Steve’s Study Corner: Using Flash Cards

The use of flash cards to train with active recall is something I have been wanting to incorporate for a long time. It was not until my latest quarter that I finally began to implement this study tool, but from that experience I learned so much about how much more effectively I can be using this tool. To further expand upon my intuition about learning, I sought research-based principles from How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Ambrose.

The initial problems that I ran into were that I did not take into account what I was struggling with, how often I was practicing, and whether I was actively learning or just relying on short-term memory. From reading Ambrose’s book, I realized I was neglecting her components of learning.

“Research has shown that learning and performance are best fostered when students engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion for performance,targets an appropriate level of challenge relative to students’ current performance, and is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria” (127)

I did not have a specific goal or criteria when using flash cards, and I lacked the frequency of practice to make them effective. I have already developed the habit of creating the flashcards, but I need to create the habit of using them. A small sustainable metric for me would be 10 minutes of daily practice. To address having a criteria for performance, I need to implement strategies that keep the level of challenge consistent but dynamic. By reading the same flashcards repeatedly and for too long, my brain became less occupied with active recall, and relied more on short-term memory.

Two of the strategies I will be using are interleaved practice and distributed practice. Interleaved practice entails introducing various approaches to avoid reliance on short-term memory. In the case of flash cards, I will stop separating my cards by chapter, and continuously shuffle my cards in a random order to always get new combinations of questions. To better demonstrate this idea, I’ve included two tables. The above table has randomized columns, whereas the bottom table has the same column multiple times. After several iterations, resorting to a strategy based off the second table will allow you to memorize the sequence of the questions and answers instead of forcing you to work on actively recalling solutions.




With interleaved practice, I can also target my weak areas by focusing on cards I consistently struggle with, instead of continuing to use my time on cards I have already mastered. Distributed practice is the act of spacing out practices to several shorter sessions instead of one long session. I often found myself using the flashcards only within the week before the exam, which lowered the frequency and thus lowered my potential of learning gains to be made. Therefore, I plan for the ten minutes of daily practice to help me take advantage of learning efficiently.

I hope to invite you to join me in using Ambrose’s principle of reflective learning to reflect upon our study skills and adjust them accordingly.

“Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning” (125)

3 thoughts on “Steve’s Study Corner: Using Flash Cards

  1. Thank you for incorporating and referencing literature and research in your post Steve!
    Question: how do you help yourself address learning challenges when your entire psychological state feels like quitting – just like how you mentioned right before this clip:

    Here’s a minute on how Jeff tackles this problem prior to “studying” from our meeting:

    but I wondering did you ever get to try these methods, and if so how’d it go?
    if not, what might you do to experiment in the future?

    How Jeff feels about not student-centered teaching practices compounded w c-19
    Reminder we have been and still are doing “8 posts per month” by ourselves for our classes – despite the fictitious measurements and impossible scenario of deep learning!


  2. This post makes me want to dust off my habit of using flash cards. After years of training this practice, I kind of miss that unique type of joy that results from the repeated failure and slow growth.

    I am curious to know: how did you get those cool green boxes in this post? Those caught my attention and highlighted the text effectively.

    I love that you are highlighting interleaved and distributed practice routines as part of the way you are thinking about flash cards. I believe those two habits are important tools in shifting ideas from short-term to long-term memory.

    If we interpret your post using the words of Daniel Coyle, perhaps we might say that the flash card habit helps fire and connect many nerve cells in our brain. When we interleave this training, we make it harder for ourselves in the short run because we force ourselves to context switch. But in the long run this practice pays big dividends because each time we forget and then remember again, we strengthen that recall muscle for those ideas. Distributed practice ensures this process occurs over many days or weeks, pretty much guaranteeing we have multiple chances to forget and then remember again.

    These two techniques combined help myelinate ( the neural connections that exist in our brains to encode whatever information we are studying. Each time we forget and remember again, we strengthen those myelin sheaths and make it easier to recall in the future.

    You’ve laid out two great strategies to accelerate the practice. I am excited to read your follow-up post discussing how this habit worked and what lessons you learned. I would encourage you to think about this habit as a muscle: the more you flex it, the stronger it becomes. And, just like in the development of physical muscles, it takes time to create, refine, and master your training techniques.

    In addition to my response to this post, I did want to follow up about your comments on writing from our last meeting. You highlighted some really profound ideas about the power of writing in the career development process. I will ask Henry if he has that on record and see if we can highlight your reflections in video form. Regardless, I agree whole-heatedly and was really impressed with your discovery.

    You definitely have the capacity to be a professional writer. Fun side comment: I have a really basic definition of professional writing. The basic idea of the word “professional” is, to me, a statement about getting paid. Professional athletes get paid to do athletics. So… a professional writer is someone who makes money writing.

    I hope our team can encourage and support you to make money writing scholarship essays for the rest of your college career. My favorite advice on that is to treat scholarship writing like a class. I literally mean to set aside time and space just like you would for any class you enroll in. One major upside of writing a scholarship essays (versus taking a class) is that the better you get at writing, the more frequently you will earn paychecks…

    More to come on that subject. The basic message I want to send is: si se puede! Jia yo! You can do it!


  3. Oh yeah: I forgot to ask: do you know how to change your author name in Word Press? I would recommend that you change it from silvasteve110 to Steve Silva (or whatever name you would like for your work as an author).

    Believe it or not, you are also starting to build an audience… I am one of your first true fans ( : shout out to Henry for pointing me to this article) and I look forward to your TLC posts. You’re also building a library of writing that may be useful in your future.

    I would do that using the author name you want to use to pen work in the future. Here are some questions that might help think through that:

    1. When you submit scholarship essays, what name do you use?
    2. If you were to publish a book, what name would you want on the front cover?
    3. What name will you have printed on your college degrees?

    Perhaps the answer to all those questions is the same? Whatever the answers, I would choose a name for your blog writings that corresponds with those answers.

    For me, I want my work on this blog to be seen under the name Jeff Anderson. This blog is dedicated to my students and I like my students to call me Jeff ( However, my academic authorship name is Jeffrey A. Anderson. That’s mostly because Jeff Anderson is such a common name that I want some additional letters to try to stand out from the masses.


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