Flashcards, but with a Twist

I have had a fondness for index cards for quite a few years, if my 2012 series on the subject is any indication (for a flashback, visit part 1, part 2, and part 3). Flashcards are of course a tried and true way to use index cards, and I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about the subject.


Regular old flashcards. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

But a friend of mine recently drew my attention to a blog post illustrating a fantastic way to use flashcards: Be Your Own Teacher: How to Study with Flashcards. That link describes the technique perfectly, so you don’t really need to keep reading here anymore, but I’ll go ahead and describe my brief but wonderful experience with the technique.

First, a summary: The main idea is to make TWO sets of cards. The first set consists of traditional cards with a term on one side and a definition on the back. Ho hum. But the second set is where the magic happens. This set is much smaller, and it consists of some generic questions.


Boom! These questions make regular flashcards awesome. Photo by Laura Bartley.

I stole many of my generic questions from the Be Your Own Teacher blog post I referenced above, but I added a couple myself. Here are the ones I used:

  • Describe this concept without using any key words written on the flashcard.
  • Draw this concept.
  • Give a real life example of this concept.
  • How would you explain this to a child/someone who has never heard of it before?
  • What is the opposite of this concept?
  • Why is knowledge of this concept useful to you?
  • How does this concept relate to any other flashcard in your stack?
  • Where does this concept fit in the organizational hierarchy of life?

The student shuffles both sets of cards separately and then pulls one card from each deck. That means that a flashcard with, say, the definition of nucleotide is now paired with one of the thought-provoking questions listed here. As if by magic, the flashcard is transformed from a tool that promotes memorization into a tool that promotes thinking. The best part is that those question cards can be used for any topic in my biology class. Genius!

I used this technique on a couple of sets of students in my Action Center yesterday, and the response was very positive. The Peer Learning Assistant who runs the Action Center with me was also impressed, although she was also a little bit dismayed that all of the “go-to” questions that she uses to interact with clients could be summed up in eight little index cards.

I am trying to think of more questions to add to my set. If you have a good idea, please add a comment to this post.



This entry was posted in Active learning, Learning at home, Study skills and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Flashcards, but with a Twist

  1. jmlandin says:

    Love this! I’m not a fan of flashcards (memorizing definitions), but I like for students to shuffle the cards, select 2, and explain how the two concepts are related

    • That’s a great idea. By the way, I have found lots of other uses for the “generic” question cards — just while talking with students during Action Center, for example, I can whip out one of the cards and have students answer on the spot about whatever we were just talking about. These are a great tool!

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