Teaching with Flashcards?

For many students, flashcards are an important and everyday part of the learning experience. As a teacher, you may be either a fan of using flashcards or more skeptical to the idea. The latter largely stems from misconceptions about the use of flashcards or a lack of truly knowing what to do with them in a classroom setting.

While they are not truly a means of instruction, flashcards can be utilized by teachers in a number of ways. One important factor to consider is that assigning flashcards to a learner can in fact be an encouragement to study later: If the material is readily available, why not take a quick look to brush up on the material? Below is a re-post of an article written for the Brainscape blog, which takes a closer look at some assumptions about flashcards and teaching. Read on to learn more.

How to Use Flashcards the Right Way

One of the biggest criticisms of flashcards among today’s progressive educators is that they encourage the robotic memorization of facts rather than helping students understand more complex concepts. “Our students shouldn’t just be memorizing dates and names” is a common criticism heard by flashcard-haters across all grade levels of progressive educators. Yet nobody said that using this effective, old-school way to study means also having to trivialize the curriculum into useless knowledge. Flashcards can – and should – be used in a way that facilitates real understanding of concepts.

Take U.S. History. A bad teacher might design a flashcard (or a test question) that says “On what date was President Harry Truman born?” The answer to that question, in my opinion, should be “Who cares?!” A better teacher might ask the question as: “Describe the historical significance of the time and place Harry Truman was born”, where the back of the flashcard is a series of very clean, concise bullets summarizing the important concept. Encouraging students to summarize complex topics into concise flashcards (but not so concise as just a date!) is one of the best high-level mental activities that learners can do to cement their understanding of key ideas.

The other way that educators often misuse flashcards is in relying on them as a primary means of instruction. Flashcards should rarely be applied as pure instruction. They should rather be used as a way to review concepts that were first acquired through more constructivist activities, or to fill in the gaps with more detailed information that may not have been acquired from such project-based experiences.

For instance, a great way to teach fruit vocabulary in Spanish might be to encourage students to perform a skit about a scene at a fruit stand, for which they must look up in a dictionary any fruits they want to include in their play. Yet although this may be a great way to learn a few good fruits, it won’t guarantee that the students remember those fruits forever, nor will it ensure that they learn the other key fruits that that were not included in their constructivist activity. To properly review and retain the information, students need to use an effective study tool such as flashcards to cement their knowledge.

The next time someone tells you that flashcards can’t be an effective part of their curriculum, tell them that the problem might be that they just aren’t using flashcards (or designing test questions) correctly in the first place. There may be a better role for flashcards than they think.

Brainscape affiliation


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