June 27th, 2017

Learn and study better with flashcards

Big exam coming up, lots to cover? Flashcards, which are study aids containing key information (often with questions on one side of the card and answers on the reverse) are a sure-fire way to absorb key concepts in a relatively short amount of time.

Engaging active recall

Flashcards are effective because they help you engage a mental faculty known as “active recall.” Simply put, flashcards actively stimulate your memory during the learning process, as opposed to just passively, which strengthens the neural pathways needed to remember information.

For instance, reading a passage in a textbook about common share ownership is a passive review. However, answering the question on a flashcard that asks “What are the benefits of common share ownership?” represents active recall.

With that key benefit in mind, here are some tips to get the most out of your flashcard study sessions.

Essentials to get you started

  • Make your own – Try not to borrow or buy cards, even if you’re crunched for time. Taking in new information, dealing with it in your mind and creating something new – in your own way – builds stronger neural pathways to help you retrieve what you’ve learned.
  • The right material – Don’t cut corners by cutting out paper cards. Make sure you’re using thicker material so you can’t look through them and see the answers. Standard index cards are ideal.
  • Use coloured cards – If you can, try different coloured cards. They’re easier to look at and study from, and you can colour-code them by study topics or subjects.

Formulating your questions/answers

  • One question/answer per card – Each card should represent one study question and answer. Having multiple questions or answers on one card is simply too much information at once. Single pieces of information are easier to memorize and ensure that you are, in fact, associating specific questions to specific answers.
  • Simplicity is key – Keep the language simple and limit information to a few words. If an answer can be broken up, arrange them as bullet points. As mentioned, smaller, single units of information are easier to memorize.
  • Go beyond words – Many people tend to remember imagery better than words. Associating a concept with a simple picture or symbol, or using mnemonic devices in your flashcard answers, is valuable. Consider the example of studying the phases of the business cycle. Since pigs eat from troughs, a picture of a pig beside “contraction” and “recovery” can help you remember that these reflect the “trough” portion of the cycle.

Now go study

  • Test yourself – Once you’ve created your cards, begin memorizing information by reading the questions to yourself and trying to recall as much as you can. Having someone else read out the questions to you as you say the answers aloud is effective, too.
  • Study both ways – You should also review your cards in the reverse order, by reading the answer first and recalling the question. This pushes you to interpret the information differently and, in turn, builds stronger neural pathways for remembering the information later.
  • Space out your sessions – Your goal shouldn’t be to get through your flashcards quickly. Pace your sessions, study in short bursts and take periodic breaks. Doing so will help you determine where you’re weak and ensures you stay focused on smaller chunks of information, which makes memorization easier.

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IFSE has other study tips available to help students become successful. You can view them in our blog section.