If you're like me from a couple of years ago, you know that taking good notes and using flashcards are both strategies you can use to learn something.
But for a long time, I had no idea when one was better than the other, and flashcards sounded boring as heck. So I stuck mostly to taking linked notes in Obsidian and did practically no flashcards ever. However, after researching the differences between notetaking and flashcards, I now understand how they can fit together to make you go SUPERSAYAN!
I know how to use flashcards to memorize effectively and not waste time.
In this article, I'm going to explore:
- Why You Should Use Flashcards
- How Flashcards And Notetaking Fit Together
- When Not To Use Flashcards
- Major Traps to Avoid When Using Flashcards
- Best Tips For Making Great Flashcards
- How To Use Flashcards Without Wasting Hours Of Time
By the end of this article, you'll be a flashcard aficionado, a flashcard pirate, a flashcard WHIZZZZ!
Make sure you stick around to the end because I share my biggest flashcard secret to save hours later on.
Why You Should Use Flashcards
For a long time, I had an aversion to using flashcards.
I saw them as a form of rote learning, repeated repetition without care for understanding. Now I understand that we should use flashcards for four main reasons.
Firstly, memory in a field facilitates new learning.
The more associations we have in our brain for a given topic, the more associations new knowledge has to stick to. As a result, it's easier to educate ourselves when we have an initial network of facts to connect new information to. For example, author Lynne Kelly describes in her book Memory Craft that by memorizing all the world countries, she gave herself a sticky foundation from which to attach new memories. Whenever she hears the news, reads books, or learns from friends, she has a memory foundation she can hook information on.
Since flashcards are one of the best ways to memorize something, they can facilitate new learning.
Secondly, memorization doesn't hurt understanding; it aids it.
When you use mnemonic techniques effectively alongside flashcards (which I will get to later), you facilitate a greater understanding of the material. Many mnemonic techniques require you to transform information from one mode--say, writing--to another. Transferring the modality of a piece of information facilitates your understanding of it.
If used in the right way, flashcards can help facilitate understanding of information.
Thirdly, flashcards facilitate long-term memory of something.
Unfortunately, humans are tubes of meat and have evolved to forget knowledge we don't apply. This rate at which we forget information was first studied and encapsulated in Hermann Ebbinghause's forgetting curve. According to his curve, we forget most information in the 24 hours after consuming something and slowly forget more and more over ensuing weeks, months, and years without recall practice. But if we routinely recall information we want to remember, we can fight the forgetting curve through a technique known as spaced repetition.
Flashcards are a form of recall practice and, when combined with spaced repetition, can cause you to remember things for the rest of your life.
Finally, they are just plain fun to use.
If you use them alongside the mnemonic techniques I discuss earlier, they can actually be quite a joy. Flashcards don't have to be the word, only boring things you associate them with. They can be filled with images, stories, colors, and more!
They can bring joy to your learning.
How Do Flashcards and Notetaking Fit Together?
Notetaking is better for:
- Fostering understanding of a conceptually tricky or new topic
- Understanding how a small part of a topic fits into the bigger picture
- Creating meaningful connections between ideas
- If you want to write something about a topic
Flashcards are better for:
- Memorizing information
- Saving time (They generally take less time to make than notes)
- Knowledge is already chunked together
When Not To Use Flashcards
- You don't yet understand something conceptually.
- Knowledge isn't chunked together into meaningful groupings.
- You are learning something that requires lots of real hands-on practice (like in the case of language learning, not all of your practice should be with flashcards but speaking with actual people who use that language).
- You don't need to have something fully memorized.
Major Traps To Avoid When Using Flashcards
- Using off-the-shelf flashcard decks. These are usually less effective than making or editing your own as the making of flashcards themselves not only puts them in your own words but ensures that you understand the context the flashcard is asked in.
- Memorizing information that is USE, useless, self-explanatory, or easy enough to memorize on the spot.
- Poorly designed flashcards can lead to memorizing useless information or failing to learn what you care about.
- Not incorporating some form of mnemonic into your flashcards.
- Making vague flashcards with multiple answers.
- Overloading flashcards with too much information: Flashcards should be concise and focus on specific concepts or facts.
- Using flashcards without another study techniques like practice questions, writing, or the Feynman technique.
- Avoiding active recall. Flipping over the flashcard the second you don't know the answer defeats the purpose of a flashcard. It's meant to make you actively retrieve a piece of information rather than passively do so.
- Not combining flashcards with spaced repetition.
- Failing to adapt and update flashcards: As your knowledge and understanding of a subject evolve, it's essential to update or modify your flashcards accordingly.
