Six Rules for Flashcard Learning Success

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Author Bio: Don Crawford, Ph.D. is a long time educator who has been a teacher, a college professor of education, and an administrator.  His company, R&D Instructional Solutions, in Portland, Oregon, publishes Rocket Math and other math-related instructional materials.

Students who need tutoring often have had more than their fair share of failure experiences in school.  They need to experience a lot of success to continue to be motivated to learn.  Flashcards, done the right way, can be very motivational.  Students can learn all kinds of facts using flashcards, and become quite proud of the information they have learned.

Done the wrong way, flashcards can be frustrating and detrimental to a student’s self-image.

Rule #1: Have a working deck of no more than 12 or 15 flashcards. Anything more and the cards don’t repeat often enough for their answer to still be remembered.  It is only by answering the question correctly that the neural connections to the right answer become strengthened.

Rule #2: No more than 3 or 4 of those cards should be new information. In other words, most of the cards in the working deck should be known items.  This can be a challenge for a tutor to create flashcards for things the student already knows but it is essential.  It doesn’t matter what those cards are—they could be identifying common objects or numbers—but they should already be known.  That way the student can concentrate on learning a few (3 o4) new things in a sea of already known stuff.

Rule #3: Each session should be no longer than three to five minutes. Working on flashcards is demanding mental work, so limited the sessions. After a break of about 30 minutes you can have another session.  If you have shorter sessions, you can start again sooner, but the breaks should be at least 15 minutes in length.  Too long and it becomes punishing for the student and performance will deteriorate.

Rule #4: Use “cold” run-through to determine master of a deck. Mastery of the working deck is assured only when the first time the cards are done in the day, known as a “cold” run-through, there are no hesitations or errors.  When the working deck is mastered, the tutor can add three new cards to the working deck, and at the same time, must remove three of the oldest (practiced longest) cards from the deck.  That way, rule number one is followed.

Rule #5: Correction and repetition is key! The fifth rule is how to correct.  Any time there is a hesitation or an error, the tutor says the question and the correct answer, asks the student to repeat the target card’s question and answer, and then puts the target card back only three cards from the front.  This is important so that the target card comes up before the student forgets the answer.  Remember: it is only by answering the question correctly that the neural connections to the right answer become strengthened.

Rule #6: Create a review deck. The sixth rule is to take the cards that were mastered and removed from the working deck to make a review deck.  These cards should be reviewed every few days, to be sure they remain in memory, using the same practice procedures as with the working deck.

If you follow these six rules, you will be amazed at how successful your student is doing flashcards.  That success will be motivating to your students.  The information learned will be a feather in his/her cap as well.

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