4 reasons flashcards help students remember what we teach

This is the first part of a series of blogposts about using flashcards to improve students’ memory of curriculum content. The next in the series is about using digital flashcards.

An inescapable part of learning is memorising basic facts. In Maths, students need to be able to fluently recall their multiplication tables. In Geography, students need to know where continents are on a map. Yet, even after we’ve taught a lesson and students have demonstrated that they’ve understood it, weeks later they seem to have completely forgotten what we’ve taught. That’s why reviewing content is so important. We want to transfer that information to long-term memory. So what’s the best way to review basic facts?

I’ve seen lots of different approaches for practising number facts:

You could provide students with a worksheet with lots of problems to solve, but this only helps kids who are successful at retrieval. (Michael Pershan has written a perfect blogpost about this.)

Lots of games involve rolling dice, but this has the same problem of not helping kids when they can’t retrieve a fact from their memory. Dice also pose a problem because they are too random. Sometimes a teacher wants to be selective about the numbers that students are working with.

Another approach is the Recite-Recall-Apply approach. Students are shown facts and recite them as a class, then the answers are removed and students are prompted to recall them, then students are prompted to answer the questions presented in random order. This is efficient, but not without limitations. When you are asked to recall a fact you have just recited, you are not really practising retrieval from long-term memory. But if you remove the Recite step, you have a similar problem to the worksheet with lots of problems: not so helpful for kids who aren’t successful.

There’s a better way for kids to memorise basic facts: use flashcards. As in, a deck of cards, each with a question on one side and the answer on the other. Here are some reasons to use flash cards (with reference to the Department’s High Impact Teaching Strategies for the benefit of Victorian teachers):

1. Feedback: Flashcards tell students when they are right and when they are wrong.

Completing a worksheet with a lot of addition problems will improve the long-term memory of students who are successful, but not for students who fail to retrieve that information. Worse, students may be embedding errors in long-term memory. The issue here is that the activity of completing a worksheet does not give students feedback (HITS #8). Compare that with using flashcards: The student sees a prompt (e.g. 2 + 5), attempts to retrieve that information from their memory, then turns the card over to see the answer. The answer on the back of the flashcard is instant feedback that helps the student know whether they were right or wrong. If students have made an error, they find out straight away (which avoids the problem of embedding errors in long-term memory) and they are helpfully given the answer and can have another go straight away.

2. Multiple exposures: Flashcards can be used over and over again.

It is not enough to retrieve something once. Students need multiple exposures (HITS #6), or spaced practice, to strengthen their memory. The problem with a worksheet is that it is a task that ends when it is completed. A deck of flashcards can be used as much as you want.

3. Metacognitive strategies: Flashcards can be sorted by difficulty.

Flashcards provide students with a concrete way to use metacognitive strategies (HITS #9) to take control of their learning. As they are practising, the flashcards can be sorted into categories. This could simply be two piles of cards: one for ‘correct,’ one for ‘incorrect.’ Once they’ve done one round of practice, the student can straight away have another go at the challenging pile. Students self-marking a worksheet might seem similar to sorting flashcards, but a pile of challenging flashcards to study is, to my mind, more likely to motivate further effort than a bunch of ticks and crosses on a page.

4. Differentiation: Students can choose different flashcards to focus on.

Designing an activity for a class of students that is optimal for everyone is a challenge. There are, for example, 81 basic addition facts and in a classroom of kids, each kid finds different facts easy/difficult to retrieve. If you are creating a worksheet, you have to choose a set of facts to include in the activity. But because this set is fixed, the activity is going to vary in how beneficial it is for each student. Flashcards, however, allow for differentiated teaching (HITS #10); although the deck of available cards for each student is the same, the cards can be sorted differently for each student so that each is focusing on content that is optimal for them.

A final note: Although I’m clearly a fan of flashcards, I still think there is a place in school for the other practice formats I described at the top of this post. Worksheets and Recite-Recall-Apply are time-efficient. Taking out flashcards in class, looking after them and putting them away introduces a level of faff. Dice games are fun, but perhaps more appropriate when students have mastered most of their facts. There are also types of retrieval for which flash cards are not the most appropriate format. Flashcards are great for practice retrieving declarative knowledge but not for procedural knowledge such as adding 2-digit numbers using a standard algorithm. But declarative knowledge is a huge part of what we want students to learn. Ultimately, you want a variety of retrieval activities to serve different purposes and flashcards can be an invaluable part of your toolkit.

Further reading:

  • What people get wrong about memorising math facts by Michael Pershan | link
    Great analysis of the difference between worksheets and flashcards and the difference between retrieving a fact and deriving a fact.
  • Other stuff Michael Pershan has written about memorising math facts | link
    Really great concrete examples of how to use flash cards with kids in a classroom context.
  • Blogposts by Daisy Christodoulou on flashcards and spaced repetition systems here, here and here.
  • How to remember anything, forever, researchEDHome webinar by Daisy Christodoulou | link

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