The scientifically proven best way to learn is practicing recall by spaced repetition. Recall means that you try to express and explain something you just learned from your memory as exactly as possible.
You repeat the process of recall in certain time intervals (every day, every weekend etc.), and that’s how you get information stored in your long-term memory. Spaced repetition indicates that it's better to learn every day for one hour, than one day for five hours (cramming).
The two best ways to practice recall are (1) self-testing and (2) flashcards also known as cue cards. With self-testing, you try to solve a test based on a subject you’ve just been learning about. You can use many different types of tests to learn and practice – open questions, multiple choice etc.
Besides testing, flashcards are an extremely effective and popular way to learn. They’ve been used since the 19th century.
Flashcards are a set of cards where every card has a question written on one side and the answer on the other side. You choose a card, read the question, try to recall as much as possible (known as active recall), and then you compare your answer to the correct answer written on the back of a flashcard.
You can use the question-and-answer format for any kind of information and subjects you are trying to learn – from new words, to formulas and other specific types of information. The decks can be in physical form (on cardboards) or in digital form using appropriate software.
People most often use flashcards to learn new languages, but you can use them for studying almost any topic you want. If you are an enthusiastic life-long learner or you want to be a straight-A student, I absolutely recommend you to use flashcards. In this blog post, you will learn the best practices of using them.
Active recall, metacognition, spaced repetition, self-testing, multi-sensory stimulation, making associations, and practicing fast response – these are all the benefits of learning with flashcards.
Table of contents – In this blog post you will learn:
- How to prepare your own flashcards (physical or digital)
- How to learn with flashcards beyond memorizing facts
- About flashcards sorting systems and Leitner algorhitm
- Using flashcards at every opportunity to learn (even on the bus)
- Different flashcards software solutions
- Anki review – the best flashcards software
- Summary of the seven basic principles how to use flashcards for fast learning
Physical or digital, prepare your own flashcards
You can prepare flashcards in physical or in digital form. It’s definitely more fun to prepare physical decks, but it’s also more time‑consuming and you are less flexible with updates and the way you practice (sorting algorithms).
I would say that you should go for physical decks for simpler subjects or if you are learning with your kids, otherwise it’s much more productive to use the appropriate software.
If you decide to go for physical flashcards, buy A4/Letter or bigger cardboards and make approximately A6 size cards out of them (1/4th of an A4 page). Make sure that the cardboard is thick enough that you won’t see through it. You can color-code flashcards for different subjects or sub-categories.
Probably even better alternative is to buy empty flashcards of the appropriate size and color in every larger stationery store. Well, you can also buy prepared physical flashcards on certain popular subjects. The most popular flashcard apps also have a community that shares flashcard decks among themselves.
Nevertheless, you have to be really selective when to use other people’s decks and when to build your own. If you are trying to master a new subject, I would absolutely recommend you to build your own flashcards.
It’s fun, you learn a lot about the subject in the process of making the cards, and you can much more easily manage and manipulate your deck and practice, since you know your deck very well. You can also much more easily connect knowledge chunks among themselves when you recall. Learning is about expressing yourself in new ways, not only memorizing a bunch of facts.
There are exceptions for when to use other peoples’ flashcards. For example, if you are learning a new language and you find a specific group of expressions you would like to learn. Or maybe if you want to get familiar with certain topics quickly to get an overview. But if you want to really master something, prepare your own flashcards.
Don’t prepare the flashcards just to memorize facts
Memorizing facts is a boring way of learning; and if learning is boring, you’re doing something wrong. Here's the only fact you have to memorize: You can always prepare your flashcards so that they are fun and support real learning, not just memorizing facts.
Instead of answering only what’s written on the flashcard, add some fun to the learning and recall process. Here are a few examples of what you can do:
- Connect a new knowledge chunk with what you already know
- Explain, using your own words, why a new piece of information is true
- Use mnemonics and analogies
- Use visual representations or add other multimedia elements (images, sketches etc.)
- Try to find arguments for and against
- List as many practical cases as possible
- Prepare several different cards for the same chunk of knowledge (interleaved practice)
- Practice flashcards in both directions
But you have to extend your learning beyond memorizing facts very carefully, not trying to escape recall, memorizing facts and storing crucial things in your long-term memory. You can easily deceive yourself that you are learning when you are really not.
Thus make sure that every one of your cards in a deck is simple and straightforward. You don’t want your flashcards to be intimidating or to get trapped in the illusion of competence. Your flashcards must be designed in a simple question-and-answer way, and you have to keep the information very independent and straightforward (one correct answer).
Only when you answer the question correctly (the core fact), you can make your answer much more intriguing and fun by adding things mentioned above (practical examples, interesting facts, analogies etc.). Avoid cluttered flashcards, stay on topic, but use the best learning practices together with using flashcards.
Put a proper learning (sorting) system in place
When you have your basic flashcards prepared, you have to decide for a learning system. It’s good to have a system in place and not just practice randomly. The elements of your flashcard learning system are:
- Using digital or physical flashcards
- Making your own or using other people’s cards
- How detailed they are and if you will add any multimedia
- How often you update your decks (add new flashcards, eliminate the ones you master)
- Frequency of your spaced repetition (increasing intervals, steady intervals, random)
- How often you practice a specific card if you answer right, wrong or partially right
You can use the Leitner system easily with physical cardboards, and most software solutions provide practicing based on this algorithm or they have their own. The main idea of the Leitner system is that you have several boxes, and each next box contains cards you make mistakes with more often.
