Educators are often looking for effective strategies to enhance learning and retention. One such strategy that has stood the test of time is the use of flashcards. They are simple, versatile and, most importantly, backed by evidence.
We were keen to dig into the detail, nuance and application of the research behind flashcards. This is why interviewing Dr Kathryn Wissman as part of our Expert Insight Series on the Teacher CPD Academy about her work in this area was so illuminating.
We chatted about Successive Relearning, whether students should write their own questions, and the most effective ways to use flashcards. Keep reading for a sneak peek into this fascinating conversation…
The power of Successive Relearning
One of the main reasons flashcards are so effective is because they encourage a learning strategy known as Successive Relearning.
This method combines Retrieval Practice and Spacing, two of the most effective learning strategies out there. Retrieval Practice promotes active recall, a cognitive process where the brain has to retrieve information from memory, which strengthens neural pathways and improves long-term retention. Spacing the use of flashcards over time ensures that information is revisited just as it's about to be forgotten, reinforcing its imprint in memory. Combining these two techniques can lead to deep, lasting knowledge.
Dr Wissman suggests that at first, students should “go through [the learning material] until [they] recall everything correctly one time”. As students become more familiar with the content, they can increase the gap between revisits. The key takeaway here: if students want to remember something over a longer period of time, using Spacing with Retrieval Practice can be a great technique.
Should students write their own questions?
Dr Wissman suggests that when students create their own questions, they “think about [the learning material] a little bit more deeply”, which can enhance their understanding and ability to remember the subject matter.
However, students may not always know what they need to know. Dr Wissman points out that students “might not be asking themselves the correct questions”, leading to gaps in their knowledge.
3 ways to use flashcards more effectively
While the concept of flashcards might seem straightforward, there are some key principles for students to use them effectively.
1. Keep it short
Each flashcard should be dedicated to testing a single concept or posing one question. The simplicity of flashcards allows to focus learning on one concept at a time, reducing cognitive load. It's critical to maintain simplicity to enhance retention and understanding.
2. Make it interactive
This could mean writing a question on one side and the answer on the other, or perhaps creating a fill-in-the-blank statement. The goal is for students to engage their mind actively instead of passively reading information.
3. Use Interleaving
As a study technique, the practice of interleaving flashcards involves alternating between different concepts within a single study session instead of concentrating on one at a time. Not only does this approach make the learning process more dynamic and engaging, it crucially highlights the nuances, similarities and differences between different concepts. This is called discrimination learning. It also enhances students’ ability to differentiate between similar concepts.
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A modern twist: Digital flashcards
Digital flashcards have emerged as a popular alternative to traditional paper cards. They offer the same benefits as physical flashcards, but with added convenience. However, students should take particular care when using pre-generated digital flashcards.
Dr Wissman emphasises that students should make sure that they are “ultimately studying the correct information” specific to their class. With any learning tool, the effectiveness of digital flashcards greatly depends on the quality of the content.
Flashcards are a fantastic tool to help students learn more and remember more. They're great for practising Successive Relearning, helping to lock information into long-term memory.
Dr Wissman’s tips to keep flashcards simple, interactive and to mix them up to make study time as efficient as possible are brilliant. With the right approach, flashcards can really change the game when it comes to studying as they can make learning more engaging and effective.
You can see our full conversation with Dr Wissman (and many other experts) on the Teacher CPD Academy, our online platform that helps make high-impact CPD easy. If this is what your school needs, request a free trial today.