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Teaching Study Strategies: Flashcards for Making Class Content “Stick”

Posted on 10/12/2015

In this month’s Web-based activity Kristi Reyes refers to books on how we process and retain information, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (by John Medina) and Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel). Among the many valuable points for teaching and learning based on cited research, here are a few of the key points from these texts that we can use to help students develop more successful study habits, and make our class content “stick," along with useful flashcard tools to support these goals.

Visuals Increase Retention of Newly-Learned Content
When presenting new information in class, rather than using text or speech alone as the sole mode of delivery, we should strive to include multimedia. When new information is presented orally, 10% is remembered when subjects are tested 72 hours after exposure; with a visual, the figure increases to 65% (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel).

Repetition “Interrupts Forgetting”
We forget 70% of what we have just heard or read. Through the testing effect—also known as retrieval practice effect—repeated retrieval in spaced out sessions that require more than simple repetition, boosts memory by interrupting forgetting. Basically, for optimal retention of new information, we need two-hour intervals of repetition (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel).Therefore, when students are given homework, oftentimes two hours have passed from the time of learning until students sit down to do the homework, so the task is not really a review; students are having to learn the content again. If the new information is not repeated, it will disappear. If the information is repeated within 30 seconds, the brain will keep the information for one to two hours. If the information is not repeated again, it will go away permanently (see “Memory”Brain Rules videoExternal link opens in new window or tab).

Repetitions should be spaced out, not crammed: “Deliberately re-expose yourself to information more elaborately and in fixed, spaced intervals to be able to retrieve it vividly” (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, p. 150-151). “Allowing time between repetitions is better than cramming ” (p. 156).

As explained in Make it Stick, retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts from memory—is a more effective study strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards strengthen memory by interrupting “forgetting.”

In her text, Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education, author Kathleen F. Green also supports flashcard use for vocabulary learning.

Therefore, a low-tech method to train students to use flashcards to improve their study habits and retention of course content, is to have them create flashcards on 3x5 index cards.

However, there is also a variety of free resources for lower-end tech (print) to high tech (digital) flashcards, as well as customizable flashcards and courses.