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Trickle is a community of lifelong learners where you can discover curated insights and share your own knowledge.


Practice spaced repetition with flashcards, the Leitner System or specialized software

Chapter 7 Making practice more effective


Flashcards are a relatively popular learning tool. Flashcards are useful for self-testing or retrieval practice and can be used to enhanced recall through spaced repetition. They are best suited to memorization and should be combined with other learning strategies to promote deeper understanding . Ideally, a topic should be understood before flashcards are used. The use of flashcards enhance retention and recall. Flashcards are ideal for practicing the retrieval of facts, vocabulary, terms, or concepts.

There are a few best practices when using flashcards. They are easy to make and the process of creating the flashcards can itself enhance learning.

  • Identify the facts, terms, concepts that you need to remember
  • Make the flashcards while learning the content to ensure it is fresh and complete
  • Write only one question on the front of each card. Ensure the question is clear so that you can understand it even after a few days.
  • Write one corresponding fact, answer or definition on the back of the card
  • Write in your own words, rather than copying the exact definition
  • Use drawings or pictures to make the cards more memorable
  • Use mnemonics

When reviewing flashcards:

  • Don’t look at the answer before you make a solid attempt to retrieve it from memory. Try saying the answer out loud before turning the card over.
  • Have someone else test you with the flashcards.
  • Distributed practice : Space out practice sessions and allow sufficient time between sessions so that retrieval feels difficult. That’s when retrieval practice works best.
  • Sort the cards into different piles depending on if you could recall the answer or not.
  • Review frequently and don’t drop things from practice too soon. Ensure you’ve reliably retrieved an answer from memory several times before dropping it.
  • Vary the environment or context in which you review (location, time of day, background noise, etc.).
  • Shuffle the cards before learning and mix different topics ( interleaving ). Mixing will make learning feel more difficult, but it will be more effective.
  • Try reading the back of the card first and attempting to recall the term or question on the front.

One of the major mistakes people make using flashcards is packing them too full of information. Flashcards shouldn’t be detailed notes written in tiny text. They should be very concise and limited to single questions and answers wherever possible. Learners should avoid including multiple facts or concepts per card.

The Leitner system can help learners structure their retrieval practice. Flashcards are organized using boxes or envelopes that are reviewed at different frequencies. Unsuccessfully retrieved cards are reviewed more often than cards that are remembered.

Visualization of the Leitner system by Zirguezi

Image source

Some learners may prefer to learn using software rather than physical cards. There are many options available. Anki is an open-source flashcard software available on many different platforms. Such software includes spaced repetition algorithms that will help you learn effectively. For some topics, like language learning, there are specialized apps that will help you learn using digital flashcards (e.g. Memrise )

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