You see your classmates carefully color coding their biology flashcards and you wonder: Are flashcards effective? Like actually, though?
Flashcards may have a reputation as being one of the most boring ways to study. But there’s a reason that flashcards have been a preferred study method for hundreds of years: They friggin’ work!
While they won’t necessarily instill focus and motivation in an otherwise helpless student, flashcards are hands-down the most effective way for motivated learners to study and retain factual knowledge, especially when the flashcards are used properly. And there are good scientific reasons for that.
Here are the top 3 reasons why flashcards are so effective.
Why flashcards are effective study materials
1. Flashcards engage “active recall”
When you look at the front side of a flashcard and think of the answer, you are engaging a mental faculty known as active recall. In other words, you are attempting to remember the concept from scratch rather than simply staring at the passage in your textbook or recognizing it on a multiple choice quiz (and we all know that multiple-choice quizzes suck for studying).
Active recall has been shown to create stronger neuron connections for that memory trace. And because flashcards can so easily facilitate repetition, they are the best way to create multiple memory-enhancing recall events. Some research has found that this kind of active recall retrieval practice leads to 150% better retention than passive studying.
The take-away: flashcards are effective because they make you pull information out of your memory (instead of just reading it), and this helps you do better tests.
2. Flashcards engage your metacognition
When you reveal the answer side of a flashcard to assess your correctness, you are essentially asking yourself “How did my answer compare to this correct answer?” and “How well did I know (or not know) it?” This act of self-reflection is known as metacognition.
Research consistently finds that applying metacognitive strategies tends to ingrain memories deeper into your knowledge and leas to better learning outcomes. It allows students to focus on their weakness, plan their study better, and more accurately judge how well they know the material.
The take-away: Brainscape flashcards get you to judge how well you know the material, which helps you actually learn it better.
3. Flashcards allow for confidence-based repetition
Because flashcards exist loosely, rather than tied to a book or document, you are able to separate them into piles based on whether (or how often) you need to study them again.
This practice of our unique confidence-based repetition approach (a derivative of spaced-repetition) is proven by decades of research to be the most scientifically optimized way to improve memory performance.
So... are flashcards effective?
So, ya: flashcards are very effective. They prompt us to dig in our memory for the right answer, they prompt us to really think about how well we know something, and they allow us to study what we don't know using spaced repetition.
Of course, there are other effective ways to study and learn. Where possible, you should always try to learn new concepts using project-based learning, by asking your own questions, using the Feynman Technique, and so on.
But when it comes to studying or reviewing concepts in the most effective way possible, nothing comes close to flashcards. Especially adaptive learning flashcards.
Dykes, B. (2009, October). Repeat after me: The link between repetition and memory. Teacher: The National Education Magazine, 12.
Karpicke, J. D. & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968. doi: 10.1126/science.1152408
Oren, S., Willerton, C., & Small, J. (2014). Effects of spaced retrieval training on semantic memory in Alzheimer's disease: A systematic review. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57(1), 247-270. https://doi.org/10.1044/1092-4388(2013/12-0352)
Smolen, P., Zhang, Y., & Byrne, J. H. (2016). The right time to learn: Mechanisms and optimization of spaced learning. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(2), 77. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2015.18