Tips For Creating Great Flashcards
Create Your Own
Just like building your own epic civilization in Civilization Six or constructing intricate structures in Terraria, creating your own flashcards allows you to tailor them to your specific needs.
Most off-the-shelf decks are about as helpful as a wooden sword against a Creeper in Minecraft. This is because they aren't worded in a way you understand, and you don't understand the original context they were made in. That being said, some fairly standardized topics, like Medicine, do have some great flashcard decks made by the community, which you can use as a foundation and then tailor to your needs.
Enumerations are things listed in order, whereas assets are things listed without order.
Humans are way better at remembering lists than remembering randomly ordered things. So when creating your flashcards, try to group knowledge into meaningful lists. Let's say you're studying the different biomes in Minecraft; I definitely have not done this.
Instead of creating flashcards with random information about each biome, you can group them into a meaningful list like this:
Flashcard 1 - Biomes of Minecraft
- Question: What are the biomes found in Minecraft?
- Answer: Forest, Desert, Plains, Taiga, Jungle, Savanna, Tundra, Mushroom Island, Ocean, River, etc.
By listing the biomes in a specific order, you create a structured and meaningful enumeration.
This allows your brain to grasp the overall pattern and remember the individual elements more effectively.
Study Both Sides
This isn't always necessary, but particularly for topics where you might need to know both sides of a card, like language learning, you should consider studying with both sides of the flashcard.
The question side tests your knowledge, while the answer side solidifies your understanding. Conquer both sides, and you'll level up your learning prowess.
Use Tags for Exam and Specific Topics
Tags help you quickly locate relevant flashcards when preparing for exams or focusing on specific topics.
For example, in the days leading up to a big exam, I like to group all of my flashcards for a class by tag and study them in one big spree. This is generally much easier to do with digital flashcards, which is why I like to use digital flashcard apps for my studying.
Have One Simple Fact or Question per Side
Keep each flashcard simple and focused, like a straightforward quest objective in your favorite video game.
One fact or question per side ensures clarity and prevents confusion. When creating flashcards, you should ask yourself if your self a couple of months from now will understand what you are saying.
Say the Answer Out Loud Before Turning It Over
Before unveiling the answer side of your flashcard, channel your inner Minecraft Steve and proudly shout out the answer!
This forces you to actively recall the information rather than looking at the flashcard, deluding yourself into thinking you know it, and then turning it over prematurely. Too often, when people don't know the answer to a flashcard, they immediately turn it over. Learning should feel hard. So give yourself at least fifteen seconds before deciding you don't know the answer to something.
Use a Spaced Repetition System
Flashcards' power level goes up drastically if you combine them with spaced repetition, which is the act of repeatedly reviewing your flashcards over time at more and more spaced-out intervals.
With flashcards, you can use SRS after reviewing a flashcard and asking how well you know the information. The better you know it, the longer you wait until your review it again. The worse you know it, the earlier you review it again. This ensures that you revisit information just when you're about to forget it, reinforcing your memory with each encounter and fighting the forgetting curve mentioned earlier. In effect, by spacing out your reviews you can get information into long term memory forever.
Add Links Back to the Original Context
Including references, keywords, or hints that link back to the source material helps you in case you don't understand a flashcard later on.
If you come across a flashcard that you don't understand, you can go back to the original context to facilitate understanding. But this is hard to do with physical flashcards, and most flashcard apps don't allow you to do this.
If you would like an awesome spaced repetition app that does allow you to link to the original context, you should check out IDoRecall.
IDoRecall is a spaced repetition flashcard app with the awesome ability to let you go back to the source you made a flashcard from while doing the flashcard if you forget. I am biased because I have been working with IDoRecall over the past few weeks to gamify and improve their app, but I genuinely would use their app even if I wasn't. It has tons of other powerful capabilities I haven't seen as well integrated into other flashcard apps like redaction mode, which lets you seamlessly create flashcards from images, a web clipper that lets you make flashcards on the web, and a Notion and soon come out Obsidian plugin that allows you to create flashcards out of your notes as well as send highlights from IDoRecalls library of articles and videos you have consumed to your notetaking app like Readwise.
The best part is it's completely free for the first 200 flashcards you make, and you can sign up using my IDoRecall link right here and use the discount code AidanFriend15% for a 15% discount.
The Ultimate Flashcard Tip: Use Mnemonic Techniques
Possibly the greatest of all the flashcard tips is to add mnemonics to your flashcards.
