The No-Fail Flashcard Study Technique: Fast Learning – Minimal Time

by Brad Isaac on July 6, 2006

Since I am studying to renew my technical certifications and my wife is back in school, I thought I’d share with you my successful flashcard study technique. Arguably, for many people, myself included, flashcards are one of the best ways to learn and study. They are fast, portable, and if made properly help you learn difficult subjects almost automatically.

If the flashcards are made properly, you will be surprised by the difference in how quickly you’ll learn. Since you can carry them anywhere in a purse or back pocket, you can study anywhere – on the train, in traffic, in the bathroom… You can whip out your flashcards for a 2 minute study or a 20 minute study. This means you don’t have to make time to study.

Although you might think making flashcards is simple. I know, “everyone knows how to make flashcards Brad!” Hold on a minute. I was a technical trainer once. I thought everyone knew how to make flashcards too. However, after looking at some of my student’s homemade flashcards, I found very few students who did it right.

Unfortunately, the cards some students made were not efficient. They had put too much work into each card. They had put too much information on each card. Others made cards with information they already knew and didn’t make cards including information they didn’t, so they wasted a lot of time and energy making them at all. If they aren’t made just so, flashcards become a headache to make and use – but if they are made correctly, watch out! You will be shocked how you learn stuff
without even trying.

So here’s my recipe for effective flashcards you can use for optimal learning…

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1. Each card should only have 1 question and 1 answer – You aren’t copying down information verbatim when you make a flashcard. It should be quick (i.e. “Flash” card) not a synopsis or a bibliography. So 1 question and 1 answer.

  • Right way: A flashcard that has “Who was the main actor in Mission Impossible” – answer on other side: Tom Cruise.
  • Wrong way: Who was the main actor, supporting actor, key grip and set designer for the movie Mission Impossible? Answer: Who the hell knows?

- Notice how intimidating the second card is.

2. When studying or in class if there is a subject you don’t know make a flashcard. This is very important. Some students skip over complex subjects and think “I’ll just study that later.” Make sure you do study that later by making a flashcard really fast. Like I said above since each card has only one question and one answer it’s easy. You don’t have to put off the complex stuff anymore. Tip: If you are in training and have a question, write down
the question, then ask the instructor. Write down his or her answer on the back..instant flashcard.

3. Keep your flashcards in your pocket or purse at all times. Since flashcard study is so fast and efficient, you can study at any time. Study while waiting in line at the bank. Study while waiting for someone to arrive at lunch. Heck, I’ve studied while riding elevators.

4. Set a goal to review each flashcard in your pack 3 times per day. Do you remember when I said you’ll learn some stuff automatically? I can’t quite explain why, but if you simply read through each card 3 times a day you will be amazed at what you pick up. Maybe it’s like how Tony Robbins says “repetition is the mother of skill.” Topics you formerly thought “I’ll never get this”, will begin to make sense very quickly.

5. Set aside the cards you know ONLY after you can answer them correctly after a night of sleep. Let me put this another way. If you work through your cards 3 times today and on the third try you answer a card correctly, do not set that card aside yet. Wait until the next day’s first rotation. If you get it right again the next day, then you can discard it – you’ve learned that topic.

If on the second day you get it wrong again, sorry, you have to wait another day to answer that one correctly. This ensures you aren’t accidentally answering cards correctly or guessing at the right answers.

All in all, flashcards are a great way to learn on both the front end and the back end. On the front end, you are acknowledging the stuff you don’t know and creating questions for subjects you don’t understand. By turning a difficult topic into a question you have to THINK as you write it. Sometimes you’ll even feel your braincells working overtime while creating these question and answer cards. On the back end, the quick speed of reading through your daily stack makes learning a breeze.
Throw in the automatic learning results you get from the repetition and you’ll have a new way of mastering difficult subjects that cannot be beat.

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{ 28 comments }

John July 6, 2006 at 8:43 pm

I’ve used HandyCards on my PPC. There are several of these programs out there.

Either way flash cards are a powerful learning tool.

Brad Isaac July 6, 2006 at 11:37 pm

I’ve used Handycards too. It’s a really nice app. But recently the old fashioned index cards are what I am using these days.

