Effective Flashcards


Do you remember using flashcards when you were a student? Maybe you have even recommended flashcards to your child. When learning facts or vocabulary, they are certainly good tools. There are, however, more and less effective ways to use them to study.

Children don’t always know when they are doing a good job at completing a task. Self monitoring in this way is abstract, and it requires the mental resources to do a task while also analyzing one’s own ability to do that task. This is why children can sometimes be surprised when you point out that their homework seems incomplete or sloppily done. A child who has trouble with self monitoring may have difficulty judging just how well he knows a particular topic. Give her a set of flashcards, and she may zoom through them without much thought. There is a way to help children slow down and monitor what they already know versus what they still need to learn, though.

The trick is to sort flashcards into two piles after looking at the fact on the card. The first pile is for information that the child knows, and the second pile is for information that the child does not know. I put cards in the “I know it” pile if a child recalls the information correctly within a few seconds of looking at the card. Cards go into the “I need to review it” pile if the child does not know the answer, if the first answer is incorrect, or if the child needs a lot of thinking time to recall the correct answer. After sorting the cards into piles, children should spend time reviewing the information they did not know on the first pass. During the next flashcard quiz, cards in the “I know it” pile can be set aside, while cards in the “I need to review it” pile are reshuffled for the next quiz. Children know that they have learned all of the information when the “I need to review it” pile is empty.

There are also online tools that help with flashcard review. Quizlet is one that I have found particularly helpful and easy to use. Students may create their own flashcards on the site or search by topic for flashcards others have made. Quizlet offers review games and quizzes that are generated from the content entered into flashcard sets. During the games and quizzes, the website keeps track of one’s speed and accuracy in answering. Information that has been mastered is eliminated from practice, while unlearned information is presented again.

Whether using paper flashcards or virtual flashcards, all children will need a little supervision at first to learn how to use the tool well. Over time, however, children can become much more effective and independent in their studying.

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