from “the archives”

Posted on August 11, 2011


So, I’ve been sorting through old Stuff with a fantasy of organizing ideas, and a reality of at least remembering Previously Structured Thoughts and knowing to go root for them (hooray! we’re rooting!).
HEre’s a ditty on flashcards I dug up…
Dear Student Having a Debate on The Use Of Flashcards as a Study Tool:

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I am fervently hoping that my reply reaches you in time to be useful.

You make many valid points in your argument. Flashcards have the significant advantage of enabling the studier to organize all the information to be learned, but makes it easy to group the cards according to how well they are known through the study and practice.

A key aspect of any effective studying is what I call “active cognitive engagement,” and this is where minds differ. There are people who could create flashcards and never engage in what they are copying onto the cards; yet, for others, making the flashcards involves thinking about the materials being copied. It’s also possible to ‘study’ flashcards, memorize them, and not be able to apply that memorized information to a testing situation which would ask for things like analogies and/or sentences. As with your example of a simulated math test, the flashcards would be lacking in this depth of understanding if the student cannot construct those analogies. Creating a test that includes examples of analogies and sentences would engage the studier in anticipating the application of the memorized knowledge.

Creating a test has one other advantage for a significant number of learners – those who experience anxiety when taking tests. (This is far more common in students who have not become accustomed to performing well on tests, but not exclusive to them.) By simulating the test in situations that aren’t laden with pressure, the anxiety level is less in the real testing situation. Simulating the test is also a bit like the “visualizing” techniques athletes use preparing for high-pressure, high-performance situations, so that their minds can be entirely focused on the task. I can only hope that a weekly vocabulary test does not have this level of pressure associated with it. (If so, move out to the prairies of Illinois.) However, for many students, math tests do have a high level of anxiety and pressure.

Finally, there is one other hazard to studying with flashcards (or doing math problems from the book, with the answer key handy). Every day I work with students who tell me, “I know it perfectly on the homework. I just freeze when I take a test!” For most of them, anxiety is not the main problem. I use an analogy: studying with the answers is like singing along with a recording. You sound just great (you can even stay in tune), and you’re sure you know this song. Then, somebody sticks you on a stage, hands you a microphone, and plays the opening bars. Suddenly, you don’t sound as good – and not just because of nerves, but because you don’t know the material well enough. If you practice going “solo” – simulating a test – then when the real thing comes along you are ready.

However, most of the potential disadvantages of flashcards can be eliminated by studying properly: actively thinking about the material as you review it, and being able to roll through the material without looking at the answers. In a sense, you are mentally creating the test while you are manipulating the flashcards. The disadvantages of creating a test are more inherent to the task. Tests almost always have only a sampling of the material to be learned; creating the questions may or may not engage the kind of thinking that will translate into successfully learning the materials and/or performing well on the test. However, you could minimize these efficiencies if you designed a template and plugged all possible questions into it.

I hope these thoughts are useful in your debate