JasonJ July 7, 2006 at 6:12 am

I’m very interested in this topic and other learning tools and tips that other people have adopted or designed.

I’m currently studying for some certifications and am looking at everything possible to help me make this easier.

My material is an online training course and so I’m not face to face with the trainer.

I’ve been meaning to, for over 4 years, get into MindMapping. Has anyone else looked into this method?

I’m also keen to use any tools that I can on my laptop OR PocketPC so grateful for any advice anyone could offer.

Brad Isaac July 7, 2006 at 7:26 am

Jason, yes, Mindmapping is a good way to get ideas and organize your thoughts. But I wouldn’t consider it a good way to learn stuff. It is, however a good way to take notes. Here’s a little bit of what I’ve written about it.

hawran July 8, 2006 at 12:01 am

Hello, thank you for this tip, I will try it and prove what you said here.
It’s almost like SUPERMEMO technique – which is very useful for learning languages. more info is here – supermemo.com

Holger July 8, 2006 at 3:46 am

The best flashcard software I found for the PC is VTrain (http://www.vtrain.net/home.htm). The cardbox-technique for repetition is really unique and very efficient!

webmanoffesto July 8, 2006 at 8:29 am

Teacher’s Pet has a useful tool for quickly converting a list of questions and answers into printable flashcards

http://snipurl.com/swyw
http://perso.orange.fr/sitasima/word_processor/teachers_pet.htm

•Single-sided Flashcards Maker:
Put a vertical list of words, sentences and/or images in a blank Word document and this macro will turn them into a sheet of large or small flashcards for classroom use or private study.

Brad Isaac July 8, 2006 at 11:50 am

Is it just me or does that Supermemo software look like it would take weeks to learn how to use?

John July 8, 2006 at 12:47 pm

I agree, Brad. I’ve looked at SuperMemo in the past and it has always looked difficult to me.

Mike Zillion July 8, 2006 at 1:57 pm

Flash cards and mind mapping are both excellent tools. I use the freeware utility Freemind to transform dull outlines of my law school classes into exploded visualizations, laid out in two dimensions, with each topic flowing organically from the center. Remembering where a topic appeared on the tree lets me call up an image of related topics more easily.

AW July 8, 2006 at 2:35 pm

I like flashcardexchange.com. It very easy to use and has great features. The downside: it costs $20 money to use all the features.

Brad Isaac July 8, 2006 at 3:11 pm

@Mike – That sounds like a good application for Mind Mapping. Do you find it aids your memory?

Kept July 8, 2006 at 5:31 pm

I find the following technique effective:

1) Take about 20 flash cards.
This is a number I find good for me but
for another person it might be 15 or 25.
2) Look at each question and guess the answer.
If it’s right set the card aside.
If it’s wrong put the card back on the
bottom of the deck.
3) When all the cards have been set aside,
shuffle the cards and go through the
complete deck again.
4) Repeat step 3 until you can go through
the whole deck 3 times in a row without
a single mistake.
5) Move on to the next set of 20 cards.
6) Review the sets the next day using the
same procedure.
7) Review again after 3 days, a week, 3
weeks, 1 month, 3 months, 6 months,
1 year, etc.

If some answsers give a particular problem, write out the answer 10 times. If need be read more about that topic till it clicks.

Wherever possible try to picture the answer in your head.

Mr. Nemo July 9, 2006 at 10:55 pm

“Right way: A flashcard that has “Who was the main actor in Mission Impossible” – answer on other side: Tom Cruise.”

Bad example — because the correct answer is “Peter Graves”, to anyone who regularly watched the TV show that the movies are named after. Nyah nyah nyah.

Brad Isaac July 9, 2006 at 11:12 pm

Ok, you got me Mr. Nemo. In my own defense MI2 (the movie) was on TV last night.

Pascal Venier July 10, 2006 at 10:18 am

A very nice post! I also use flashcards for learning languages, but using a computer software.

