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Revision Toolkit: Flashcards

I’ve got to admit, I do have a penchant for flashcards; they are my revision aid of choice and have been since my undergraduate finals in the early 90s. However, as with most things in life, there is a continuum on which lies the effectiveness of this means of assisting learning and memory.

When flashcards are maligned, it is perhaps when they have not been used to best effect; mindlessly copying out notes onto flashcards and them banishing to the back of your desk drawer is not likely to bring about grade-changing effects.

When they are well executed, they have many advantages including:

  • Their service as a tool to promote metacognition i.e. one’s awareness of one’s own learning; what do you already know? what do you need to work on?

  • Their ease of use by a willing supporter; having well-designed flashcards means you can enlist the help of any subject-novice and they will be able to support you in your learning and revision which means no more ‘but this isn’t how I did maths when I was at school’.

  • Their size and portability – you can take them anywhere; you’ll never be stuck for something to do whilst waiting in a queue and you can use them right up until you walk into your exam.

So, how to do flashcards well:

Choose your flashcards wisely

Flashcards should be designed for extensive use; if they’re not used extensively, then you’ve missed the point. They should be made of card in order that they can withstand several hours of manual handling. Ideally, they should be the old-fashioned variety which live in a box and have separators (see below).

At the top of each flashcard, write a question

Use the remainder of that side of the flashcard to answer the question. Do not make the rookie mistake of writing a question on one side and the answer on the other as this makes it difficult for your subject-novice to support you (if you can see the answer while they’re asking you the question it kind of defeats the object!)

Revision is more than knowing the facts

If all of your questions start with ‘what…?’, then you may be at risk of being too focused on facts. ‘What…?’ questions are perfectly valid e.g.

  • What is the quadratic formula?

  • What is Pythagoras’ theorem?

  • What is the cosine of 60 degrees?

But if your questions are limited to the ‘what’ variety, you might be missing a trick. Include questions which explore when certain methods, formulae or actions may or may not be valid e.g.

  • When is it appropriate to use substitution to solve simultaneous equations rather than elimination?

and, the more exploratory, ‘why’ questions e.g.

  • Why is dividing by a fraction the same as multiplying by the reciprocal of that fraction?

Check your progress

Use your separators to enable you to check your progress. Split your flashcard box into five compartments. Initially, put all of your flashcards in the front compartment. Ask your study-buddy to quiz you on your flashcards. If you answer correctly, that card gets to move back one compartment. If you answer a flashcard incorrectly, it stays in the same compartment for next time.

Continue to test yourself and move cards towards the back of the box every time you answer it correctly. Test yourself very regularly on compartment one, and less regularly the further back you go through the box. Ideally, test compartment one every day, compartment two every other day, compartment three every three days etc.

Your aim is to get every card in the back compartment.

When to write a new flashcard

  • Every time you learn something new.

  • Every time you get a question wrong. Research the correct method, or check with your tutor, and write a new flashcard.

  • Every time you realise that you used to be able to do something, but you’ve forgotten how.

  • Every time you get feedback from a test, homework or mock.

Let me know how you get on.



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