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.

Tips for Taking Multiple-Choice Exams

By now, most of you have already taken a multiple-choice exam. If you haven’t yet, then you will soon. These exams are the preferred method of testing in many college classes, especially large survey courses. These exams are easy to grade, and professors can ask questions about a lot of material. Despite how often these exams are given, multiple-choice exams aren’t often well liked. Selecting one right answer from among many wrong ones can be pretty hard. There might be more than one right answer, “all of the above” answers and even the dreaded “none of the above.” In spite of this, you should understand that multiple-choice exams generally involve recognition (identifying an item you’ve already seen), which is often easier than recall (generating an item from memory).


The topic of multiple-choice exams is quite large, so I’m going to break it up into more than one post. In this one, I’ll talk about how to prepare for multiple-choice exams. There are three main points to make with regard to preparation:

1) Study, Study, Study! It’s critical to study hard, because multiple-choice exams are all about memorizing details—definitions, dates, formulas, and so on. In addition, do not cram for these exams because there is typically so much information you need to learn. Also, as I’ve said before, a great way to study details is to use flashcards because this study method is specifically designed to get you remembering a lot of specific information. Finally, keep in mind when you study that multiple-choice exams are typically going to test your ability to recognize information but may also test your ability to apply the information you learned to different situations.

2) Learn specifics about each multiple-choice exam you are taking. Talk to the Instructor and be sure you’re clear on how many questions are on the exam and how much time you have to take it. Then use this information to calculate how long you can spend on every question, while still leaving at least five minutes at the end to check your answers.

3) See if you can get old exams so you can review them. Even if your instructor doesn’t have old exams, maybe they tell you something about the questions and answers. Are the questions long or short? Does each answers always involve one specific choice that is present in the choice of answers, or are there going to be other choices, like “a and b” or “none of the above?” The more you know about the exam, the better prepared you will be.

Preparation is important, but of course taking the exam has its own issues. I will discuss tips to taking multiple-choice exams in another post.

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.


The Power of Flashcards

Most of you have already started the semester, and with that (for better or worse) comes the thought of future exams. Even though you probably don’t like thinking about this, you have to start preparing for exams as soon as you can. Research shows that cramming at the last minute is a bad way to learn. Don’t do it! Sometimes you’ll even have multiple exams in a day or week, so cramming makes it so you might not have time to study for each one.

One or more of your exams is likely multiple-choice. I’d like to argue that one of the best ways to study for these is to make flashcards. Although you might think that flashcards are only for primary school children learning arithmetic, researchers (including me) have conducted studies showing that flashcards are extremely effective even for college students.

Here are some brief pointers on making and using flashcards. I think writing your own flashcards is best, but some students I’ve had swear by flashcards you can make online (by using Quizlet or other sites):

1) Make flashcards after class. Typically, everything in your notes should be on a card. That means for every lecture you will have a bunch of flashcards

2) Be brief (more like the exam questions and answers).

3) Pay attention as you write or type each flashcard in order to learn the information on it.

4) When you have your flashcards ready, shuffle the flashcards each time you study, because it’s rare to be tested on information in sequential order.

5) Now you are ready to test yourself on each card in the deck.

6) As you test yourself, sort each card by whether you know or don’t know the information on it.

7) Go back over the pile with the cards you don’t know.

8) Repeat all the steps above with each new lecture. Add new flashcards to your old flashcards, and test yourself as before.

Here’s a video link that should help:
Good luck! Do any of you already use flashcards? Have they helped you on exams?