Mnemonic techniques are strategies for remembering things that have ties back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors who used the memory palace technique to memorize entire knowledge systems filled with thousands of plant and animal species. Gone are the days of word-only flashcards that make you want to die. Mnemonic techniques add a bit of spunk, fun, PIZAZZZ to your flashcards. There are so many mnemonic techniques that you can incorporate into your learning, but I'll name some of the most powerful here:
- The Story Method
- The Metaphor
- The Memory Palace
Here are some examples of flashcards incorporating these techniques.
- Acronyms - Humanities:
- Concept: Remembering the order of colors in the visible light spectrum (ROYGBIV).
- Question: What are the colors in the visible light spectrum?
- Answer: ROYGBIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet)
2. The Story Method - Humanities:
The story method is a technique in which you create a story around a series of information that associates with what you want to remember.
- Concept: Remembering the chronological order of ancient civilizations in history.
- Flashcard: Literary Movements
- Question: What are the key literary movements in chronological order?
- Answer (Story): Picture yourself walking through a grand library filled with diverse books. As you explore, you encounter unique rooms, each representing a different literary movement in a story format:
- Room 1: Romanticists - Imagine a room adorned with vibrant paintings of picturesque landscapes, where poets with hearts filled with passion gather to celebrate the beauty of nature and explore intense emotions.
- Room 2: Realists - Enter a room with shelves full of books depicting ordinary people in realistic settings, revealing the raw and unadorned truth of society and human experiences.
- Room 3: Modernists - Step into a room pulsating with abstract art, fragmented narratives, and unconventional poetry. Here, artists and writers challenge traditional norms and experiment with innovative forms of expression.
- Room 4: Beat Generation - Enter a room echoing with the sounds of jazz and poetry readings. Writers gather, fueled by the spirit of rebellion and a thirst for freedom, embracing spontaneity and self-exploration.
- Room 5: Postmodernists - Move to a room filled with mirrors and playful riddles. Here, reality merges with fiction, and irony dances with satire. Authors deconstruct conventional narratives and play with metafiction.
- Room 6: Contemporaryists - Finally, arrive in a room that reflects the vibrant diversity of the present age. Writers explore multicultural perspectives, blending genres and embracing technology's influence on storytelling.
- The Metaphor - STEM:
- Concept: Understanding the structure of an atom.
- Question: What metaphor can you use to understand the structure of an atom?
- Answer: Imagine the atom as a tiny solar system. The nucleus is like the sun, and the electrons are like planets orbiting around it.
2. The Memory Palace - STEM:
The memory palace is an ancient technique which involves imagining locations in the mind and creating images inside that associate with information you want to remember.
- Concept: Remembering the steps of the scientific method.
- Question: What are the steps of the scientific method?
- Room 1: Observation - Picture a large magnifying glass hanging on the wall. This represents the first step of the scientific method, where you carefully observe and gather information about a particular phenomenon or problem.
- Room 1: Observation - Picture a large magnifying glass hanging on the wall. This represents the first step of the scientific method, where you carefully observe and gather information about a particular phenomenon or problem.
- Room 2: Research - Imagine a bookshelf filled with books in this room. Each book symbolizes the extensive research you conduct to gather existing knowledge and background information related to your scientific inquiry.
- Room 3: Hypothesis - Visualize a light bulb suspended from the ceiling. The light bulb represents the "Eureka!" moment when you formulate a hypothesis—a bright idea that proposes a possible explanation or solution to the problem you're investigating.
- Room 4: Experiment - Envision a laboratory bench with various scientific instruments, test tubes, and beakers. This room symbolizes the experimental phase, where you design and conduct experiments to test your hypothesis and collect data.
- Room 5: Analysis - Picture a large computer monitor displaying graphs and charts. This represents the analytical phase, where you analyze the collected data, identify patterns, and draw meaningful conclusions based on the evidence.
- Room 6: Conclusion - Imagine a podium with a trophy or a medal on display. This represents the final step, where you present your findings, share your conclusions, and discuss the implications of your research with others.
Integrate mnemonic techniques like these into your flashcards, and you will make them not only more effective but more fun. Check out my blog post on the ultimate guide to creating a memory palace to learn more.
How To Use Flashcards Without Wasting Hours Of Time
One of flashcards' most common big complaints is that they can take so long to use.
Ingraining something into long-term memory can take as much as four to five separate retrieval practices of that flashcard at spaced intervals. How can we use flashcards without wasting hours of time?
Ask Yourself, Do You Need To Create Flashcards?
The first thing I recommend is knowing whether you are in a situation where flashcards are the best learning method. Ask yourself:
- Do I already understand this information?
- Is this not USE, useless, self-explanatory, or easy enough to memorize on the spot?
- Is this knowledge I'm memorizing already chunked together?
- Do I need to memorize this?
If the answer to all of these is yes, creating flashcards might a great option to learn.
