I have a love-hate relationship with flashcards.
On the one hand, using flashcards seems to be an effective student memory tip. This is especially true of detail-rich information.
After a few rounds of going through flashcards, students seem to be much better at recalling the information on those cards. It’s a memory strategy that has been used for years. It’s an easy to use strategy. And it’s easy to see how much more studying you’ll need to actually do. It’s a study skill from which most students could benefit.
But years ago I noticed something interesting about students who study with flashcards: they didn’t do as well on tests as some students employing other strategies.
I’ll go further. Using flashcards seems to be one of the slower student memory tips I’ve ever witnessed.
The student memory tip in action
I’ll give you one example from a recent course I took. The course was a language course – ancient Hebrew. We had a vocabulary list for the semester that was around 1000 words long (approximately. I never counted, because I had better things to do with my time). We were given three vocab tests throughout the semester. Each test had approximately 75 fill-in-the-blank questions taken from those 1000-ish words.
As you can imagine, this was not the easiest thing in the world. Ancient Hebrew is a strange language for many of us English speakers. They read and write from right to left, for example. And they don’t really use vowels, instead opting for a system of tiny dots and dashes.
And even in English, 1000 vocabulary words is a lot.
In our class, I saw two essential student memory tips in action:
1) Flash Cards
You’re probably familiar with flashcards. It’s a pretty easy strategy – put info on index cards, then quiz yourself until you know all the info.
Chunking may be a bit of a new student memory strategy for you. Basically this tip works by breaking information down into smaller, related chunks of information. After the info has been grouped (or “chunked”), those items are memorized together. (See Wikipedia for more info)
Which student memory tip works best, you ask?
From my experience, chunking out performs flash cards every time. And I’m not exaggerating.
Your memory actually organizes things this way, anyway, and flashcards work against it. Think about it this way – if you have to learn 1000 new pieces of information by flashcards, you have 1000 flashcards to master. But if you break those 1000 items down into chunks averaging 5 items per chunk, you only have to memorize 200 chunks.
If that still sounds like a lot, it is. But this student memory tip can make it much, much, much more manageable.
So should you quit using flashcards?
Absolutely not. Flashcards are extremely effective when used for the right tasks. The problem is that as a student memory tip for first-time memorization, they’re not nearly as effective as chunking.
In an upcoming post, we’ll give you more specific details about how you can implement this student memory tip to get the most out of your memorization strategies. In the meantime, though, we’d love to hear your experiences with flashcards. Have you found yourself spending too much time trying to use flashcards as a first time student memory tip? Let us know in the comments!