bored kidMost of us have been making since an enthusiastic third-grade teacher first used them to pound the multiplication facts into our resisting little cranial cavities. Why did she do it? Why, Mrs. Payne, why?

News flash; Flash Cards, boring and basic though they may be, work. But. They don’t work nearly as well for most of us as they should. Why? Because you’re doing it wrong. At least, I was doing it wrong throughout most of my college career. Here’s how to avoid my early mistakes.

1. Don’t put too much on the wee cards.

They’re “flash” cards. Think, “lightning flash,” or “flasher.” You’re supposed to get it all at a glance. Back to those third-grade multiplication facts; you see the problem, “4 x 5,” on one side of the card and immediately recall “20.” A good flash card has one fact on it. Count’em. One. More than that and it’s not a flash card; it’s a tiny page of notes.

For instance, the poor man’s textbook (Wikipedia) more or less accurately drones, “Amino acids are molecules containing an amine group, a carboxylic acid group and a side chain that varies between different amino acids. These molecules contain the key elements of Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen. These molecules are … blah, blah, blah.” Many students can and will put all of that onto a single 3 x 5 card, but just because you can fit it all doesn’t mean you should (a principal that also applies to spandex). Instead, break it up onto several different cards.

The first flash card might say…

“Amino Acids contain…” on one side, and “amine group, carboxylic acid group, variable side chain” on the other.

Some of you with higher math skills will have no doubt noted that that second side technically has more than one fact. Thank you for not snidely pointing that out. It’s as close to one fact as we can get it and still have a useful bit to commit to .

The next card would have…

Side A: “Amino Acid Elements” > Side B: “Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen”

So maybe not “one” fact, but cut it down as close as you reasonably can to one. Why? Because you want to review more and more those facts you’re finding most slippery. If you have several facts on a single card, you’re stuck reviewing the whole card repeatedly when you really just need to review one little fact more often.

2. And the whole point is to review it regularly and repeatedly until recall becomes automatic. Too many of us carefully construct the flash cards, and then, with a quiet sense of self-satisfaction, we set them aside as a job well done, only to take them up again, if at all, scant hours before the exam. Whilst constructing the cards is indeed a helpful step, it needs follow up to help you break the surly bonds of forgetfulness.

Review those new cards several times a day for awhile. Work for automatic recall. Carry that card around until you can reliably recall the card after a 24-hour hiatus. But be careful…

3. Don’t… [hidepost]review it too much either. You should struggle to recall the card the next time. You need to work for it. Research shows that if you fight to recall the fact, yet eventually do recall it, the memory trace will be stronger.

This means a staggered review schedule is most powerful. I review newly minted cards several times on their day of creation. If I can still successfully recall the card after having slept on it, I won’t review it again for a few days. I want to be able to fish that fact out of the depths but with a bit of struggle. I’ll wait a bit longer between each successive review and so transfer the fact into my long-term memory.[/hidepost]

4. Take care not to encode the information in only one direction. Don’t just memorize, “amino acid elements > carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen.” Go back the other way; “carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are the elements forming … > amino acids.” Our brains are fickle beasties and we’ve all had the frustrating experience of being unable to recall a fact we memorized because it was presented in a way in which we didn’t memorize it.

5. Don’t stop at basic black and white cards. It’s easy to add extra info by varying the card color, texture, size, location, etc. I have a friend who sat in different rooms of her house when memorizing paintings for her art history final. Each room was associated with a particular style; paintings she learned in the kitchen were post-modern, those studied in the bedroom were romantic, in the living room they were baroque, etc. On the test she just needed to remember where in the house she was sitting when she saw that particular painting.

You might use those same principals to associate particular geological occurrences with specific time periods or to link gender to those bothersome Spanish words. Use your imagination.

So use those flash cards. Use them liberally and often. But make sure to avoid these common mistakes, and you’ll find it requires much less pounding to wedge those facts into your cranial cavity.

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