For instance, I’ve recently been making an effort to be better at remembering the names of new people that I meet, and I’ve found the following strategy to be extremely effective. Let’s say I meet someone named Jim. I’d quickly think of someone that I already know named Jim like my Uncle Jim. I’d then make a comparison between the new Jim and my Uncle Jim. How are they similar? They are both tall with brown hair. How are they different? My Uncle is in shape, but this new Jim is overweight. After making these connections between the Jim I already know and this new Jim, I often find that I have a very hard time forgetting the new person’s name. Relating new information to what you already know is so effective that it has it’s own psychological term: “self-referential encoding.” It is often cited as the very most effective memory technique: “One of the most effective ways of enhancing memories is to provide them with a link to your personal life.”
In addition to self-referential encoding, mnemonic devices can help you make stronger connections: “A mnemonic devices is anything that helps you build an association between two pieces of information in your mind.” For instance, let’s say you are trying to remember that Fe is the symbol for Iron. A helpful mnemonic device might be “Villains Fear Ironman.” And as with all aspects of learning, it is best for you to invent your own mnemonic devices rather than copying someone else’s.
As mentioned previously as one of the pitfalls of notetaking and term-definition flashcards, simply rewriting information is not an effective learning method. In fact, in one study, the subjects “scored significantly (approximately half a letter grade) better on the [concepts] they had written about in their own words than on those they had copied.”
Putting concepts into one’s own words is known as elaboration: “If you’re just engaging in mechanical repetition, it’s true, you quickly hit the limit of what you can keep in mind. However, if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”
When you use Elaboration, you put concepts into your own words, creating a connection between the new information and your own neural network. If you simply copy down information, this connection will not happen.
The Picture Superiority Effect suggests that we remember visual information better than written information. And the effect is astounding: “We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”
But, this doesn’t mean you should just use pictures. A recent study proved that including text with a picture enhances memory: “A post-picture sentence improves attention to and perhaps rehearsal of the representation of the picture following its display.”
For this reason, whenever possible, I’d recommend drawing pictures on your flashcards. And don’t just paste in someone else’s picture off the internet. Drawing your own will enhance your memory of it (even if your art skills are toddler level )
5 STEPS TO WRITING AND REVIEWING FLASHCARDS
Now that you understand what makes a flashcard good vs. bad, let’s quickly discuss the ins and outs of when and how you should write and review them. Here are my 5 steps to writing and reviewing your flashcards:
1. Be Prepared to Write Flashcards During Every Learning Opportunity
If you ran into me while I was at college, chances are I had a stack of flashcards nearby. I used flashcards during every single learning opportunity. Whether I was doing practice problems, reading a textbook, watching an assigned video, or sitting in a lecture, I had a pen and blank flashcards at the ready.
Why? Think about it. Good professors don’t just give you homework to fill up time. They don’t give lectures just for the heck of it. Everything has a purpose, and usually that purpose has something to do with preparing you for the upcoming exam and eventually the final exam. For this reason, I approached every single learning activity with the mindset that I was eventually going to be tested on everything I was currently doing.
This is not what most college students do. Typically, their goal is to simply finish and get a good grade on the assignment at hand. But, that is obviously a nearsighted goal, especially when you consider the fact that homework assignments typically only account for a small fraction of the final grade. It’s important to shift your mindset and view homework assignments and lecture quizzes as learning opportunities that are meant to prepare you for what actually counts, the exams.
So, when I’m doing a homework assignment, and I learn something new, I pause and write a flashcard. Sure, it may take me a little bit longer to get my homework done compared to the average student, but it will save me huge amounts of time when I am reviewing for the exam. While other students are attending long TA review sessions, I’m spending a fraction of the time reviewing my flashcards, feeling confident that I’ve captured every piece of knowledge that the professor wants me to know.
Another thing I want to touch on is that it is important to make flashcards during learning activities, and not after. Some students will write notes during the lecture and then convert their notes into flashcards later. Not only is this time consuming, but it will also decrease your ability to remember what was taught. Why? The answer comes from Herman Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve:
As you can see, just 20 minutes after a lecture, you will likely only remember about 55-percent of what you learned. If you made flashcards during class, however, you’ll be able to test yourself on what you learned while you are walking to your next class. This will interrupt the forgetting curve right away, boosting your retention back up towards 100-percent. This would not be possible if you waited until later to convert your notes into flashcards.