I would very strongly disagree with you Brad when you say that “I wouldn’t consider it [Mind Mapping] it a good way to learn stuff.” I think that much to the contrary this is one of the best way to assimilate the material you want to learn. Mind Mapping forces you to synthesize the mass of materials you need to assimilate. In so doing it provides you with a forces you to engage you brain and to be involved in a process of active learning. I always recommending it to my students at the university. It is a great complement to using flashcards.

Brad Isaac July 10, 2006 at 10:33 am

Hey Pascal,

I meant to say mindmapping isn’t a good way to memorize stuff. At least it’s not efficient in my opinion. But if you think I’m wrong, maybe I’m missing something. Do you use it for memorizing?

There are some very good tips people are leaving here. :) Anybody else have some they can share?

Alex July 10, 2006 at 1:14 pm

Some Z software compared to Supermemo:
FullRecall
Pauker
The idea is pretty much the same. Still, though Supermemo is difficult to learn, in the long run – it works best. But that’s as far as software is concerned…

April July 10, 2006 at 6:13 pm

Thanks for the tip! I forgot about using flashcards. I did use them years ago and they worked really well. I actually still have the flashcards. I took a Danish language test after 6 years of not speaking Danish (I was only in Denmark a year) and got full credits on the test. It was awesome, I got 25 credits and a minor in Danish.

LittleFish August 19, 2006 at 8:34 am

I have used Supermemo for six months, I have more than 10,400 flashcards and I’ve remembered most of them. Supermemo is an awesome program, my fluency in Japanese is attributed to it.

Brad Isaac August 19, 2006 at 9:47 am

April, that is an impressive flashcard outcome! thanks for sharing.

LittleFish, 10,400?!?! Ok, you’ve convinced me. I need to try this program.

anna February 16, 2007 at 5:00 am

Thanks for this.
What I have been doing for senior physics and chem (im in my senior years at school but according to my physics teacher its close to your college level …? i don’t know though) making decks with definitions that go with certain sections. So I have a chem term 1 definitions (only a few cards now). So the front says
Define:
homogeneous
heterogeneous

and the other side has the definitions

For physics im doing the same but also a formulas one.

What do you think of this? do questions work better?

Freitag February 19, 2007 at 8:53 pm

You should try jMemorize. It also uses the awesome card box system and is free open source!

-> http://jmemorize.org

Jackson February 24, 2007 at 6:38 am

Hey, another one to try is http://quizlet.com – Quite good!

Brad Isaac February 24, 2007 at 1:38 pm

Jackson, that looks pretty cool

Freek March 4, 2007 at 1:15 am

Agree of course that the way to learn faster includes use of optimal repetitions of information.
Hands down improves learning out of sight.
Thinking of learning faster/studying more efficiently more generally, it seems to me that we should think about ‘study software’ as a group, within which lies a number of subgroups including Flashcard software (e.g. Supermemo, Mapping software (e.g. Mindmanager) and Data gathering software (e.g. One-Note) and not to forget, hybrids of the above (e.g. RecallPlus).

Mapping software is popular for learning and is proven to improve learning above and beyond what ‘normal notetaking achieves. This is apparently because of 2 things.
1. Visual memory is strongly supported
2. The process of organising data improves learning markedly and that is what the mapping software does.
So if your info doesn’t neatly fall into Q-A format or variations, suggest try a mapping or hybrid program.

HandyMed April 8, 2007 at 7:25 pm

Just in case people don’t know about it, HandyCards (http://www.HandyMed.com/HandyCards ) for the Pocket PC/Windows Mobile devices has multiple algorithms for learning material efficiently:
1. Leitner cardbox
2. Subset testing (pick groups of cards to focus on and then move on to the next group)
3. Timed testing (cycle through cards quickly to ensure you are not dwelling on cards)
4. Hidden-answer testing (great for conjugating verbs into various tenses)
5. Unfamiliar testing (only test on those cards which are scoring below a user-defined cutoff)
6. Category testing (further subselect cards for focused learning)

Feel free to visit the HandyMed site for more information.

Brad Isaac April 8, 2007 at 9:41 pm

RE: Handymed. Yes, it’s a good program for Palm and Pocket PCs. I registered it years ago. Nice program.

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