Teachers worldwide try many methods to get their students to recall and relay information about different topics. Simply telling a student information and expecting them to remember it is not the most practical or effective method for learning and retaining new information. While there are several ways to help your students recall information and contextualize it, one method stands out above the rest: flashcards. Let’s take a closer look at what flashcards are and why you should get your students to use them.


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What Are Flashcards?

When most people picture flashcards, the image of a notecard comes to mind. It might have an image or phrase on one side with information on the other. Some may have a question-and-answer format.

Flashcards are typically grouped by subject matter. For example, you might have a collection of flashcards that are all about the countries of the world. You might pull out one with “The United States of America” written on one side. The other side will have information about the capital city, the date the country was founded, and other relevant bits of information. 

Flashcards can be big or small, but they all are made and used by teachers and students alike to teach and learn. 


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Are Flashcards Effective?

In short, yes. The reason why flashcards are so effective is that they promote something called active recall. Active recall is the process of retrieving information from the brain. For example, when you read about a specific subject repeatedly, that is passive learning. But when you are asked a direct question like “what are flashcards?” answering that question is a form of active recall. 

With flashcards, students will see an image or a term. They will then actively try to remember information they have learned about the subject. Another concept behind the effectiveness of flashcards is a learning method called retrieval practice, the core idea behind making and using flashcards. 

What is retrieval practice? It’s all about being able to recall information purely from memory. Students will need to store what they’ve just studied and attempt to remember it. After recalling what they can, they can look at their notes to see what they might’ve missed. They can make a physical or mental note of what they remembered and didn’t. Some students may have trouble with this until they feel confident in what they remember. 

By encouraging retrieval practice methods like flashcards, your students will learn how to recall information from memory. Active recall through retrieval practice methods helps transform short-term into long-term memory. This means practicing retrieval practice, creating flashcards, and reviewing them regularly will help active recall and learning.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Flashcards

Flashcards have become a proven tool to test and improve short and long-term memory, but what are some other advantages of flashcards? With all the upsides, there must be some downsides as well. Let’s explore both.

Advantages

Inexpensive: Flashcards are a largely inexpensive method of studying. Notecards, or even just pieces of paper, are cheap and affordable. There’s no real need for students to use fancy cards since what matters is the information they put on them, not the physical material. 

Portable: Unlike textbooks, binders, and notebooks, flashcards are easy to transport from one place to another. Even a hefty collection of flashcards is easier to carry around than one textbook. Since students study different subjects simultaneously, they can carry around multiple sets of flashcards with ease, ditching the pile of heavy textbooks. Not to mention, it’s much easier to find specific bits of information on a card than in a book.

Customizable: Since flashcards can be on any material, students can customize them and make them unique. Subjects can be color-coded or have images to stimulate students’ memories better. Customizing their studying method gives more of a personal experience. Premade flashcards that are not written in a student’s own words can create a disconnect in learning.

Efficient: Flashcards have every vital bit of information necessary right on the card, making them concise and to the point. Learning straight from large texts can cause students to become fatigued and hurt their recollection of information. 

Versatile: Flashcards can be made and used for any subject. Students can use them for complex ideas like calculus and language, and they’re most commonly used for exam preparation. There’s no limit to what flashcards can be used for, making them popular.

Disadvantages

Memorization over learning: A common issue with flashcard users is prioritizing memorization over active learning. Improperly using flashcards can lead to simply knowing information rather than contextualizing it. To avoid just regurgitating facts, make sure students’ flashcards are more than just simple definitions. Encourage them to make engaging cards that trigger active recall. 

Ignores other learning methods: Your students might all be visual learners, hands-on learners, or a mix of different learning styles. Flashcards can be great for audiovisual learners but not for others. One way to combat this is to encourage students to make their own flashcards. Don’t just give them premade flashcards because they might feel impersonal and won’t fit the student’s unique learning style. Not all students learn in the same way, and it will be up to them to figure out what works best for them to have the best experience. 

Do College Students Use Flashcards?

Flashcards have been used to teach students as young as six years old. Their benefits greatly outweigh their disadvantages, and even many college students use flashcards. In fact, more than 50% of college students say they use them. Because flashcards are inexpensive to buy and make, college students can easily access them. And since flashcards are very portable, college students don’t have to worry about carrying around expensive and heavy textbooks.

There are even studies on the usefulness of flashcards. Students who use flashcards get better test grades than those who do not. One study looked at 470 students, where 70% of the class used flashcards to study. Those students ended up performing much better than those who didn’t. But college students should know that while flashcards are helpful, creating them the night before an exam will not pay off.

How To Get Your Students To Benefit From Flashcards

As a teacher, it’s important to emphasize studying and how to do it well. A key element of flashcards is using them effectively.

Teach students to do more than memorize information. Memorization is an ineffective use of time and doesn’t engage active recall. Encourage them to ask themselves questions about the subject on the card, even to speak out loud when using them at home. Students should also be encouraged to put only the most important bits of information on a flashcard. They shouldn’t be filling them out with everything from the textbook, as that will overload their brains.

For your students to get the most out of using flashcards, you have to let them do what is best for them. This means letting them take control of their study material and encouraging them to put more than just the correct answers on their cards. Flashcards are all about personal learning styles and what works best for active recall.

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