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Studying With Flashcards

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Repetition leads to strong remembering. Studying with flashcards is the most efficient way to repeatedly look at a fact and remember it.

A “flashcard” is self-testing tool involving a small card with a simple question on one side and the answer to that question on the other, so that you can look at the question and check if you know the answer.

This article looks at:

  • Why study with flashcards?
  • How to study with flashcards – The Leitner or 3-Pile Method
  • Tip: Make your own flashcards
  • Tip: Mix pictures and words
  • Tip: Write only one question per card/ break complex concepts into multiple questions
  • Tip: Say your answers out loud before checking on the answer.
  • Tip: Make sure that you can identify the different sections of study in your decks of flashcards.
  • Tip: Don’t rely exclusively on flashcards
  • Studying with Digital/Electronic Flashcards
  • Anki – put your own flashcards into electronic form
  • Quizlet – Ready-Made ELECTRONIC Learner Hunters and Guides examination question flashcards
  • Ready-Made HARD-COPY Learner Hunters and Guides examination question flashcards

Why study with flashcards?

One of the ways in which to expose yourself to the information repeatedly so that you can learn it is to use the flashcard method which research shows is a very effective way to cement new information into memory. The more times we hear, see, or repeat something to ourselves, the more likely we are to remember it. To put it another way, repeated study of vocabulary, concepts, events, or other items is still the most efficient way to learn them. For a while, rote memorization was dismissed as “drill and kill,” until it was realized the repetition really works. For that reason, flashcards remain a popular study aid.

The advantages of studying with flashcards include:

  • Easy to achieve the necessary repetition to reinforce brain connections
  • Portable and so can be available for quick 2 or 3 minute study session on a bus, in traffic, at lunch or in the doctor’s waiting room (If you use online decks, the cards are as close as your smart phone.)
  • Provide instant feedback about whether or not your answer was correct, thereby reinforcing a correct answer or providing an opportunity to remedy a wrong answer.
  • Chunking.  Flashcards divide your learning task into tiny pieces or chunks, making learning easier and more efficient.

How to study with flashcards – The Leitner or 3-Pile Method

This method relies on “spaced repetition”, a learning technique that uses increasing intervals of time between re-visiting of previously learned material.  Although the principle is useful in many contexts, spaced repetition is commonly applied in contexts in which a learner must acquire a large number of items and retain them indefinitely in memory.

Review Box 1Review Box 2Review Box 3
10 times a day5 times a day3 times a day
8 times a day4 times a day2 times a day
5 times a day3 times a day2 times a day
3 times a day2 times a day1 time a day

Imagine you start off with three boxes of cards called “Box 1”, “Box 2” and “Box 3”. (You can have many more boxes if you want to and the boxes can just be piles of cards.) All the flashcards start off in Box (or Pile) 1. As you review the cards, each card you answer correctly goes into Box 2. If you give the wrong answer, study the right answer on the card and then replace it at the back of the cards in Box 1. When you review the cards in Box 2, if you still get the answer right, the card is promoted to Box 3, and so on until all the cards are in the Box 3.  If you get an answer wrong on a card in Box 2 or 3 before all cards are in Box 3, the card is demoted down to Box 1 and the process continues.

The Key
The key to the Leitner system is that the cards in the lower boxes – the ones you know less well – are reviewed more frequently than the cards in the higher boxes.  Below are some possible review times for a three-box set up – for example, in a 3-box set up, the cards in Box 1 might be reviewed three times as often as those in Box 3. And as time goes by you need to review the cards less and less – though you still want to look at them now and then to keep your memory topped up.

Review Box 1Review Box 2Review Box 3
10 times a day5 times a day3 times a day
8 times a day4 times a day2 times a day
5 times a day3 times a day2 times a day
3 times a day2 times a day1 time a day

The advantage of this method is that you can focus on the facts you find it difficult to learn rather than repeatedly looking at cards where you already know the answer. The result is, ideally, a reduction in the amount of study time needed.

