massing studying into one session (Carpenter, Cepeda, Rohrer, Kang, & Pashler, 2012). Spacing allows for some forgetting between sessions, which actually benefits long-term retention when retrieving the learned material again (e.g., Pavlik & Anderson, 2004). Though spacing is often thought of as simply incorporating multiple study sessions with a time delay in between, flashcard use can create spacing within a single study session. Studying other flashcards between iterations of a single flashcard creates spacing, and thus some forgetting, in between those iterations. As a result, students are more likely to be able to recall what they studied on those flashcards.

The act of making the flashcards themselves can also be a learning event. Generating words has been shown to be more effective for later recall than simply reading them (Slamecka & Graf, 1978). When students create flashcards, they generate the word-definition or question-answer pairs instead of passively rereading the textbook or their notes again.


While flashcard use can be extremely effective for long-term retention of information, there are also a few potential pitfalls if they are used ineffectively. Since flashcards can be made and used individually, students often use them for self-regulated study. Kornell and Bjork (2008) found that the effectiveness of such self-regulated study depends on the accuracy of metacognitive judgments, or students’ own evaluations of how well they can remember the information they are studying. When students use flashcards on their own, they might make inaccurate judgments of their own learning. For example, some students prematurely stop studying a particular flashcard (“dropping” a flashcard) because they think they have learned the material, even though it has not yet been fully integrated into long-term memory. Students can also cheat themselves when studying with flashcards. Students may look at the other side of the flashcard without putting in much effort to recall the answer first, or they may tell themselves that they would be able to recall the full answer in the future, even if at the moment they can only partially recall the material.


There are a few ways students can get around the potential pitfalls of using flashcards in order to benefit from the robust, long-term effects of retrieval practice, spacing, and generation. Studying in groups or pairs by testing each other using flashcards might be an effective way to make sure you are truly retaining the information. Having a partner can also help you make better metacognitive judgments so that you do not prematurely drop flashcards that could benefit from more study. If you can’t find anyone to study with or have to use flashcards on your own, keep yourself honest by actually reciting your full answer out loud before turning the flashcard over to evaluate your response.

Flashcards are an easy and effective way to study–if used correctly. Keep in mind why they work and the common mistakes people make when using them, and you might find your flashcard studying more efficient and helpful. Happy studying!


References

  1. Bjork, R. A. (1975). Retrieval as a memory modifier: An interpretation of negative recency and related phenomena. In R.L. Solso (Ed.), Information processing and cognition: The Loyola Symposium (pp. 123–144). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

  2. Carpenter, S. K., Cepeda, N. J., Rohrer, D., Kang, S. H. K., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instructions. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 369-378.

  3. Hung, H. -T. (2015). Intentional vocabulary learning using digital flashcards. English Language Teaching, 8(10), 107-112.

  4. Pavlik, P. I., & Anderson, J. R. (2005). Practice and forgetting effects on vocabulary memory: An activation-based model of the spacing effect. Cognitive Science, 29, 559-586.

  5. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210.

  6. Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The generation effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4(6), 592-604.

  7. Smith, M., & Weinstein, Y. (2016, June). Learn how to study using… retrieval practice. The Learning Scientists. https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/6/23-1 Wissman, K. T., Rawson, K. A., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). How and when do students use flashcards? Memory, 20(6), 568-579.

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