Flashcards are an extremely common study tool and, if used correctly, can be one of the most effective ways to learn new information. However, you may not be using them the best way which can reduce how much and how quickly you learn. Want to be an expert flashcard studier? This is your guide! We’ll cover exactly what makes flashcards such a good study tool, where you can make your flashcards, the absolute best method for studying them, and tips to avoid common flashcard pitfalls.
Why Are Flashcards so Effective for Learning?
What is it about going through a stack of flash cards that is so much better than other methods of studying? Flashcards are one of the most effective ways to learn new information, and there are multiple reasons for this.
First, making and studying flashcards requires active learning. Instead of passive learning like rereading notes or watching a video explanation of a topic, you have to test your memory on every card before you can flip it over and see the answer. This constant quizzing is a form of active recall, and studies have shown that active recall makes stronger neural connections in the brain, so you’re improving your memory much faster than you would with passive recall.
After you flip over a flashcard to see the answer, what’s the first thing you do? You compare that answer to the one you had in your head. This is called metacognition, and it’s a very effective way of ingraining memories because it forces you to reflect on your thought processes and amend them so they’re more accurate.
Additionally, when you study flashcards, you’re practicing a technique called confidence-based repetition or spaced repetition when you separate the cards into categories based on how well you know the answers. If you’re struggling with a particular flashcard, you’ll keep returning it to your stack so you can see it enough times to remember it. Scientific research has shown that repetition such as this is one of the most effective ways to learn and retain information because your brain is seeing the information multiple times, but spaced out enough to require it to strengthen its recall abilities.
Even though studying flashcards takes more effort than just sitting down with a stack of notes to browse, the active recall, metacognition, and confidence-based repetition techniques it promotes makes flashcard studying one of the absolute best ways to learn. So it’s worth the effort!
The 5 Best Ways to Make Flashcards
There are lots of ways to make flashcards. You can make them yourself with some paper and a writing utensil, or you can create a deck of flashcards online using a website or app. Each has its own pros and cons, and below are five of the best was to make flash cards.
Pen and Paper
We’re big fans of old school flashcards you make yourself with notecards and a pen. It takes longer than making flashcards online, but writing out each flashcard yourself helps you remember the information better than simply typing it, and having a physical deck of cards makes it easier to use our favorite Waterfall Method of studying (see the next section). Just grab some note cards or paper, cut them down to size if needed, and start making your flashcards!
One of the most popular online flashcard websites, Quizlet allows you to make and study flashcards either on their website or on their app, so you can study anywhere you want. You can also study flashcard sets other users have created which can be helpful if you don’t have time to create your own flashcard set and someone has already made one on the same topic you’re studying. It’s free to set up an account, however; some flashcard sets and methods of studying (such as those that emphasize confidence-based repetition) require you to pay to use them.
Cram has all the features of Quizlet, but it allows you to use different testing methods such as Memorize (which uses confidence-based repetition) and Test (where you match correct answers) for free. You can use the website or app version.
A feature that sets this flashcard maker apart is that it allows you to easily add images/diagrams to your flashcards, which can be very useful for studying certain subjects. The site is heavy on design features (you can choose the exact text size, color, and font you want) which can be annoying if you just want to create a simple deck of flashcards, but if you want your cards to look a certain way, this is a good site to use. It has both a website and an app you can use.
In addition to standard features, the Flashcard Machine website and app allows you to add audio to flashcards, which can be particularly useful for studying a new language. It also makes it easy to add a collaborator to a flashcard set, so a group of classmates can work together to create flashcards they can all use.
The Best Way to Study With Flashcards
Once you’ve gone through the trouble of making your flashcards, you’ll want to study them in the most effective way to get the most out of them. Our preferred way is called the Waterfall Method. Using the principles of confidence-based repetition, this method essentially forces you to focus on cards you don't know while preventing you from wasting time on flashcards you’ve already answered correctly. It’s easiest to use with physical (rather than online) flashcards so you can sort them into the appropriate piles.
You’ll want to begin with a stack of about 30-50 flashcards:
Go through the entire stack. If you know the answer right away, put it in a Know It pile. If you struggled to remember what was on the other side of the card, put it in a Struggled pile. You'll end up with two stacks of flashcards:
Pick up the Struggled pile and repeat the process. The Struggled pile will have fewer cards than your Starting Stack does. This second time through, put the cards you know into a new Know It pile and the cards you're still struggling with in a new Struggled pile.
