Flashcards Revisited

          I am a believer…a believer in Flashcards! As the semester moves along and I see my students studying for exams I decided to revisit a topic I talked about a few months ago–the power of flashcards. I will present some information that I posted earlier, but I wanted to add some data to show how effective flashcards can be for your studying.

computer-flashcardpost2          Flashcards have a interesting reputation. On the one hand they are typically viewed as a tool for young children who are learning basic arithmetic. A child reads 2 + 2 on the front of a card and then must come up with the answer. They check their accuracy by looking on the back of the card. On the other hand, my own research has shown that flashcards really have no age limits and that flashcards are especially useful for college students. If you need to study a large amount of information and you are going to be asked specific questions (e.g., multiple-choice exams) flashcards are an ideal way to study. As I said in my earlier post, whether it is learning chemical symbols, psychological terms, or historical events flashcards work!

          Here is a short description of my research showing the effectiveness of flashcards. I did a study a few years ago that was published in Teaching of Psychology. I surveyed students in my Intro to Psychology class—there were 415 students in the class. I found that 141 used flashcards on all exams. Most of these flashcard users had written flashcards that they made themselves on 3×5 cards instead of using online flashcard sites like Quizlet.(I should note that I have seen many more students using online sites in just the few years since I published my research.) The results showed that students who used flashcards on all exams had significantly higher scores overall than those who did not use flashcards on all three exams. My survey also found that about 75% of my students used flashcards in any of their classes, especially in Natural Science courses like Chemistry and Biology.


          Flashcards work for various reasons. A few specific things flashcards make you do is (a) distribute your studying over time, which has been shown to lead to better memory; (b) be an active participant in your studying; (c) manage your study time effectively; and (d) make your studying more like the exam you will be taking. With this in mind, here are my pointers on making and using flashcards. I will add that I made a video that can give you a start to helping you make flashcards:


1) make flashcards after each class; typically, everything in your notes should be on a card

2) be brief on each flashcard (more like exam itself)

3) as you write (or type) each flashcard, you should pay attention and learn the information on the card

4) after making the flashcards, shuffle them–it is rare to be tested on information in sequential order

5) test yourself using the flashcards right after you make cards

6) when you test yourself, put each tested flashcard in a pile of “Know” or “Don’t Know”

7) Go back over the “Don’t Know” pile until you can answer each flashcard correctly

8) After each lecture make new flashcards, add them to your old flashcards, shuffle the deck and then test yourself as before

If you follow the steps I described above (and in the video) I think you will find that using flashcards can really help you out in those courses that lend themselves to this type of study strategy.

Dropping a Course: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

One of the toughest decisions you might have to face in college is whether to drop a course or not. The fact that you have this choice makes clear that college is a time when you have a lot more say over your education than in the past (e.g.., you can’t just drop courses in high school). However, it also shows that as you go through colleges there seem to be more and more decisions you need to make.


Why would consider dropping a course? Believe it or not there are many possible reasons for dropping a course and they really range quite a bit in the circumstances surrounding the course you are in:

          You don’t like the Instructor 
          You feel the course is not meeting your expectations (e.g., too hard)
          You are not doing well in the course
          You are spending too much time on this course
          You are feeling stressed and anxious because of the course
          You have had significant life changes and can’t spend time on the course

Regardless of the reason, I feel it is very important that ultimately it is you who takes the responsibility for making the decision about dropping or not. Sure you should talk to others about your situation—an advisor, friends, family members, and/or the Instructor–but in the end you must be the person who decides to stay or go. Also, do not think that if you drop the course that it indicates some weakness on your part. To the contrary, this decision is a sign of strength, that you realized something was wrong and you took steps to deal with the situation and move forward with your college career.

As you consider your decision, here are a number of critical questions to think about:

1) If you drop the course, can you take it later? When you take a course you typically need it to fulfill some requirement. But, dropping a course does not mean you cannot take it another semester. If you need the course, check with your advisor and see when it will be offered again. It is likely that the course will be offered soon and you can retake the course with a better outcome.


2) Should you just hang in there and hope that things will get better? In some cases this might be a worthwhile strategy. Perhaps you had a something relatively minor come up that set you back and you can overcome this “hiccup in the road” with renewed effort. However, this can be a risky strategy and all the work in the world may not overcome certain factors that indicate you should drop. For example, if you feel that you do not mesh with the Instructor’s teaching style it is probably best to drop and move on. It is unlikely the Instructor is going to change their style to suit you any time soon.

3) What are the financial implications of dropping the course? Now this gets a little more complicated because there are two issues to keep in mind: tuition costs and financial aid

a) Tuition costs. Most colleges have you pay tuition for a range of full-time credit hours. For example, you pay the same amount for taking 12-15 credit hours. Therefore, if you are taking 15 credit hours and you drop a 3 credit hour course, your tuition payment will not be affected. In this case, dropping a course is not going to set you or your parents back any money.

 b) Financial aid. For certain types of financial aid you must be taking a certain number of credit hours. Thus, if you drop a course you might fall below the threshold and potentially lose your financial aid—not good! For other types of financial aid, dropping a course is tied to financial aid dates. These dates indicate what percentage of financial aid you will lose—dropping early in the semester penalizes you less than dropping later in the semester.

4) Will your transcript reflect dropping a course? Maybe—it all depends on dates again. Whether you know it or not, there is an academic calendar at every college that indicates the deadlines for when certain things must get done, including dropping courses. For example, colleges allow you a short grace period at the start of each semester (typically a few days or a week) where you are allowed to drop a course and that course will not even appear on your transcript. However, as the semester moves on the “penalty” for dropping gets a bit tougher. This may include a grade of “W” (for withdraw) appearing on your transcript. Ultimately, there is a date where you basically cannot drop a course (and must accept the grade you are going to get) unless you have extenuating circumstances (e.g., an extended illness). The bottom line is to know your drop dates!

5) Does having a “W” on my transcript hurt my chances to be accepted to graduate or professional school or to get a job offer? Again, it depends. A student may worry that a “W” grade on a transcript will indicate to others that they were lazy or not able to deal with difficult material. However, it is typically the case that a “W” on a transcript does not give any indication for why a student dropped a particular course. Thus, a faculty member could infer something negative about a student who has a “W”, but it would be an inference with no actual evidence. Let me add this to hopefully make you feel better–in my 28 years as a professor, sitting on admissions committees every year, I never heard a colleague suggest not accepting a student because they had a “W” grade.

As you can see, dropping a course is not a very simple process. It requires a lot of thinking and ultimately a difficult decision on your part. However, with the help of others (especially your advisor) I am confident you will make the right choice.