Don’t Forget About Flashcards

There are a lot of books available that describe systems for developing a phenomenal memory — Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is one of my favorites from the bunch. What they mostly forget about, though, is the plain old flashcard (Foer has since written about “spaced repetition,” which I talk about more below). I’ve found flashcards to be especially powerful for committing information to long-term memory, and here I’ve written a little bit about paper and paperless flashcard systems that might help you get started. In another post, I talk about how to share your flashcards with others.

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Basic Flashcard Creation and Usage

  1. On one side of an index card (the front), write the item of information you want to learn. Depending on what you are studying, this may be a question, a phrase, a word, or an image.
  2. On the other side of the card (the back), write an explanation for the item of information you want to learn. Depending on what you are studying, this could be a full sentence, a phrase, a word, or an image.
  3. Look at the information on the front of the card and try to recall the information on the back of the card from memory.
  4. Check the back of the card to see if you were correct. If you were, move it to one pile for finished cards. If you weren’t, move it to another pile for unfinished cards.
  5. Keep doing this until you run out of cards in the unfinished pile. Don’t forget to review every once in a while.

One example of a use case suited for flashcards would be the study of foreign languages (see the first image in this post). The word or phrase to be learned goes on one side, and the definition goes on the other.

Tips for Improving Your Flashcards

  1. Read the front and the back of the cards aloud. When you vocalize, you engage your brain in different ways so that you are not just seeing the information, but saying and hearing it as well.
  2. Break up large pieces of information into smaller parts. Instead of cramming word usage, sample sentences, and other information onto one card, I recommend putting them on several. I find that this helps me to remember the information better, because big blocks of information don’t tend to “stick” in my memory as well.
  3. Highlight key words in longer definitions and use images when appropriate. These provide your brain with additional visual cues that will help you to recall information.
  4. Resize the notecards to make them more portable. If you don’t have them with you, then you cannot study! I often cut my notecards in half so that they easily fit into a pocket and can be carried with me all the time. In Japan, they have a variety of flashcard sizes that make this easy to do.
  5. Study your cards using the back and try to recall the information on the front. This is similar to the television program Jeopardy!, where the contestants see the answer and have to formulate a question for it.
  6. Write down the answers on a piece of paper while you go through your flashcards. When you write you are thinking in terms of spatial relationships, and this provides another hook for memory.
  7. Include a mnemonic on the back side of the card to help you remember the information. Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein is perfect for this.

A couple examples using these tips are shown below. I suggest experimenting with different styles of notecards to find the one that is most effective for you.


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Advanced Flashcard Usage

  1. Leitner Boxes
    Studies have shown that we tend to forget most information relatively quickly unless we review it (flashcarders call this “spaced repetition”). Sebastian Leitner’s solution uses boxes ordered so that we space our reviews out across long intervals of time in order to counteract the effects of forgetting. The idea is that if you can get to the end of the series of boxes, then you will have successfully committed the information to your long-term memory.

    • Prepare five boxes (the number of boxes used is not important) for your flashcards and number them from #1 to #5.
    • Place all of your flashcards into box #1.
    • Look at the information on the front of the card and try to recall the information on the back of the card from memory.
    • Check the back of the card to see if you were correct. If you were, move it to box #2. If you weren’t, move it back to box #1.
    • When box #2 is full (or after a couple of days) follow the same process, but this time put flashcards that you correctly recalled in box #3 and return ones you incorrectly recall to box #1
    • Repeat the process (people sometimes space delays progressively longer for each box) until you reach box #5.

The image above from shows an example of what the Leitner system looks like.

Paperless Possibilities

There are several applications available now that enable you to digitally replicate the process of studying flashcards. SuperMemo appears to be a particularly popular flashcard application, but isn’t available on all computing platforms, especially the ones you have with you all the time: Android and iOS. What are some of your options?

  • Evernote Peek: In Evernote, use the title (up to 60 characters) for the term or question you want to learn, and use the body of the note for the definition or answer. Evernote Peek only works on the iPad and there are several significant limitations in the app including the lack of any advanced features for spaced repetition. Although I see a lot of potential in it, and I have suggested improvements, my sense is that Evernote is no longer actively developing this product, because we haven’t seen any major updates (as far as I know) since its initial release years ago. I don’t recommend using it.
  • StudyBlue: Set up your notes the same way, but use a third-party application like StudyBlue to sync with the information in your Evernote account. At least, that is how it is supposed to work! I am afraid I have never gotten StudyBlue to do this on iOS, though. For all of my simple text notes, the app says: “Sorry, we are unable to display this document. It may be unavailable or incompatible with the iPhone platform.” If making flashcards in this app on the web or my iPad wasn’t so laborious, I might be willing to try, but the current iteration of the software doesn’t seem like an improvement over pen and paper. In addition, I am not terribly thrilled about creating thousands of one-line notes, when everything could easily fit into a single note in a list.
  • Flashcards Deluxe: This is the app that I am currently using to work with flashcards on iOS and Android. In a plain text note (I use BBEdit on the Mac, but all Windows and Mac computers come with their own editors pre-installed — see your Applications folder in the Windows start menu or TextEdit in your Applications on the Mac), you simply type the information for the front of the card, press tab, type the information for the back, and save the file. Sync it to your device and you are done (see the screenshots below).

    Using it with Evernote requires one extra step, because Evernote doesn’t respect tabs. Instead of pressing the tab key between the information for the front and back of the cards, put in an uncommon character like a forward slash (/). When you are done with your list of flashcards, copy/paste into a plain text note, make a tab in the note (shown in the screenshot below by the triangle), copy that, open the search and replace function, paste the tab into the field in order to replace the forward slash with a tab, press “replace all”, save the note, and sync. It sounds complicated, but as you’ll see in the screenshots below, it is pretty easy to master, and only takes a few seconds.

BBEdit Plain Text Version of Flashcards

Notice the triangles in the text indicating tabs. These will enable Flashcard Deluxe to recognize the front and back of the flashcards.

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Evernote Version of Flashcards

Instead of tabs there are forward slashes. These will not be recognized by Flashcard Deluxe, but you can do a find and replace action to put it into the proper format.

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BBEdit Version of the Evernote Flashcards

CMD + F will bring up the find and replace dialogue. Replace all forward slashes with the tabs. After saving the file, you simply sync your mobile device and you are ready to go.

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Flashcard Deluxe on the iPad: “Front”

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Flashcard Deluxe on the iPad: “Back”

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Paperless Flashcards

Are the paperless flashcards “better” than the paper ones? I think I remember a little better when I create flashcards by hand, and it is more satisfying to see a stack of note cards completed than it is to finish a list of bits and bytes, but whatever benefits the paper flashcards have, there is no way I could carry them with me all of the time. In this respect, the paperless version is a lot better. They also have the added benefit of being easily shared with others. For example, in my classes this semester on Modern Japan and East Asia in World History we are collecting the data from our readings in a shared notebook in Evernote to make flashcards for dates, people, events, and so forth. So far, it is working well. I highly recommend giving the paperless system a try.