You will now have three stacks of flashcards:
Keep repeating this process until you have just one to five flashcards left in your last Struggled pile:
We call this method the Waterfall Method because you essentially have a cascading waterfall, where cards that are really hard for you to answer keep tumbling into farther and farther piles.Theoretically, at this point you should know nearly all the answers to the entire set of flashcards. Now, we're going to go back up the waterfall.
Combine your last Struggled pile with your last Know It pile. This will become your Working Pile:
Now, review all the flashcards in this pile. If you answer any cards incorrectly, go through all of them again. Yes—this takes time, but it's the best way to really memorize all the information in your flashcards. The effort will be worth it!
Once you've correctly answered all the flashcards, combine this pile with the next highest pile:
At the very end, you should end up back with a Starting Stack. And you'll know every single answer on the flashcards!
The reason that this method is so effective is that you'll review the hardest flashcards for you more than 10 times more often than easy flashcards.
Most students just go through flashcards from front to back. They might already know half the answers, but they spend equal time on cards they know and cards they don't know.
Now that you know how to use the Waterfall Method, you'll be a smarter student and can learn and retain information much more easily when you study with this method.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Flashcards
In this section we discuss four tips to use when making and using your flash cards so you can be sure you’re using your study time as effectively as possible.
#1: Use Them for Topics Best Suited to Flashcard Study
Some topics are better suited for flashcards than others. Topics where you need to learn a lot of small pieces of information, like vocab or historical dates, are often the best to study with flashcards. You don’t want to overload your flashcards with too much information (see tip #3), so don’t try to use them to study complicated topics, like geometric proofs or explanations of different biological processes. If it’s difficult to fit the entire answer on one side of a flashcard, that’s a sign you’re better off using a different study method.
#2: Make Your Own Flashcards
Although it can be tempting to use a set of flashcards already made by someone else, this isn’t the most effective way to study. It’ll save you time in the beginning because you can start studying them immediately, but there are two main issues with this method. First is that the process of creating flashcards is actually one of the ways you memorize information (again, active vs passive learning), and when you simply use cards created by someone else, you completely eliminate that opportunity for learning.
Second is that, many times, even if a flashcard set you found online says it covers the same topic you’re studying, it may not include all the information you need to know. Anyone can post flashcard sets online, and you could end up using one that focuses on information other than what you need to know or, even worse, has inaccurate answers. If you do need to use a pre-made set of flashcards, don’t let it be your own method of studying so you can make sure you’re still reviewing all the information you need to know.
#3: Include the Right Amount of Information on Your Flashcards
There’s a bit of an art to creating great flashcards: you want to include enough information so you learn everything you need to, but you don’t want to overload your flashcards with so many facts that it takes forever to go through them. If you’re making flashcards for more complicated topics, try including short bullet points (a max of three or so per card) on the back so you’re not writing paragraphs. And remember, flashcards don’t need to be your only way to study, and they often shouldn’t be. You may find it more useful to include some of the simpler information in your flashcards, then use other methods to study more complicated topics.
#4: Study Your Flashcards Frequently
One of the best things about flashcards is their portability. Even if you have a physical set of flashcards, carrying a stack of them around is much easier than lugging around a textbook or all your notes for a class. Take advantage of this! As we mentioned above, repetition is one of the best ways to get our brains to remember new information, so you should make an effort to study your flashcards frequently.
Multiple short sessions, even if they only last a few minutes, are more effective than one long study session. Whenever you have a spare bit of time, whether while waiting for a friend to show up, sitting in an Uber, etc., pull out your flashcards and do some review.
Summary: Online Flashcards
Flashcards are one of the best ways to remember new information because they incorporate active learning, repetition, and reflection of your answers. We recommend using a physical deck of flash cards to study, but online flashcards can also be very useful, and there are a variety of flashcard makers to help you create your deck.
Once you’ve made your flash cards, we recommend using the waterfall method to study, as this is the most effective way to get through a stack of flashcards and learn all the information they contain. When studying your flashcards, be sure to only use them for topics suited to flash card study, make your own cards, include an appropriate amount of information on each card, and study them regularly.
Now that you've tackled how to study better, make sure you actually get that studying done by learning how to overcome procrastination.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.