Moving the Leitner System on to Higher Performance Learning
1. Once all your cards have been promoted to the highest box, turn them over and learn them back to front. Start them all off in Box 1 and read the answer, definition, formula first and see if you can supply the question that was asked to get that answer. Continue until once again all cards are in the highest box. By doing this, you are going to build strong brain connections that work easily in both directions.

If you don’t do this it is quite possible that you will only be able to recall one side of a card easily. For example, you might learn that “precocial” means “Born in an advanced stage of development with all faculties operative, e.g. wildebeest, impala” but if you don’t practice learning the other way you might be asked, “What is the term for being born in an advanced stage of development with all faculties operative e.g. wildebeest, impala, etc.?” and find that you cannot remember the term itself.

2. After all the cards are in the highest box, demote them all back down to Box 1 and review them again with the emphasis on speed. Time yourself to see how fast you can get through, say, 50 cards.

Tip: Make Your Own Flashcards 

I have prepared for you flashcards for each of the papers, and I hope they will be somewhat useful to you. (Using pre-made cards can sometimes be useful, e.g. when you have an unreasonably high number of facts to learn and you are short of time – but in most cases, you’ll serve your brain better by making your own flashcards.) 

One of the most important parts of the learning process, as we have been saying above, is the act of wrestling with the information yourself and creating something new with it. When you use pre-made flashcards, you are skipping that entire part of the process.

Turning knowledge into cards is valuable for the same reasons it is important to not take word-for-word notes: when you try to express information in your own words, you process the information. When you process it, you have to recreate the ideas in a way that makes sense to you. Retrieving and reorganizing the information actually strengthens the memory.

Tip: Mix Pictures and Words

Adding pictures to your cards can make them much more memorable because we tend to remember pictures better than we remember words. For example, there have been questions about how you would distinguish between similar-looking snakes, a green mamba and a boomslang.  I have given you the following flashcard information.

Boomslang (vs. green mamba)Large round eye, keeled scales, short pointed head
Green mamba (vs. boomslang)Small eye, smooth scales, long rectangular head, blunt snout

But what about if you gave yourself flashcards that looked like this?

However, this does not mean that you should entirely replace the words on your cards with pictures. Our brains are surprisingly adaptive and it turns out that a mixture of pictures and words works better than pictures alone.

Furthermore if you write a descriptive sentence or group of words alongside your picture you further increase your brain’s ability to recall what you’re studying.

Tip: Write only one question per card/ break complex concepts into multiple questions

Make questions simple, with no possibility of confusion or more than one answer

Avoid lists as much as possible and where possible, use a mnemonic rather than a list. Notice I do not say “NEVER use lists”. Sometimes they are unavoidable and even useful. The key is to keep them short (ideally not more than five bits of information).

Sometimes you will come across one of my flashcards that gives you a number of facts for one answer, like the list of herons shown above. I have done this because there are exam questions which ask you to name, for example, a number of heron species. But the chances are that if you turn over that flashcard and see that list you will think in a general sort of way, “Oh yes, I’ll remember some of those” and you will be kidding yourself. So maybe this is not even a good type of question to deal with in flashcard form and you need to find some other way to remember various types of heron (or kingfisher or owl). 

N.B. For a good flashcard you need to break the material down into the smallest possible bite-sized bits and know that you either know the answer, or you do not.  Then you need to work out how you are going to learn your list of species of herons (or doves or storks or owls) – maybe look them up in a bird book and on outline drawings of herons write the species name and mark the distinguishing features of each one?

Tip: Say your answers out loud before checking on the answer.

That way, you are committing yourself to your answer before checking it. You cannot cheat (yourself) by thinking vaguely, “Oh yes, I know that one” or, after you have checked the answer, “Well, that’s what I meant”.

Apart from not being able to cheat yourself it adds to your learning to be employing more of your body, to be using your voice and hearing yourself say the answer. (If you have someone who is willing to call out your questions and confirm your spoken answers that is also very good.)

Tip: Make sure that you can identify the different sections of study in your decks of flashcards.

You do not want to just lump all your material into one giant deck of cards. There are vastly different weights for each topic and topic weighting does not necessarily correlate with how many flashcards are in each topic.

