Flashcards: My Secret Study Weapon

Colton Lipfert
December 28, 2023
Study Tips

A Banquet of Bad Advice

It’s amazing how many people I meet—from top college students, to high school superstars, to world-class professors—do not know how to study. The amount of bad advice is staggering. In my Organic Chemistry class, for example, my professor recommended we learn the material by rewriting our notes (which is time-consuming and inefficient) and doing practice problems (even though we didn’t understand the material). There has to be a better way, right?

Surprise surprise, there is, and I just happen to know it. All kidding aside, I’ve spent many years experimenting with studying techniques, and I’ve cultivated a secret weapon. It’s helped me through many tough classes, including Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, a seminar about Immanuel Kant, and History of Philosophy. Can you guess what it is? You’ve heard of it before. 

Drumroll, please . . . it’s *flashcards*.

Flashcards? You Can’t Be Serious

There is a common (and understandable) misconception that flashcards can only be used for memorization. Indeed, most people use flashcards to memorize names, dates, and other small facts. That works great in history classes where there’s a lot of factual recall, but how useful can flash cards be in concept-heavy courses like English, math, or chemistry?

Quite useful, in fact. Flashcards work on a very simple but very powerful concept: ask a question; give an answer; check it; repeat the card if wrong. Flashcards work because they force you to remember the right answer and then correct you if you’re wrong. 

This method for learning can apply far beyond memorizing facts. Many concepts, even very large and complicated ones, can be learned with flashcards if you have the right method for making flashcards. So the question becomes: What’s the secret recipe for flashcard creation?

The Method

There are many differences between a useful flashcard and a bad one. Trust me, after making over 6,000, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Below are my must-do rules for making good flashcards. There’s a lot that goes into a really excellent flashcard, but if you ignore the three principles below, then there’s no amount of tips, tricks, or studying that will help you. I’m also assuming that you’re going to use flashcards to learn and remember complicated concepts since most people know how to use flashcards to memorize. 

First, break your concepts down. Take the overarching idea and divide it into smaller, more manageable chunks that make sense to you. Don’t learn about basic algebra, break it down into multiplying, dividing, adding, subtracting, and factoring. Divide “Freud’s theory of the psyche” into id, ego, and superego. Don’t be afraid of going small and making a lot of flashcards—the smaller each card is (to a point), the easier it is to remember.

Second, ask a short question. This goes along with breaking down a concept—short questions force you to break concepts down. They also force you to understand the material on your flashcard. You can’t ask simple questions about Spanish grammar or economic theory unless you understand it. And if you’re making flashcards and you find you don’t understand the content, that’s ok! Go back to your notes or Wikipedia and learn what you’re missing.

Third, give a simple answer. Don’t be long-winded on flashcards. I boil down my answer to the barebones essentials so I can check my answer quickly and move on. If my flashcard asks “define Freud’s id,” I would write “animalistic/beastly part of the psyche.” You can go too far and make the answer too simple, but that’s pretty rare. And again, you can’t give a simple answer if you don't understand the content. This is why making good flashcards can be its own form of studying. Also, don’t just copy an answer from your lecture slides or a textbook—write your own answer in your own words. If you can’t do that, then go back, relearn the concept better, and write a good answer in your words.

In short, a good flashcard takes a big concept and breaks it down into small questions and simple answers. 

The Method in Action: Examples of Flashcards

Let’s say I’m taking physics for the first time, a very conceptual and mathematical course, and I have to learn Newton’s three laws of motion. Below are the flashcards I would make to study these concepts.

Before moving on, I really want to make this clear: if there’s anything I don’t understand at all, I go back to my notes, lecture notes, or Wikipedia and try to understand what I don’t know. I actually Googled some key terms to make sure I had good answers for this article. There’s no point in making flashcards if you don’t understand them, so take the time to understand the material before you try to remember it. Additionally, I’m also being extremely thorough in this example. I may not go into this level of depth with everything I learn in physics. Lastly, try to pick out the three principles for conceptual cards: broken down concepts, small questions, and simple answers.

Questions: Front side of the cardAnswers: Back side of the cardWhat is Newton’s first law of motion Objects at rest stay at restWhat is Newton’s second law of motionF = maWhat is Newton’s third law of motionAll actions have equal & opposite reactionsWhat do Newton’s laws of motion describeRules of bodies in motionWhen do we use Newton’s laws of motion in general?When bodies are movingFor Newton’s second law, what do F, m, and a stand for?Force, Mass, AccelerationWhat is force?Vector that changes an object’s velocityWhat is mass?Quantity of matter in a physical bodyWhat is acceleration?Change in velocityWhat does Newton’s first law mean?We need forces to change an object’s velocity What does Newton’s third law mean?Actions mirror each other. Hit then bounce 

For more study tips, check out some other articles at the Dewey Smart Blog!

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