Rethinking Flashcards

I’ll start by stating that I am a strong advocate of flashcards. Done well, I believe they are an excellent form of recall practice and provide many practical and organisational advantages over other study methods. Recently however I have been questioning the advice that pupils should use this approach, particularly since we are now just weeks away from final GCSE exams.

So just how practical is a flashcard approach, and how can we make sure that it is effective? Here are some of the key questions for me:

How many flashcards do pupils need to make the approach really worthwhile?

As with most recall methods, I would suggest that a degree of quantity is required. In English Literature I give pupils grids of 100 short answer questions on each of their four texts. Pupils use these to self-assess their knowledge. We could pare this down to just the key quotations, but even so we’re looking at 100 flashcards in total across the four texts. So anywhere between 100 and 400 flashcards is what I would recommend as required in English Literature.

Clearly subjects vary, but if 100 flashcards is the average required, we’re talking about approx. 1000 flashcards across all of a pupils’ subjects. If it takes a minute to produce a flashcard then this means we are asking pupils to spend 16 hours just writing these resources.

So are you saying that flashcards are not worth the time?

No – I’m saying that we need to recognise that they represent a large investment of time and so we need to think carefully about where we prescribe them and where an alternative approach might be more efficient. For each subject area, we need to think about the constituent types of knowledge and make sure that we’re helping pupils to match these with the most effective revision approach. How should you revise Algebra differently to the history of medicine?

Where are flashcards most/least effective?

Flashcards are most effective when pupils need to a limited amount of factual information accurately. A good example of this is key quotations in English, definitions in Religious Studies or translation of key phrases in Languages. They are not the most helpful approach when the information that needs learning is more detailed or subjective. Examples of this include common question stems such as ‘Explain…’ or ‘Describe…’.  This sounds like it should be obvious, but I’ve seen lots of pupils’ flashcards and it is clear they need guidance about how to write them. Many students I have met are simply taking their revision notes and squeezing them onto flashcards for no clear advantage.

What is the best way to write a flashcard?

The purpose of a flashcard should be to allow effortful retrieval practice and to make information memorable. So here are some top tips:

  1. One flashcard = one question. Never put more than one question on each flashcard.
  2. Make them more memorable with images or by categorising using colours.
  3. If possible, design them so they can be practised both ways (for example “Queen Victoria’s rule” / “Ruled from 1819—1901”
  4. Include mnemonics if you have them “Loss of electrons” / “Oxidation (Remember: OIL RIG)”
Bad Flashcard

Bad example

They’ve made their flashcards, now what?

One of the key benefits of flashcards, along with their portability, is the fact that they can be sorted and organised. One of the most effective methods for doing this is called the Leitner System. There is a really quick and clear explanation of the methods here ( which is much easier than me writing it out in longhand, but essentially the cards are organised according to how well pupils know the information and this drive how often they are reviewed. This is the method that I recommend to pupils and it is also the basis of various online learning platforms. There is some good science supporting the benefits of spaced retrieval practice.

Leitner System

The Leitner System

What to use instead of flashcards

A key advantage of flashcards is that they are designed by the pupils themselves. This means that they can be created based on what each individual pupil most need to know. There is also a strong argument for the fact that they are more likely to recall information from resources they have designed themselves.

Having said that, where there is a lot to be learnt in a short space of time (particularly by this point in the year), there are resources out there that remove some of the heavy lifting. For examples, ‘Seneca Learning’ covers many of the main subjects and exam boards and combines the best aspects of flashcards with bitesize chunks of information. Similar platforms such as ‘Memrise’ also exist and this one is particularly good for Languages but perhaps less well suited than Seneca to other subject areas.


What might an ideal approach to flashcards look like?

Thinking about what we know about learning, the main barrier to success with flashcards is that pupils simply start too late. We know that pupils learn best when revision begins early and is repeated regularly, so why are pupils only just writing out their cards now? Perhaps the best way to use flashcards would be to complete one (or more) at the end of each KS4 lesson and build up the deck gradually over the course. This would constitute a great plenary or homework task as well as encouraging pupils to use flashcards over time. At this stage in Year 11, beginning a flashcard approach for all subjects is not good advice and we should be advocating their use as part of a targeted strategy for pockets of knowledge where they will have the greatest benefit.



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