Now, some of you may find it hard to write effective flashcards during a fast-paced lecture, but please don’t let that hold you back. The key is to come to class prepared. When possible, you should read the textbook and make flashcards from it before coming to class. This way, instead of trying to capture everything the professor is saying during class, you only have to capture the information that wasn’t already contained in the textbook. As an example, I typically made 50-100 flashcards based on the textbook reading and then only an additional 10-20 during each class.
For the MCAT specifically, there’s a few opportunities you have to pause and create your own flashcards. As you go through our free Ecourse, you can pause during the videos or the associated content review book reading to write high-quality flashcards on concepts you aren’t sure you will remember on test day. You can also pause as you go through our over 5,300 Quizlet flashcards associated with our Ecourse and write your own flashcards based on topics you missed on our flashcards.
Now, how does using MCAT Self Prep’s flashcards work with the rest of the advice given here? Written in 2017 and updated weekly with any feedback we receive, we know that these flashcards are high-quality and comprehensive. We have images associated with most flashcards too, capitalizing on the Picture Superiority Effect. These are connected, bitesize, and require explanations to fully understand. And when you come across flashcards you struggle with or can’t easily explain, that’s your opportunity to create a flashcard in your own words and start establishing those neural connections!
Additionally, to write flashcards faster, I’d recommend developing shorthands, and when these are visual, all the better. For instance, up and down arrows can indicate increases and decreases. Or, you could replace long terms like “Restriction Endonuclease” with its abbreviation, RE. This way, your brain has to work harder to replace the term, resulting in deeper learning.
2. Gain Understanding Before Writing Flashcards
So, during a learning opportunity, how should you go about writing flashcards? Well, before you write a flashcard, it is crucial that you first understand what is being taught. After all, how can you possibly write a question to test yourself on a concept that you don’t yet understand. As Dr. Wozniak explains, “Do not start from memorizing loosely related facts! First read a chapter in your book that puts them together (e.g. the principles of the internal combustion engine). Only then proceed with learning using individual questions and answers (e.g. What moves the pistons in the internal combustion engine?)”
Now, what if you don’t understand a certain paragraph in the textbook? Something I’ve found effective, is to keep a running list of questions to ask the professor during the next lecture. For the MCAT specifically, you can go to one of our tutors (who all scored in the 97th percentile or better on the MCAT) to ask your questions!
It is crucial to be 100-percent honest with yourself. It’s okay to not understand something, but don’t just skip over it. Put in the necessary work to figure it out.
3. Capture Every Concept You Expect to be Tested On
This leads me into my next point. Don’t skip anything! Try your best to make a flashcard for every single concept from every textbook chapter, every video, every practice assignment, and every lecture. Even if it seems simple, don’t let it pass by:
Do not neglect the basics. Memorizing seemingly obvious things is not a waste of time! Basics may also appear volatile and the cost of memorizing easy things is little. Better err on the safe side. Remember that usually you spend 50% of your time repeating just 3-5% of the learned material! Basics are usually easy to retain and take a tiny proportion of your time. However, each memory lapse on a basic fact can be very costly!
4. Do a Practice Session as Soon as Possible
As mentioned before, you will forget almost 50-percent of what you learned just 20 minutes later. For this reason, it is crucial to review the flashcards you made right after class. Additionally, when I am reading a textbook, I try to pause every 30 minutes or so to review the flashcards I made during the previous half-an-hour.
Research consistently shows an immediate practice session to be worth the time investment:
Students heard a story that named sixty concrete objects. Those students who were tested immediately after exposure recalled 53 percent of the objects on this initial test but only 39 percent a week later. On the other hand, a group of students who learned the same material but were not tested at all until a week later recalled 28 percent. Thus, taking a single test boosted performance by 11 percent after a week.
An immediate practice session and the subsequent 11-percent boost on a test could be the difference between earning a C+ and an A-. It’s the little things that make all the difference.
5. Have Practice Sessions at Increasingly Spaced Out Intervals
As you can probably guess, three practice sessions is better than one. In continuation of the research recently cited:
Another group of students were tested three times after initial exposure and a week later they were able to recall 53 percent of the objects—the same as on the initial test for the group receiving one test. In effect, the group that received three tests had been “immunized” against forgetting, compared to the one-test group, and the one-test group remembered more than those who had received no test immediately following exposure. Thus, and in agreement with later research, multiple sessions of retrieval practice are generally better than one, especially if the test sessions are spaced out.
As you can see, it is important to practice your flashcards several times, but how should these practice sessions be spaced out? I think this answer from Make It Stick sums it up quite nicely:
How big an interval, you ask? The simple answer: enough so that practice doesn’t become a mindless repetition. At a minimum, enough time so that a little forgetting has set in. A little forgetting between practice sessions can be a good thing, if it leads to more effort in practice, but you do not want so much forgetting that retrieval essentially involves relearning the material. The time periods between sessions of practice let memories consolidate. Sleep seems to play a large role in memory consolidation, so practice with at least a day in between sessions is good.
