For hundreds of years, flashcards have been a popular, convenient, and easy way to study or memorize a wide variety of subjects. Yet creating good flashcards is still an art that requires significant abstract thinking. We have therefore compiled a list of flashcard-creation guidelines that will ensure that your decks conform to modern cognitive science:
- Keep it simple. Your flashcard should contain the smallest possible amount of information that still meets the card’s learning objective. So if the question is “What are the six most heavily consumed alcoholic spirits?”, you should include only the spirits’ names in the answer, rather than adding the ingredients that each spirit is made from. If you do need to know things like “What is the fermented ingredient in Gin,” etc., then these facts are best kept in separate flashcards.
- Keep it relevant. Just because something is a simple fact does not make it important as a stand-alone flashcard. Historical dates are a classic example of this. Unless you have a teacher demanding that you memorize dates, there is generally no need to have a flashcard like “On what date was Harry S. Truman born?” Much more relevant would be a card asking you to “Describe the historical context in which Harry S. Truman was born.”
- Chunk your content. Sometimes you might need to know a huge number of related but individual facts, such as a list of all the U.S. presidents. In these cases it could be useful to break the content into chunks. “List the presidents between 1876 and 1912”, or “Spell and pronounce the Spanish numbers 1-10”, are perfectly acceptable flashcards. Creating a separate card for each president or Spanish number would be optional, depending on how important it is for you (or your learners) to learn each one individually.
- Use bullets. When you have a large amount of text in paragraph format, it is usually helpful to break it into bullets for easy referencing. The answer to the question “What are the symptoms of hypothermia” would be much more digestible when listed as individual bulleted items (Shivering, Weak Pulse, Shallow Breathing, etc.).
- Vary your question format. The real world does not always present us with simple, consistent Q&A lists. Flashcards are therefore often best when they force us to think in different ways. For example, the questions “What was the definitive event that prompted the entry of the United States into World War II?” and “What is the historical significance of the American military base at Pearl Harbor?” are different ways of asking the same piece of information. That said, if your subject matter is something simple like U.S. State Capitals, you might be limited to only one or two simple ways of asking the question without unnecessarily confusing the learner.
Whether you are creating flashcards for yourself, for your students, for your classmates, or for a public online community like Brainscape, following the above guidelines will help optimize the efficiency with which your flashcards are digested in the brain.