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How to study flashcards like a boss

Flashcards are such a powerful study tool and I think they're essential for college. So many classes rely on rote memorization, and flashcards paired with serious study time are are essential to making the grade. I especially use them in classes with a lot of vocab.

Between biology, language classes and even math, it seems like there's vocabulary to learn everywhere. There are some really great flashcard apps out there, but there are a few benefits to physical cards: you can add notes and mnemonics to your cards quickly, there are fewer distractions when studying them vs. on a phone or computer and you can easily remove cards you've mastered.

The one exception to my physical card preference is for my Art History Courses or courses that require you to memorize images or super complex diagrams. I use Quizlet for these classes because I can easily add images from online to the cards. This saves me from having to print a bunch of images and fasten them to cards. No matter what method of flash cards you use they're are still some tips that can help you master flashcards.

1. Make your cards concise but accurate

Our brain is works really well to make short connections, so make sure the information you're putting on your cards is as short as possible but still accurate. There were a few times during Spanish 1 where I misspelled a word on my flashcard and memorized it wrong *face palm.* Avoid fluff words like "refers to" or "the concept of" to cut down on mental clutter when studying.

It's also helpful to think of mnemonics for the really tough ones that you keep getting wrong. Adding those reminders to your cards will help jog your memory and memorize stuff faster.

2. Make your cards super early

The act of making your cards is a type of review so don't try to make all your cards then spend time studying them all the day before an exam. Making the cards is a good way to introduce yourself to vocabulary early on in the chapter. You're going to need lots of time to memorize this stuff, so be sure your cards are ready to go way before when you need to start studying by. 

You can make cards while watching TV or laying around; It's not mentally challenging work so it should be easy to knock out quickly. The weekend after a test I'll make the cards for the next chapter we'll be covering. This works well in classes where the professor has the syllabus or schedule available to you.

3. Study a tiny bit each day

While making the cards is technically studying, it's not the last time you should touch your cards. Rote memorization works better over a long period of time. So study your cards a few times a week, even if the test is a long way away. You'll start feeling more and more confidence the more time you spend.

This is one area where an app may be a better choice for convince. The Quizlet app is super easy to whip out while walking between classes or in some down time. Just be weary of time wasters on your phone. Those few minutes

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4. Use the Leitner System for physical cards

Using The Leitner System when studying flash cards helps me learn stuff soooo much faster than just going through them straight through. Basically how the system works is you have a few groups of cards, and as you answer cards correctly, cards move forward, and as you answer wrong cards move back. After you go through a stack, you study to the next one. Essentially, you're reviewing cards you know and not worrying about cards you don't as much. You'll get them eventually. Check out this handy graphic!

Wikipedia explains the system pretty quickly. You don't even need these like deck boxes though. I make different decks with my fingers so I can study anywhere and start over again. At the end of my study session I just push all the cards back into one big pile and secure them with a rubber band to throw in my backpack. 

To really understand the system practice using piles on a table side by side. Once you really get and can visualize the process try studying your cards standing up or waiting in line at Starbucks. It's a lot easier than it sounds, so just try it out a few times and you'll see why it's so powerful.

If I have a TON of flashcards (like too many to hold in one hand) I'll cull out the ones I for sure know so I don't spend extra time reviewing them. If there's still to many cards I'll split my pile in two and study the two stacks independently.


Hate to break it to you, but at the end of the day there's not a lot to studying flashcards except to just put in the time. There are a few tips for learning stuff a faster, but you'll still have to put in the time to learn the material. There are benefits to both physical and digital cards, so choose what works best for you and your class.

p.s. I has tons organization and productivity posts. Stay up to date with my once-a-month newsletter.

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  1. Thanks for this post! What do you use to organize your cards for this system?

    1. Thanks for your comment! I typically use a hair tie or rubber band to keep them together in my backpack. I don't keep the individual piles separated all the time. After a study session I just stack them all up and start again next time.

  2. It's rote memorization, not rogue memorization. Although rogue memorization sounds a LOT more fun!

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I agree, an afternoon of "rogue" memorization would be hilarious!