During college, I found that the following intervals worked very well for me:
- Review my flashcard stack immediately after the learning activity
- Review all my flashcard stacks the day after making them
- Review all my relevant flashcard stacks the day before the exam
- Review all my flashcard stacks the day before the final exam
You may find that you need more practice sessions than this, and that is okay. You may be fine with less. You have to find the balance that works for you.
The key here is to spread out your review sessions instead of cramming the night before the exam. Instead of staying up into the late hours of the night studying for an exam, I typically get all my review sessions in just walking around campus. As suggested by Zane Claes, “The best way to use flashcards is as a quick impromptu study session. 15 minutes at the bus stop and 30 minutes between classes is better than hours and hours of continuous study at the end of the day.”
TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE PRACTICE SESSIONS
Making effective flashcards is just half the battle, you also need to make sure your practice sessions are as effective as possible. Here are 5 key tips for having the most effective practice sessions possible:
1. Treat it Like an Exam. Don’t Just Read Your Flashcards
Remember, “practice like you play and you will play like you practice.” For this reason, you need to treat your practice sessions like the real deal. That means you need to be honest and hold yourself accountable. You should attempt to answer the question without peeking at the back, and if you get it wrong, you need to mark it wrong for future review.
“Evidence tells us that the act of trying to remember, even if unsuccessful, aids learning. Therefore a proper pause is a must before flipping the card.”
2. Say Your Answers Out Loud While Studying
In holding yourself accountable, it can be helpful to answer the question out loud. This forces you to pause before flipping over the card. It also forces you to articulate a clear answer that is either right or wrong.
Answering out loud also helps with elaboration (putting concepts into your own words). It will greatly enhance your understanding if you imagine you are teaching the concept to a fifth grader. As Einstein say, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
3. Review the Flashcards You Got Wrong Immediately After Every Practice Session
One of my favorite sayings is “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” That couldn’t be more true when it comes to practicing your flashcards. When you get a flashcard incorrect, you are practicing it wrong. Therefore, you need to practice it until your most recent repetition of it is perfect.
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
For this reason, when you get a flashcard wrong, I strongly recommend flipping it upside down or marking it in some way. Then after you finish going through the flashcard stack, you should retest yourself on the marked cards until you get them all 100-percent correct.
4. Switch Between Different Subjects Often (Interleaving)
A large body of research suggests that students who study a variety of subjects throughout the day will perform better than students who only study a single topic. Switching between subjects is known as interleaving.
As an example, in college, when I’d plan out my week, I’d try and study a variety of subjects each day. Instead of doing all my Biology homework on Monday, all of my Physics homework on Tuesday, and all of my English homework on Wednesday, etc. etc., I’d do an hour or two of homework from each subject every day. Not only does this help you stay engaged, but it also enhances your memory of what you are learning.
5. Mix Up the Order of Your Questions (Varied Practice)
While interleaving entails switching between different subjects, varied practice entails mixing up concepts within the same subject. It is also proven to be an effective method for boosting memory retention.
For instance, let’s say you’ve written four questions that require the use of four different physics questions. If you were to study these questions in the same order every time, you may start to remember that question #1 uses equation A, question #2 uses equation B, and so on and so forth. This aides your memory in a way that is not realistic to the randomized conditions of your upcoming exam. What you should do is mix up the order of these questions so that you actually have to remember which equation is needed in which scenario.
Because I prefer to keep my flashcards organized, I avoid mixing them up willy nilly, but I do try to randomize the order of certain subsets of questions when I think it might make my practice more effective. For our MCAT Self Prep flashcards, we recommend using the shuffle function within any given lesson, so the notecards are still organized by topic, but in a random order within that topic.
CONCLUSION: LEARNING IS DEEPER WHEN IT IS MORE EFFORTFUL
If you made it to the end of this article, you are likely thinking to yourself, “Holy cow! Flashcarding like this sounds like so much work!” And you would be right. It isn’t easy. But, the fact that flashcarding like this is so hard is the very same reason why it is so effective: “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.” If you want to actually remember what you are learning, I’d highly recommend adopting this method of studying. You won’t regret it!
If you want to watch me make high-quality flashcards specifically for the MCAT, watch my Free Intro Session. I cover 12 more tips for making effective flashcards and explain the most important strategies for working your way towards a top MCAT score.
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