Research School Network: Effective flashcards

Effective flashcards

by Durrington Research School
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As with many teaching and learning tools, flashcards will be nothing new to most teachers. Many of us (myself not included sadly) will have revised for our own exams with lovingly created decks of brightly coloured card. Perhaps it is surprising then that there is not a huge volume of research regarding their effectiveness.

Classic papers by Dunlosky, Rosenshine and others have put substantial weight behind the importance of retrieval practice and distributed/​spaced practice to long-term retention of knowledge. However, support for the ubiquitous flashcard, which can in theory be used to achieve both these goals, comes largely from teacher wisdom. Perhaps that is no bad thing. As John Tomsett said: Research evidence should supplement, not supplant, the wisdom of teachers.”

Having said that, if we are regularly encouraging our student charges to create and use flashcards it seems sensible to apply what research there is to this advice. What follows is some tips on both the creation and use of flashcards. Some are the product of trial and error here at Durrington and others come directly from research evidence. Flashcards are one technique that we will be exploring during our three-day training programme on improving memory, the details of which can be found here.

1.Making them:

  • Ensure that the flashcards have a question or key term on one side and the answer or definition on the other. Sometimes students will instead write out their notes on to flashcards and end up with a tiny catalogue of summarised notes. The problem here is the flashcard must work the memory, so the action of using them must force the user to dredge information from their long-term memory before checking the answer. If flashcards only contain notes then no retrieval practice will be happening and they might as well re-read their exercise books.

  • Ensure the right questions and knowledge are on the cards. If students are given complete freedom on what to include they may end up testing themselves on either non-essential knowledge, or worse, incorrect knowledge. The second scenario is particularly damaging as testing incorrect knowledge will embed that knowledge and making very difficult to dislodge. It is the equivalent of setting a homework to make a fact file on Martin Luther King” with no direction on where the find the information. What comes back is often irrelevant and/​or wrong. Therefore, as teachers we need to use tools such as knowledge organisers to direct students on what knowledge to use when making flashcards:

2.Using them:

  • The first and most obvious tip is to ensure that there is a thinking pause after picking one up and reading the question. If the card is turned too quickly then the student will not go through the process of trying to remember the knowledge needed to find the answer. Evidence tells us that the act of trying to remember, even if unsuccessful, aids learning. Therefore a proper pause is a must before flipping the card.

  • It may seem counterintuitive but it is important not to stop testing flashcards even after students have got the answer right without having to check. In a 2008 paper Kornell and Bjork found that the due to the benefits of overlearning (continuing to learn something after fluency has been achieved) students should not drop” flashcards after getting the answer right. They found, firstly, that students tended to drop flashcards as soon as they had got the answer correct once, with only 1% of students continuing to test themselves with cards after getting the answer correct 4 or more times. Furthermore, they found that when students did continue to test themselves with flashcards even after getting the answers correct, the overall proportion of answers they got right would increase. The results are shown below: 
  • A further piece of research evidence to consider comes from Senzaki, Hackathorn, Appleby and Gurung. In this article they discuss the trial of a technique called Flashcards-Plus. The technique involves building on the classic system of using flashcards in order to deepen understanding. As well as retrieving the knowledge, students also then write the answer or definition in their own words before then finding a concrete example of the information from their own lives. Here then the technique draws on the benefits of elaboration and concrete examples to aid learning. The technique would inevitably increase the time spent using flashcards in a single session, but the trial did find benefits to student outcomes for those that used this system.

  • Finally, flashcards can exploit the learning benefits of interleaving. This technique involves switching between different topics and/​or subjects during a single study session. It is a headache to use in the classroom and should be used with caution as it can confuse students (and teachers). However, it works well for revision. Once students have got several decks of flashcards covering several topics and subjects they can jumble them up. By doing so they will be testing knowledge from chemistry, history and English within a single session, forcing them to jump between different sections of knowledge. This probably works best as an extra layer once students have developed confidence with their flashcards and would be useful to keep the process going over the long-term.

Flashcards then are more than a colourful piece of card. On first look they seem perfectly simple, and of course they are, but it is the subtleties of how they are created and used that will ultimately decide whether they become a student’s best friend or simply another time consuming distraction.

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