Whilst using some flashcards recently, it struck me that the standard way of writing and studying them is so old and basic that it cannot possibly be the most efficient way to use them. There are already couple of more advanced ideas floating around the internet (the Leitner system and the memory spacing effect), but I wanted to create a simple, specific, process that could be quickly learnt and didn’t require fancy software.
I brainstormed a whole bunch of minor changes that I could make to the basic process to speed up the time it takes to learn all the answers. I then set about testing my ideas and getting rid of those that didn’t help, or that didn’t help significantly enough.
After a great deal of testing, I settled on these key principles:
- The testing effect
- The memory spacing effect
The testing effect
Normally once people get questions right they stop testing themselves – this is a mistake. Actively recalling information strengthens your memory more than reading or concept mapping, but only if you are recalling the information correctly. This is called the testing effect.
Students who study flashcards but stop when they get all the answers right, do worse on tests than those who continue for five correct passes.
The memory spacing effect
Studying a set of flashcards once is not enough to commit it to long term memory. The memory spacing effect shows that repeatedly studying the same information at gradually increasing intervals is better for memorisation than cramming.
The Leitner system is a common way of filtering cards into groups based on how often they are answered correctly. Easier cards are studied less often and very easy cards may be dropped.
This is a good idea, but once a question is answered correctly, it changes groups, so the testing effect is minimal. It can be difficult to keep track of the different groups of cards and research shows that dropping easy card from testing negatively affects test scores.
A mediator is something that relates to both the question and the answer. This is usually a word or image. These associations make it easier to form mental connections and recall the answers. It’s a technique that people often use naturally to help their memory.
- Colour associations: Use a selection of five or six different colours to write your flashcards, but use only one colour per card.
- Questions together with answers: Write the question on the front of the card as normal but, on the back, write the question and answer together instead of just the answer.
- Small batches: Take a batch of ten cards, with the answer sides face up. Set a timer for five minutes, and aim to complete five error free passes before the buzzer sounds.
- Create mediators: If this is your first time working with this batch of ten, you need to prime yourself before you test yourself. Cycle through the cards, reading each one and spending just a few seconds trying to find a word or mental image that connects the question to the answer.
- Simple filtering: After that, flip the cards over and try to remember the answer to each question. If you get the answer right, move the card to the back of the stack, as you usually would. If you get the question wrong, slide the card into the middle of the stack.
- Repeat at increasing intervals: When the buzzer sounds, put the cards to one side. Wait for an hour, then go through the same batch again – always aiming for five correct passes in five minutes. You can stop early if you beat the timer.
- Once you’ve done that, put a post-it note on the stack of cards. This is to let you know to go through them again once the following day.
- The next day, add two days to whichever day of the week it is and write this on the Post it note. So, if it’s a Monday, write Wednesday on the note and stick it back on the stack.
- From this point on, study that set of cards once every time that day comes around until your exam. This means you’ll gradually increase the time that you see each set from one hour, to one week.