Why Flash Cards Work

Some students swear by cramming right before tests. Others insist on highlighting or underlining important material while reading textbooks. From neumonic devices to silly rhymes or songs, effective study techniques vary from person to person, but flash cards have been a tried and true method of learning for generations of students.

These small cards, which can come bearing vocabulary words, historical dates, mathematical formulas, or any other topics that can be studied in a question-and-answer format, are frequently used as a learning tool by students of all ages. Whether you opt for the handwritten variety made from index cards or an app that uses digital flash cards, research has found that flash cards really are an effective learning tool.

Use Curiosity to Your Advantage

Humans are curious creatures by nature. Curiosity is what allows kids to continually explore and discover. Flipping over a card to learn the name of the object pictured is a novel concept because it's fun, at least for preschool-aged children. Of course, this type of novelty wears off as we age, but even somewhat jaded adults can be tempted to turn a flashcard to see if they knew the correct answer during a study session.

Distributed Practice is More Effective

They say practice makes perfect. It's an old cliché, but research shows it's also true. Although some procrastinators will claim otherwise, studying or practicing something repetitively over a period of time is generally a much more effective method than attempting to learn it overnight. Quizzing yourself with small stacks of cards allows you to study in short spurts. If you repeat those quick study sessions several times over the course of a week or two, chances are you will learn and recall the information much better than you would had you studied for eight hours straight right before an exam. Dubbed "the spacing effect," this practice was found to be a more effective study technique than cramming.

An Easy Form of Reinforcement

Flash cards can be used to reinforce facts, statistics, definitions, and whatever else you are attempting to learn. The easier something is, the more likely you are to do it, and a small stack of flash cards is a quick and easy way to study. One of the best things about flash cards is that they are portable enough to take them wherever you need to go. You can use them to study anytime you have a few spare minutes: before class, in waiting rooms, on the bus, or even at lunch.

Self-Testing to Determine Study Needs

Flash cards are a great tool for self-testing. For example, a stack of math cards usually have math problems on one side and answers on the other side. For elementary school students who are attempting to memorize multiplication tables, using math flash cards to check their own knowledge is an effective method of determining which problems still need extra study time.

Better Comprehension Skills

When used to study new words, definitions, and facts, flash cards help students build their comprehension skills. Improved comprehension skills can lead to faster and more precise reading, making flash cards a great tool for students who are attempting to expand their vocabularies or learn a foreign language.

Do What Works for You

Index cards and a pen or pencil are a cheap, easy way to make your own flash cards; just be sure to ask a teacher or peer to confirm you're using the correct answers! No one wants to study incorrect information. If you prefer something a little more sophisticated, pre-printed cards dealing with many subjects are often available for purchase. Digital cards or virtual cards are yet another option. If quizzing yourself with virtual flash cards on your iPhone will actually help you study, then by all means do it.

Quick Flashcard Tips

Just remember, flash cards are intended to be a quick, easy method of reinforcing facts. Keep your cards simple; trying to include too much content on each card can lead to information overload and drive you crazy.

A stack of flash cards works best when it shares a common theme. Mixing math equations and vocab words might seem like a good idea, but studying one topic at a time is usually more effective.

Last but not least, don't be afraid to include images on flash cards, especially if you are a visual learner. Pictures, if they are applicable to what you are studying, can help make flash cards more memorable and therefore more effective.