You might want to colour code the questions for different topics. You might want to have separate envelopes or plastic packets for the flashcards of different subjects so that you can chose to study Law flashcards more often than Firearm flashcards, because you find the legislation more difficult and you are really familiar with firearms.

Tip: Don’t rely exclusively on flashcards

There are some criticisms of flashcards as a learning tool. One is that flashcards are promoting simple rote memorization and not conceptual (idea) understanding. That is true.  Flashcards are for remembering little facts. But on the other hand understanding is made up of facts. When we make connections between facts and integrate them into a mental framework then we have arrived at understanding.

So flashcards are not an end in themselves. You still need to think about and use the facts you have memorized and make connections but memorization of facts is the first step. Here is an example – for the Law papers you can use flashcards to learn the meanings of vocabulary like “breeder” and “worked ivory” and “pool area” but that is not going to help you to know the contents of Statutory Instrument 114 of 1993, Parks and Wild Life (General) (Amendment) Regulations.

Some people don’t like flashcards because they do not suit their learning style. This complaint usually comes from people who learn best through hearing or doing something with their hands. That’s a valid criticism and if those learners have methods for remembering that are as effective as flashcards, they must use them.

Flashcards are only one method of reviewing material. There are lots of others that may be more effective, depending on what type of material you’re studying and how far you are into the learning process and what type of learner you are.

Instead of or as well as using flashcards, you might:

  • Write an explanation in your own words
  • Create a quiz
  • Create a diagram summing up the information
  • Take a practice test written by someone else
  • “Teach” or explain the subject to someone else
  • Put the key words to the tune of a familiar tune (like a nursery rhyme).


 Remembering facts just became much easier!

What is Anki?

Anki is a spaced repetition digital “flashcard” program. Forgetting follows a pattern, getting faster over time. Programs that use spaced repetition take this into account and have sophisticated algorithms that predict with high accuracy when you need to see a fact again so as not to forget it.

The Anki program does more or less what you would expect from a flashcard:

  • It shows you a question/word with the answer concealed (basic flashcard format)
  • You decide if you know the answer/meaning and press “Answer” and it will show you the right answer
  • You rate the ease with which the answer came to you. If you thought it was super easy, you press the button on the right. If you had absolutely no idea you press the button on the left.  (You normally have the option of “Again”, meaning you got it wrong, “Hard”, “Good”, and “Easy”.)
  • Anki plugs this information into its algorithms to decide precisely when to show you the items to keep them alive in your memory and then exposes the card to you again at a time which it predicts that you will be almost ready to forget the answer. The items you found difficult (or impossible) reappear very soon. The ones you found very easy reappear only after a very long time. The programme will be able to determine precisely when those cards need to come up for review based on the following criteria:
  • How many times you have already reviewed the card
  • How many times you have correctly reviewed the card (that is, correctly remembered what was on the answer side prior to being shown it).  This is coupled with the previous number, that is to say how many times you got it right out of the total number of attempts, e.g. you got it right 17 out of the 19 times you have seen it
  • How well you told Anki you remembered it, if you got it correct – the easier you say it was, the longer Anki will wait before showing it to you again.
  • How long it has been since you last reviewed that card.

If you don’t know something you will know it eventually because Anki will keep testing you until you do.

(There are other digital flashcard programmes that you might want to check out such as Supermemo, Mnemosyne, Mental, Quizlet, StudyBlue and FlashCardMachine but Anki is highly desirable because it is free, simple to use and has a dynamic online community.)

What sort of stuff can you learn using Anki?

Any subject – facts, definitions, vocabulary, dates, auditory material, visual material, formulae, quotations, theorems, new languages.It is especially good for the memorization of large numbers of small individual items that must be retained in memory indefinitely.

Advantages of Anki?

