Flash Cards: A Good Study Strategy?

Credit: iStock.com/kf4851
Credit: iStock.com/kf4851

I used to question my students’ use of flash cards. Yes, I could see their value in language learning, but in a beginning communication course? In developmental English? My concerns did rest on a bit of academic elitism. I thought college students should be using more sophisticated learning strategies. Some recent reading has changed my mind. Oh, flash cards are still misused. If a word is on one side and the definition on the other, and the student thinks about the definition, checks the back, and moves onto the next card—that process doesn’t do much for learning or retention.

For Those Who Teach from Maryellen Weimer

We should be concerned because students—anywhere from 40 to 70 percent, depending on the survey—say they do use flash cards to study. And from my reading I’ve learned that a rigorous and complex use of flash cards does promote learning. As a form of self-testing they can effectively prepare students for exams and aid their retention of material after the exam. Here’s a quick rundown of the features of flash cards associated with positive learning outcomes.

  • What goes on the cards matters. Obviously, the cards should contain content that students need to learn, and that depends on the course. It could be a problem with the solution on the back, a concept with an explanation or an example, a word and a definition, or a visual on the front identified on the back. What’s on the flash cards needs to match the characteristics of the content. If the course focuses on concepts, using the cards to memorize definitions doesn’t match well with what students need to know. In their responses to a survey (Wissman et al., 2012), over 60 percent of the students said they used flash cards to help them memorize, and almost 83 percent reported that they put vocabulary on the cards. That’s compared to the mere 28 percent who said they put concepts on their cards.

    What students decide to put on the cards also indirectly forces them to confront the question of what’s going to be on the exam and, more importantly, the issue of what learning they need to take from the course. Trading cards with each other before the exam provides an opportunity to see what someone else thinks will be on the exam, and comparing test questions and card content after the exam offers a way for students to check their predictions.
  • Keep the stack of cards together. The problem here relates to larger stacks of cards and the tendency of students to divide the stack thinking that makes studying easier. Research (e.g., Kornell, 2009) documents better retention when students practice with larger than smaller stacks.
  • Mix the cards up. This recommendation grows out of the extensive research on interleaving: not always reviewing content in the same order. The cards should be regularly shuffled. The same benefit accrues if students study the cards by looking at the back first, reviewing the description and then naming the concept. Even though 53 percent of the students in the Wissman et al. survey said they used flashcards in more than one course during the same semester, not one reported mixing cards between classes. They worried that would be way too confusing.
  • Don’t drop a card from the stack after a single correct response. At issue here is how students decide they’ve learned whatever is on the card. Overconfidence is a problem on several fronts. If students think they know what’s on the card, they drop it from the stack, or they “think” the answer but don’t check it against what’s on the back. Research documents that the more times a student retrieves the correct answer, the better they perform on the exam. For example, in one study (Rawson & Dunlosky, 2011) where students worked to learn key concept definitions for an exam, they could restudy the content between one and five times on subsequent days. Recall one month later improved substantially as the number of learning sessions increased—from 35 percent for one session to 62 percent for four to five sessions.
  • Space out study sessions with the cards. Students use their flash cards when they cram for exams. “Although prior research [three studies are cited] has shown that massed study can enhance performance on immediate tests, cramming before an exam is not sufficient for longer-term retention” (Wissman et al., p. 575).

I was wrong. It’s how students use flash cards that determines their impact. Flash cards can be a powerful self-testing strategy, significantly more effective than the students’ favorite study strategies. On the night before the exam, 68.8 percent of the students Wissman et al. surveyed reported that they’d restudy their notes, 36.4 percent that they’d review the text, and 38.4 percent that they’d use flash cards (assume some are using more than one strategy). But then how often do faculty recommend studying by self-testing with flash cards? The students surveyed said 22.5 percent of their faculty did so. If flash cards motivate students to study, then perhaps more of us should be helping students use them effectively.  


Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(9), 1297–1317. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1537

Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 283–302. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023956

Wissman, K. T., Rawson, K. A., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). How and when do student use flashcards? Memory, 20(6), 568–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2012.687052

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