Flashcards: how to study, remember and never forget

Who I am
Robert Maurer
@robertmaurer
SOURCES CONSULTED:

wikipedia.org

Le flashcards (o flash card) are nothing more than small pieces of paper (paper, or electronic), in which on one side there is a question and on the other there is the relative answer.

Using flashcards to learn and memorize is very simple.

Read the question, try to answer it, and then turn the card over and see how accurately you answered.

That's all? Yes.

And yet flashcards are one of the most effective study tools never invented. And also the simplest of memory techniques.



In this article we will see then, first of all, why flashcards work.

And then, we'll see how you can use the flashcards to study foreign languages ​​or exam subjects.

The curve of oblivion

When you study with flashcards, particularly if you use software, you are able to automate their presentation at precise intervals.

And it is precisely these intervals that allow you to significantly change the speed at which you forget.

Because you see, what we learn and memorize has a very fast "decay time". Or:

We start forgetting almost immediately after learning.

And in fact, the speed with which you forget is much greater in the beginning, and follows the dynamics described at the end of the 800th century by the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in his "oblivion curve".

Ebbinghaus (he's the bearded gentleman on the left) spent years testing hers ability to remember syllables he created himself, and to analyze the speed with which he forgot them.

And got the red curve you see above. The greater slope at the beginning indicates the greater propensity to forget the information just studied.



Repetition and memory

Ebbinghaus also found that with the repetition the information consolidated. And this certainly comes as no surprise.

In fact, you too, to study and memorize, do nothing but repeat information.

Furthermore, precisely because we begin to forget very quickly immediately after learning, logic would like us to start repeating immediately to strengthen the memory.

But Ebbinghaus instead discovered something completely different.

And thus differentiated two dynamics of repetition, massive and distributive, which have very different results for the student.

In fact, he found that “spreading the learning load over multiple sessions makes memorization easier than trying to learn everything at once”. (see wiki)

That is, for example, to memorize better it is more effective to repeat something 5 times in a week than 5 times in a day.

That is to say go along with the curve of oblivion, and not fixate on memorizing everything immediately!

Now, surely it happens to you, while studying, to repeat the same thing many times in a day.

And the reason is simple: you are struggling to memorize it.

And so you are wasting time….

Curve of oblivion and repetition

The graph above represents and exemplifies one of Ebbinghaus's discoveries.

With each delayed repetition, the oblivion curve flattens out until it becomes virtually straight.

Just repeating what you studied on the same day or 24 hours later makes huge differences.


In fact, if you repeat 24 hours later instead of immediately after studying, after a week you remember about 35% more!

And this effect is amplified with subsequent repetitions!


This means that if you study something today and don't remember it, you don't care!

And go over it tomorrow instead.

So, a good flashcard study strategy can be the following:

  • Build your flashcards right after class, the same day.
  • do the first repetition not that day, but the day after.

For the following repetitions you can use the chart scheme, or another one you make yourself depending on the subject and the results. For very difficult exams I suggest one at the end of the post.

Flashcards e sforzo mnemonico

There is another aspect that makes flashcards very effective.

See, when you study something by rereading it many times, you are practicing reading, not remembering.

While if you want to internalize something you have to try, before reading it again, to make the effort to remember it.

Flashcards, with their question and answer structure, force you to put in that kind of effort.

That is to rummage through your mind for whatever foothold you can that allows you to remember the answer.

Surely you have noticed that, when you do not remember something and then, with a lot of effort, you manage to recall it, it becomes almost indelible.


For example, when you don't remember someone's name, but after rummaging through the darkest corners of your brain for half an hour, it finally comes to mind ... Well, you'll never forget that name!

And if even at the end you can't remember it and you have to ask someone, there is another magical effect that occurs.

Because your brain has tried so hard without being able to remember, the amygdala - hippocampus system that regulates memory is in a super activated state.


And then, again, the great effort made allows you to remember better!

Many kids instead make two fundamental mistakes that make them memorize less:

  • They start the information "recall" phase too late. That is they spend too much time studying and little time actively trying to remember.
  • When they repeat, they keep the book open and they continually cast their eyes on us.

Flashcards e metacognizione

Metacognition is, at least in some areas, the new magic word of accelerated learning.

