Flashcards are an incredibly useful learning tool. In fact, they can be used to learn pretty much anything. That’s why it’s a pity that so few people use flashcards to their full potential.
Flashcards can be used to learn pretty much anything, because, in short, remembering is essential to learning. Once something is taught to you, you need to be able to remember it to use it.
Remembrance gets stronger with repetition. The more you remember something, the more vivid it is in your memory and the easier it is to remember. For instance, the more often you’re forced to recall a certain password, the more likely it is that you will remember it in the future.
Flashcards directly force you to recall chunks of information. In doing so, they make it easier for you to recall that information in the future.
Flashcards, therefore, have an obvious use when memorizing discrete content, like facts or vocabulary. Mnemonics can aid in memorization, but nothing tests and strengthens memorization quite so well as literally forcing yourself to recall. In fact, if you force yourself to recall the mnemonics as well, it increases their effectiveness.
As a graduate exam tutor (and flashcard app developer), however, I’ve discovered that flashcards can also be an excellent way to help yourself with processes and problems. The basic idea is the same: in order to perform a process or solve a problem, you have to remember how to do it. Flashcards can help you do so.
However, the complication with learning a process is that you don’t want to simply memorize the problem or process. After all, the point of learning a process isn’t simply to be able to repeat it on command. Instead, you want to be able to apply it when appropriate, even when the problem comes in a different form.
In other words, you don’t want to use the flashcard to just recall the problem. You want to use the flashcard to recall the thought process inherent to the problem, so you can use it to help solve future problems.
The best way to do so is to create a 3 sided flashcard. There’s the problem, the answer, then the explanation. The answer to the problem isn’t enough. The answer only confirms if your attempt to solve the problem is correct, before you check the explanation for the process itself.
This is essentially how I tutor my tutoring clients. I put every question they have trouble with into my flashcard app, 21st Night. We work through the problem together, and then, once we’re finished, I have them write their own explanation in the app. For homework, they review the cards.
Now, when my tutoring clients write an explanation for a problem, they often make the mistake of just literally writing the step-by-step to solve the problem. However, in order to really use the flashcard to aid your pattern recognition, the explanation needs to anticipate future problems. To do so, it’s really important that the explanation incorporates not only how to solve the problem, but how you know that this is the way to solve the problem.
So, for instance, if it’s an algebra problem, the explanation that you test yourself on shouldn’t just be the step-by-step process to solve the problem. It should discuss how you know how to set up the problem, and how you will recognize similar problems with similar setups in the future.
Then, when reviewing, it’s important to test your recall of not only of the problem and the answer, and not even of only just the process, but also of your recognition of the type of problem. No matter the subject, there are only a limited number of types of problems. Similarly, there are only a limited number of approaches to solve the problems. As long as you can recall the approaches and recall how to recognize when to use them, you will be able to solve the problems in the subject.
In my own tutoring practice, this approach of putting everything into flashcards and practicing recall has proven very effective. While before my students would consistently forget the complex details of what I taught, now my students remember what I teach and how to solve the problems that used to vex them.
In summary, flashcards can be used to learn basically any subject that can go in a textbook. If the subject is content-heavy, the flashcards will help you memorize the content. If it’s process or problem-heavy, the flashcards will help with your pattern recognition, as long as you structure the explanation correctly
If you’re looking for flashcards, I’d of course recommend my own, which come with detailed studying analytics, three sides, and built-in sharing with friends and tutors. If you’re looking for free flashcards, though, I’d recommend Anki, although you’ll have to get comfortable with creating hint fields in order to get the 3 sided functionality.