You spend more time practicing the boxes with cards that are harder to remember. Specific cards are promoted or demoted in boxes depending on whether you answer wrongly or correctly.
There are several other algorithms but used mainly by different software solutions. The benefit of software is that it will take care of sorting for you based on the difficulty of questions and how correctly you manage to answer.
Learn everywhere you go, but in spaced repetition
The big advantage of flashcards is that they are simple and very practical to use. You can take a physical deck board with you anywhere you go, and if you use software, most solutions provide a mobile app.
That means you can put your mobile phone out of your pocket at every opportunity and practice – on a bus, in the elevator, when you wait in a queue, and so on.
Whether you are learning with flashcards or not, one very important thing is to base your learning on spaced repetition. You don’t want to have one big crammed session of learning and then just forget about the subject. It’s better to practice for one hour five days in a row, than for five hours on one day. That’s the strategy you have to use when practicing with flashcards.
Practice regularly, and have periods of rest. In your schedule, timebox time for deliberate practice, in addition practice with flashcards when you have time to kill, and regularly update your flashcards. But make sure you take enough time to rest, and that you space your repetition in proper intervals.
One more thing. When you are alone, try to answer questions on your flashcards out loud; or if you are in company, explain your answer to the other person. It can be fun to do productive things with other people.
Using proper software for flashcards
If you plan on having many flashcards and updating them regularly, making physical cards doesn’t make sense. In such cases, you have to go for software solutions.
There are many options to go to when deciding for flashcard software. When making a decision which software solution to go for, compare the following specifications:
- Card customization options (layouts, number of sides, adding multimedia)
- Spaced repetition and learning systems (sorting algorithms, notifications)
- User-friendliness and functionalities (attractive interface, option to print cards, card sharing and community, language support, import/export, plugins etc.)
- Synchronization between devices (mobile, tablets, online etc.)
- Scalability (if you will be adding hundreds and hundreds of cards)
- Price (open-source, commercial, free version to try)
You have dozens of options to choose from. The most recommended software solution practically everywhere is Anki, which also has the most functionalities. Cram, Quizlet, Supermemo, Studyblue and Memrise are also quite popular. I tested a few of them and decided to go with Anki.
Short Anki review
Anki is a very powerful flashcard software and probably the richest in functionalities. It provides nice card customization options, you can use spaced repetition, it’s available on all platforms, is scalable and open-source.
You can use it for free on your PC, but the iOS app will cost you $25. I bought the app, because that’s where I use the flashcards (I make them on my PC, but practice them on a mobile device).
To be honest, I installed and uninstalled Anki from my computer a few times in the past. You have to invest a little bit of time to master the application, but it can pay off greatly in the long run.
I find the interface boring and unintuitive somehow, and the community is not as rich as it is with some other competitors. But considering all the guidelines for the proper use of flashcards, it’s definitely the cleanest and most appropriate software.
Ever since publishing a blog post on how to learn, I decided to use Anki on a regular basis. I am building myself flashcards for practicing advanced English and a few coding languages. I tried a few decks from other people, but they aren’t that useful. Creating your own flashcards is really the way to go. It’s an investment you have to make that forces you to really practice later.
At some point, I had installed several apps (Anki, Memrise, Cram etc.), loaded many decks from other people in the apps, and convinced myself that I will be able to practice all these cool things every day. But everything becomes unfocused, overbearing and useless.
One software solution, your own cards. Period.
It’s time to make the first flashcards of your own
Before installing any software or buying cardboard, you need passion for a topic you really want to master. You always need to have a strong why for everything you do in life.
I hope you already have such a passion for learning and a topic you love, otherwise find it. Go to the library, walk among the shelves until you find something that will ignite a learning spark in you.
When you develop passion, the next step is to know that you can’t learn anything without hard mental work. You have to sit down, deliberately practice, memorize and recall, and connect new knowledge chunks with what you already know. You have to interleave your practice and do it in spaced repetition.
Flashcards are a great tool that can help you achieve all that; but you need passion and you need self-discipline. So when your passion awakens and gets combined with smart learning and hard work, make sure you also make a collection of flashcards on the chosen topic, following all the guidelines we’ve discussed.
Here they are once again, as revision:
- Prepare your own flashcards, you will already learn about the topic a lot in the process.
- Practice flashcards in spaced repetition – timebox practicing intervals or use flashcards when you have time to kill.
- Have very simple, straightforward and to-the‑point flashcards (one question – answer). Break a complex subject into small knowledge chunks and facts if necessary.
- Add photos or mnemonic elements to every flashcard, but don't clutter your cards.
- When you answer a question correctly, take a step further – explain how a piece of information fits with what you already know, list practical examples, think of representative photos of the text, play with arguments etc.
- Use a proper sorting algorithm or use software that will take care of sorting for you.
- Combine flashcards with other proven learning methods.