Create Flashcards During Class
Another of my personal ultimate flashcard hack is to make them during class instead of taking notes.
I did this for all the classes in my Introduction to Nutrition Science class and never had to sit down to study for more than an hour or take notes outside of class. I saved tens of hours' worth of effort and time. However, this only works in classes high in memorization and low in conceptual understanding, like the later parts of Med school and this class.
Prioritize Weaker Areas
Another great tip is to prioritize weaker areas.
Identify what areas you are weak in a subject and create more flashcards for those areas over other subjects. This ensures that you don't waste your time memorizing tons of information that you don't need to.
Make It A Habit
The more you ingrain creating and doing flashcards into your everyday life, the less you will have to study in massive batches, and the more you will remember in the long run.
So make flashcard creation a habit. Here are some easy places you can integrate flashcards:
- Between sets at the gym
- Morning Coffee
- Meals alone
- Walking to class
- Waiting in line
- Bathroom breaks
- Before bedtime
The Magic Of Memorizing Effectively With Flashcards And Not Wasting Hours Of Time
Flashcards can be one of the most powerful study techniques you have in your toolkit if you use them effectively.
By understanding when and when not to create flashcards, the principles of creating good flashcards, and how to do flashcards without wasting tons of time, I hope you can uncover their inner magic like I did.
If you would like to learn more about how to create memory palaces check out my Ultimate Guide to Creating a Memory Palace.
Here's what I would like to share this week.
📸News From The Channel!
📺Latest On De YouTube - Why You Need To Study BOTH Western And Eastern Philosophy: As a kid, I was taught history wrong. My viewpoint was predominantly Western until I learned that true wisdom lies in combining Eastern and Western philosophies. In this video, I explore how integrating the two can lead to a more wise life.
🎙️Latest On De Podcast - E20 Bob Doto: How Spirituality And Creative Insight Connects With The Zettelkasten Method of Notetaking: Bob Doto, for the past 20 years, has worked with writers, spiritual aspirants, yogis, teachers, knowledge workers, teaching courses on Zettelkasten, PKM, social media, and spirituality. He is a past mentor on Building a Second Brain. Bob has been blogging since 2003 and publishing zines on and off since the early 90s. He's the author of four books and writes a newsletter called the High Pony which features weekly insights on the creative process, spiritual practice, personal knowledge management, and productivity.
In this podcast, you will learn the following:
- How spirituality connects with PKM and The Zettelkasten method of notetaking
- How to overcome the two biggest problems of starting in PKM
- How to use your PKM system for creative insight
✍️Latest On De Blog - The Notetaking Mindsets Of The New Era Student: It doesn't matter the tool you use or the methods through which you use it, if you have the wrong mindsets when getting into PKM. In this blog post, I discuss the five PKM mindsets of the new-era student that allows them to succeed in school during the digital age.
💡My Best Insights:
📖Book - Transcend: Transcend explores humans inherent nature for good through analyzing remodeling Maslow's old hierarchy of needs. Kaufman reframes the hierarchy by creating the analogy of a boat in which our deficiency needs, security, connection, and self-esteem form the foundation, and our growth needs, exploration, love, and purpose form the sail with transcendence above the boat on top. By understanding how to fulfill our deficiency needs and pursue our growth needs, we can all begin to transcend more readily, even though some people's boats are tougher to set assail than others.
🎙️Podcast - How anyone can develop the mindset of a million dollar entrepreneur Daniel Priestley Deep Dive With Ali Abdaal: The school system teaches you to be a cog in a machine. Not make the machine itself. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to be disruptive and curious, exactly the opposite of what the school system teaches you. Learn how to do so in this podcast.
📺YouTube Video - Ancient Therapy for Modern Problems Stoic Philosophy Explained: This video summarizes Stoicism which I have talked about on the channel many times before. I found one of the criticisms she brought up about Stoicism quite interesting. She says Stoicism puts too little emphasis on understanding why you feel the way you do. Instead, the focus is put on the internal so that you can shift your judgment of something in reality. But little emphasis is put on changing the external so that you don't have to change the internal in the first place. I agree many of the stoics emphasized internal control over external control too much. But this criticism doesn't fairly realize the point at the heart of what the Stoics were trying to get across with this idea. That is, you should work towards improving the external world but while doing so, control your internal world so that you can BETTER change the external one.
- A personal essay targeted towards college students in the realm of gamification, relationship psychology, or Obsidian Personal Knowledge Management
- A curated list of everything that has come out on my content channels
- A curated list of my coolest learnings over the past week
In addition, consider checking out my digital notetaking course Obsidian University to help students like you build a notetaking system that compounds your school learning across semesters.