It indicates the student's ability to “think about thought”, that is, to “better be able to reflect on one's cognitive abilities”. (see digital magazine of didactics: metacognitive strategies)

Simply put, metacognitive strategies argue that carrying out reflections and checking on one's cognitive abilities is able to improve them.

I totally agree.

And I also saw several students of the blog that, finally reflecting on  how, when, why and how much they learn, they have improved their ability to learn.

As if, being able to see "from the outside" while they study, had developed real new skills! A bit like it happens to athletes when they watch their races on video.

When, after making the effort to remember the answer to a flashcard, you flip it to check it, you are making a metacognitive effort.

In fact, you ask yourself:

  • What is the relationship between my answer and the one I find on the flashcards?
  • How accurate was I?
  • If I am wrong, what kind of mistake is it?
  • Why did I do it?

And this analysis strengthens your learning.

Flashcards usage scheme

We have already seen that you have to repeat the flashcards for the first time 24 hours after making them.

But then, how many repetitions are needed, and how often?

Impossible to give a unique answer. It depends on you, on the subject you study, on the goals you give yourself and on the time you have to reach them.

And also from how the flashcards are structured.

Indeed, they can contain

  • Punctual questions and answers: for example, how do you say "dog" in English.
  • Articulated questions and answers: for example, "how does the Krebs cycle work?"

Flashcards for learning foreign vocabulary

In the study of foreign words, the 24 hours / one week / 15 days / one month / three months scheme is in my opinion very effective.

And by effective I mean that at the end of the 3 months, by studying maybe half an hour a day, you will have learned very persistently between 3000 and 5000 words!

As I write in the article "700+ English words to learn", 3000 words is much more than the vocabulary needed to juggle a foreign language.

If you then combine the flashcards with the memorization technique of the keyword method, you can also lengthen the intervals and remove one, if not two, repetitions.

You can also see how to build flashcards with the keyword method by downloading my free pdf.

Flashcards for university exams

In the study instead of an exam, I do not recommend you to use punctual flashcards, but in an articulated form. That is, they need long answers, like an exam.

And with more complex questions / answers, the above scheme is not good.

In fact, you will have information for which 3 repetitions are enough, and others for which 6 or even more are needed.

Plus, you almost never have 3 months to prepare for an exam.

Now, the variability of exams, in terms of information to learn and time available, is enormous.

So, when you use flashcards to study an exam, you have to decide how many, at what interval and in how long.

To do it right you will have to refine metacognitive skillsand which we talked about above.

However, it seems useful to me to give you my outline for particularly long and complex exams.

Let's say you have followed all the lessons, and have already prepared the flashcards for the study.

So first, you set out to do the first complete repetition in 20 days.

And in the meantime:

  • What you repeat the first time on day 1
    Then repeat it again on days 3 - 7 - 11 - 17 - 23 - 29
  • What you repeat the first time on day 2
    Then repeat it again on days 4 - 8 - 12 - 18 - 24 - 30
  • What you repeat the first time on day 3
    Then repeat it again on days 5 - 9 - 13 - 19 - 25 - 31

And so on. In this way:

  • Every day starting from the 3rd, and for the first 20 days:
    You find yourself having to repeat some things for the first time, and others that you have already repeated.
    The first 20 days are therefore the most intense
  • On day 52: you repeated everything 7 times
  • You have 8 days left: for final revisions and refinements.

One last tip:

If you use delayed replay software, you can often put the answer in the form of a photo. Of the page of the book in which it is found, or of the outline that you have made, or of the page of notes that concerns it.

Conclusions on the use of Flashcards

Behind this scheme of studying with flashcards there is no complex scientific calculation, but simply my experience with some real building blocks, such as pathological anatomy I and II.

For someone 60 days to prepare for an exam, even a very complex one, may seem like too much. But here I'm talking about going there and knowing everything to break the world and take 30!

For someone instead they will seem few: in this case, probably the cause is not to be found in difficulty in memorizing, with flashcards. But rather in some other problem in the global study method it has.

In fact, remember that no strategy alone constitutes a complete study method. Not even the flashcards!

Ok, now it's your turn ...

Your opinion interests me:

What do you think of the Flashcards?

You may be left with doubts and questions about their use.

Either way, leave a quick comment below.

I will be happy to answer your comments and questions.

A greeting. Anthony

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