You see your classmates carefully color coding their biology flashcards and you wonder: Are flashcards effective? Like actually, though?
You may think flashcards are for kids but there’s a reason they've been a preferred study method for hundreds of years: They friggin’ work! In fact, 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 this.
Here are the top 3 reasons why flashcards are so effective.
The benefits of flashcards
1. Flashcards engage active recall
When you look at the front "question" 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 or recognizing it), and this helps you build memories quicker and perform much better on tests.
2. Flashcards engage 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. Brainscape takes this further by asking you to assess how well you knew the answer to a question on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (like the back of my hand!)
Research consistently finds that applying metacognitive strategies ingrains memories deeper into your knowledge, leading to better learning outcomes. It also allows students to focus on their weaknesses, plan their studies better, and more accurately judge how well they know the material.
The take-away: Brainscape's flashcards leverage the learning power of metacognition to help you identify your weaknesses and learn more efficiently.
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. Then, you can study the concepts you aren't confident in more often, returning to those you are confident in occasionally for revision.
In other words, repetition is how your brain is programmed to remember things! And flashcards make it really easy to do this ... but paper flashcards are so last century. Brainscape's smart flashcard app is the most efficient study tool because our spaced repetition algorithm works with your brain to determine how often to show you concepts, again and again, automatically repeating harder concepts at a higher frequency while saving you time on the concepts you're more familiar with.
So... are flashcards effective?
The verdict is a most resounding YES ... flashcards are very effective. They compel us to dig in our memory for the right answer, they prompt us to really think about how well we know something, and they encourage us to confront, again and again, the concepts we aren't confident in.
And it's by leveraging these three cognitive principles—active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition—that flashcards (and Brainscape's smart flaschards) can help you learn TWICE as efficiently as any other study method.
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