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Tips from an Irvine Tutor: You’re Using Flashcards Wrong

Studying with Flashcards: Why you’re doing it wrong

Flashcards are a quintessential tool for students looking to memorize a significant amount of material in a short amount of time. Whether it’s for vocabulary words, parts of a cell, or trigonometric derivatives, flash cards are used by students everywhere to learn the material and pass an exam – book your private Irvine tutor for finals.

And using flashcards is an incredibly effective study strategy – if they are used correctly and with purpose. For such a ubiquitous and straightforward tool, it’s surprising how few students are taught how to use flashcards. Consequently, flashcards tend to be misused and misunderstood. If you are using flashcards, keep reading to make sure that you are getting the most out of your studying.

Looking and Flipping

The least effective, yet most pervasive, flashcard strategy is to just read them like you would read anything else. Students will look at one side, flip it over and read the next side, then move on to the next card. They’ll go through their whole deck this way – essentially just read the list of things they should know. Sure, you might learn your words this way just by reading them over and over, but there are better ways.

The Right Way

Instead of just looking and flipping, the process should be more like this: Look, think, test yourself, then flip. One of the main benefits of flashcards is that they allow you to test yourself. Look at one side of the card, then see if you know the other side before you flip it. Think of the answer, say it out loud, or write it down. I recommend doing all three to make sure you really know the material. Do not just read through the cards and flip through them without testing your knowledge.

Keeping the deck unchanged

Once the deck of flashcards is made, many students just stick with it. They go through the same deck, start to finish until they feel like they know all of the cards. This method is very time consuming and not conducive to really learning the terms you are studying.

The Right Way

Separate the deck into two piles as you study. You should be testing yourself before you flip the card; if you know the other side of the card correctly, then put it in one pile – if not, then put it in a second pile. Even if you got the answer partly correct, put it in the second pile. This will create two decks for you: one with cards you know, and one with cards you don’t. Focus your studying on the “don’t know” cards, putting the ones you master into the “know” pile until the “don’t know” deck is empty.

Then, shuffle all of the cards together and go through the whole deck again. Make sure you still know all of the cards even when they’re all together and shuffled. Studying this way will prevent you from having to go through the whole deck every time instead of focusing on what you need to learn.

Only Using Words and Definitions

Many students think flashcards can only be used for learning vocabulary words, key terms, or other simple concepts with definitions. This leads to simple flashcard decks with dictionary definitions that might not be best preparing you for your test.

The Right Way

Flashcards can be used for so much more than just vocabulary! You can use flashcards for pictures, for example, problems for equations, and more. Anything that you need to have memorized you can consider using a flash card (READ: OC Tutoring Tips: Four Tips for a Better Study Session).

For classes where you need to know diagrams or identify pictures, consider drawing/printing what you need to know on one side of the flashcard. For complicated diagrams, processes, or pictures (anything that you’ll have to label/identify several parts in the same image) you can have multiple flashcards with the same picture but different “blanks” that you have to fill in. This way you can memorize complex concepts without being overwhelmed.

You can use flashcards in math or equation-based subjects, too. Equations that need to be memorized can be flashcards. You can also use example problems and their solutions for complicated problems. For the solutions, considering numbering the steps to get to the answer. When you study with the cards, you can test yourself on what the steps to the solution are. Now if you see a similar problem later, you will know how to approach it.

Other Common Mistakes and Solutions

Sometimes, students will use flashcards in a way similar to a PowerPoint presentation: a title or heading on one side and a list of bullet points on the other. While this isn’t a bad way to write and organize your notes, it isn’t an optimal way to study the information on the card. Break up your larger flashcards into smaller facts and associations if you can. This will make the information more digestible and easier to test yourself on when you’re studying. Paraphrasing and putting things in your own words are good practices in this process as well.

Another common study mistake that students make is studying in only one direction. That is, they’ll always look at side “A” and test themselves by flipping to side “B.” You should always be trying to learn your terms and recognize associations in both directions when possible.

A Final Mistake

The final mistake is not having variety in your flashcard decks. Many students will make their own flashcards and use dictionary definitions or textbook syntax to memorize. Other students will exclusively use pre-made flashcards online or on apps on their phone. In both cases, you want to be able to write flashcards in your own words to promote your understanding. It is good to use other decks in combination with your own to have a more well-rounded understanding.

Flashcards are a valuable tool that can help you memorize and study for virtually any subject. If you haven’t been getting the most out of your studying, or you think flashcards aren’t helpful, try some of these tips and watch your results improve.

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

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