The benefits of Anki are many. It is:

  • Digital: your cards are searchable, editable, categorized and take up no space.
  • Portable: You can whip out your phone and cover 30 or 40 cards on a 15 minute walk, while enjoying the outdoors. You could walk for miles and do your studying at the same time and take advantage of any time which would usually be wasted, like on public transport or waiting for class.
  • Flexible: From card layout to review timing, Anki has a wealth of options for you to customize.
  • Media-Rich: Anki allows you to embed audio clips, images and videos on your cards, with precise control over how it’s shown.
  • Optimized: Anki can handle decks of 100,000+ cards still tailoring the spaced repetition to your performance. You can have thousands of facts and definitions stored in Anki and Anki’s algorithm (its formula for determining when cards need to be reviewed) will keep deciding when you need to review a question.

How do you access Anki?

  • Free download (or low-bandwidth website) from
  • Available for pretty much every OS and platform out there including Windows, Mac OSX, Mac iOS (that includes iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches), Android, Linux, and FreeBSD and any device with a web browser (i.e. can be used on mobile phones).

Use the free AnkiWeb synchronization service to keep your cards in sync across multiple devices. If you have any other portable device that can access the basic webpages (modern mobile phone, Palm device, Sony PSP, etc.) either by Wi-Fi or 3G/Edge (mobile phone network) then you can use the Anki system that way too (on a very low bandwidth website).

How do you use Anki?

Download/install Anki on your computer

After you have downloaded the program, you should then spend a few minutes watching the tutorial videos on the Anki website. They are clear and simple and will help you get a feel for the app. (Anki2 : Switching Card Order, Anki2: Styling Cards, Anki2: Typing in the answer,  Anki2: Shared decks & review basics).  If you don’t have the right mobile device, then stick to a computer and use it to study the words whenever you have time.

If you can take advantage of the mobile versions of Anki so you can study wherever you like. (It’s free for Andriod – but not for Apple.) Create an account on Ankionline and then to synchronise your computer’s Anki with the online version (File –> Sync). Then install Anki on your mobile device ( and synchronise with the same account (you only have to do this once, then just use your mobile device and ignore the computer version until you need more material to study).

If you don’t have the particular devices that allow for offline access but can access the Internet on your mobile device, just go directly to the Ankionline page and use its low-bandwidth interface to learn from.

The set-up takes a few minutes but then you just have to open the program and use it whenever you can! All the little minutes add up very quickly.

Creating questions/answers for Anki

All the rules of successful flashcard making apply to your Anki flashcards.

Using Anki

  • Be consistent – try and review your flashcards every day to maximize memory retention. This way you’ll also avoid being faced with huge amounts of due cards when you do get back to reviewing.
  • Don’t lie. If you tell Anki you remembered a card when you didn’t it will mess with Anki’s timings and defeat the purpose of the exercise.

The Disadvantages of Anki

  • Putting in the questions and answers takes time. But not really much more time than it takes to write questions and answers on slips of card for ordinary physical flashcards. And you know what takes a lot more time? Forgetting and then having to relearn what you forgot. Plus, card-making is instructive in itself. As you read or look at lecture notes with flashcards in mind you pay attention and analyse, rather than just passing your eyes over text expecting that it is just going into your head.
  • Reviewing also takes time. To use Anki the right way, you need to review your cards when they’re due. You can’t decide when you want to study. You need to study when Anki says you need to. If you miss some days, cards can pile up in your inbox and it is easy to become discouraged, overwhelmed and give up. But if you stay disciplined and do your cards daily, you will not have this problem.
  • The Anki user interface is not particularly attractive and exciting and sometimes there can be annoying bugs or glitches. But the program is free and the developer plans to keep it that way. So, these little difficulties can be overlooked.

Ready-Made Learner Hunters and Guides examination question flashcards on Quizlet

Quizlet is an American online study application that allows students to study information via learning tools and games.

I have put into Quizlet over 1500 terms and questions taken from the Hunters and Guides exam papers. You have all the advantages of electronic flashcards discussed above in relation to Anki – but the questions/answers are ready-made for you and entirely tailored to the exams you are preparing for.

After you have paid your money and given me your email address you will receive an invitation to start using the flashcards.              

Ready-Made Learner Hunters and Guides examination question flashcards

The same 1500 terms and questions are available to be converted into old-fashioned paper/cardboard flashcards. 

click below to download

Paddy Pacey

Zimbabwean field guide and trainer of aspiring guides

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