Neuro-power Strategies for Students: Flashcards
July 30, 2018
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg

In their workshops on the latest brain science and learning (Mind, Brain and Education), Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher, talk about “Power Strategies for teachers/lecturers and students”. In our next couple of ITSI blogs, we want to tie in with this and focus on practical things that students can start with, at any time, which will improve their mastery of Mathematics, Science, Languages and Social Sciences. These are techniques and tools which have been proven by research to increase student achievement. Although these tools are highly effective and using them will make students more efficient this, unfortunately, does not mean that they make learning “effortless”. Learning is hard – if there is no effort involved, no learning will take place, in that respect it is similar to becoming fit – it takes effort).

Most students are already spending time and effort studying – even if they are not doing it in the most efficient way. We want to help students spend their study-time as best as possible – and to enable them to give themselves the best opportunity of reaching their goals in the process. In the end, they may actually end up spending less time studying – simply because when they dó study they actually remember the material not only for the test or exam but much longer, thereby reducing the time they have to re-study work they have already covered. This, in turn, will result in a better overall foundational knowledge for students – allowing them to be the critical and creative thinkers which they need to be.


Flashcards are one of the oldest and most versatile learning tools available. Because it has been around for such a long time (see this Wikipedia article for more), people tend to think that it is outdated, but it is actually an extremely effective tool for mastering a range of content. We all know what a flashcard is, and most of us have even used flashcards. The beauty of flashcards is in their simplicity: small amounts of information are added to a card, flipping the card reveals corresponding information and this helps us memorise large quantities of work, bit by bit. Flashcards seem like an intuitive way to study and it has been used for years, but the reason it works so well was not always clear. When using Flashcards correctly, we are actually studying in a way that ties in with how our brains work and remember. So how, exactly, does a flashcard work?

As you can see from the image above, flashcards consist of two sides. It mostly does not matter which side is studied first as a student needs to memorise both pieces of information. Usually, one side of the flashcard will contain a word or sentence while the other side contains a definition or description; almost like a question and answer. Flashcards aren’t limited to words and pictures only, formulas, expressions and so forth could be used to aid learning. Learning is not easy and although flashcards are proven to be highly effective, students still need to put in the necessary time. You do not become fit by relaxing, and similarly, you cannot learn without the necessary effort.

Why use Flashcards?

Flashcards are useful for a number of reasons:

  • They work effectively within the constraints of working memory;
  • They are great for retrieval practice and the strengthening of neural pathways;
  • They make it easy to interleave material (i.e. mix up different items to ensure that we are able to retrieve them in any context).

Flashcards and Working Memory

Humans have a limited working memory and we can only manage about 7-9 pieces of new information at a time. This means that if we want to master new material, we need to ensure that we do not bombard our brains with too many new facts when we are studying, because it will simply make it impossible for us to master them. An important principle when creating flashcards is NOT to put too much information on either side of the cards – because the more items one puts on them, the more difficult it becomes to master them (due to limitations on working memory). This is important to keep in mind when using electronic flashcards – even if the tool itself allows for large chunks of information.

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is another area where flashcards really come into their own, because they not only provide an easy way for students to chunk new material but in addition help with retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is the act of recalling material that has been studied. It differs from simply re-reading material that has been studied already in that it is much harder cognitive work. The problem with re-reading material that has been studied is that it leads to a false sense of mastery – because students confuse familiarity with mastery. If you simply re-read the material you inevitably “recognise” the material you previously read. However, this is a far cry from actually mastering the material – which is why students who think they know material often struggle in tests and exams. Retrieval practice, however, although it is much more difficult (and therefore unpopular) actively strengthens and forms neural pathways which lead not only to enduring learning and remembering but also the ability to recall material.


We are all familiar with a situation where we are able to do a certain set of problems, only to get confused when these are mixed up with one or more different sets of problems. This is where Interleaving comes in – it is a deliberate study strategy where one mixes up information deliberately to force your brain to be able to recognise material on face value, rather than relying on a specific context to recall it. Once again, flashcards are ideal for interleaving because it is quite easy to mix them up. When students then work through a stack of them, it forces them to rely on other cues (i.e. the information on the card itself – for instance, the actual content of a formula), rather than the context to remember what it is about.

What are Flashcards good for?

Most students know that flashcards are great for mastering vocabulary, tenses and multiplication tables. However, they are also great tools for mastering definitions, different types of equations, what a particular graph for a specific equation looks like, chemical formulas, physics formulas and facts, etc. They are obviously also great tools for mastering facts, dates – basically any list of information. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any subject where flashcards are not applicable and students who include them as one of their study tools and properly use them will immediately start seeing the benefits of doing so.

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