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Flash Fried

The drawbacks of using flashcards to study

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Study Notes

If you are relying on flashcards to get you through this finals season, you may not be studying as effectively as you think you are. Learning, according to Dr. Sheldon Lachman in The Journal of Psychology, is dependent on “experience causing long-term changes in behavior.” At some point, we all learned how to use the bathroom. Knowing the urges in your bladder mean it is time to take yourself to a toilet is a skill you learned that will last a lifetime (hopefully). 

Deep vs. Shallow Learning

Often, the success of our learning depends on how deeply we process the information we are presented with. Deep processing occurs when learning engages memories or emotions we already have. Flashcards, unfortunately, are a shallow form of processing. They can enforce the psychological phenomena known as “illusions of competence”: thinking you are learning when you actually are not. 

Let’s go back to the potty training. With our parents or guardians as teachers and the consequences of not learning how to use the toilet being urine-soaked pants, the acquisition of this skill had high emotional impact. Being able to pee in porcelain was more than just a new thing to learn – it was making your parents happy, it was becoming a “big kid” and it was having dry underwear. All of these emotional aspects made learning how to use the bathroom dramatically important.

Learning in school is obviously different than potty training. College deals with abstract knowledge: things we do not experience first hand, such as history.

The obscure date of that war in that ancient country you still have no idea how to find on a map that you scribbled on the back of a four-by-four index card is not information you are deeply connected to through emotions or previous memories. Because of that, your brain may have trouble connecting to and learning the information in the long term.  

Faster is not always better

You are sitting there feeling like Einstein because you just blazed through your flashcard set and got all the definitions correct. You take the test. Congratulations, you got a C-. You blame the teacher, your mom and Obama, because you studied! 

Going back to the illusions of competence, it is important to ask yourself: Did you really know the information on those flashcards? Or, did you just memorize the card and what was on the other side?

When you sit down with an exam, it is not your colorized flashcards you are being tested on. Most exams, multiple choice or open ended, are testing your ability to manipulate the knowledge you have been given. You should be able to demonstrate that you fully understand and apply what you learned in class, not just your ability to memorize dates and definitions. 

So, should you stop using flashcards entirely? No. They are a good start to refreshing your memory on topics covered in class. They also allow for mobile studying without having to carry a textbook around. Flashcards should be paired with deeper forms of learning. Draw mind maps connecting topics and categories. Use what you are learning in class in conversation or when thinking about other things in your life. Relate new information to past experiences.

Peter Dilwith, a senior at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, when asked his opinions on flashcards and learning, notes that “the act of making the flashcards could be a way to study in itself.”

With all studying, effective learning comes from your individual ability to deeply connect to new information in a way that makes sense to you. Only you have a front row seat to your brain and its learning. Do not let it fool you into thinking you are going to ace that test when you may not be genuinely prepared.