Flashcards are a great way of revising for any exams you take in your life. Be it GCSEs, A-Levels, BTECs or whatever, flashcards are a sure way of earning those top grades.
It is important to remember that there are plenty of other revision techniques that might work better for you. So, make sure you check them out as well.
In this article, I am going over my main tips for making flashcards that are 100% effective.
1. Phrase Your Flashcards As Questions
You might not realise the unspoken potential of a flashcard – they can be pretty effective for your revision, if you do it right.
One of the most important tips that students forget is to phrase flashcards as questions. The more you successfully do this, the higher your chances of exam success.
So for example, instead of writing ‘The stages of mitosis’ on your flashcard, you’d write ‘What are the stages of mitosis?’.
Now I know what you’re all thinking – ‘what difference is that going to make?’. I don’t blame you because it’s not easy to see – but it makes all the difference.
Phrasing your flashcards as questions means that your mind works harder to get the answer. It eliminates the chance that your brain is just associating recognition with actual knowledge.
Because of how flashcards work, it’s very easy to fall into that trap. You might know all the answers to your flashcards, but is that just because you’ve seen them before?
Will you actually be able to bring back that information in an exam? Probably not – unless you phrase your flashcards as questions.
Not only does it increase your chances of remembering information, but it motivates you too. Answering questions on a topic is much better at keeping you focused and engaged than just listing off bits of paper.
So, what you want to be doing is writing a question down on one side, and an answer down on the other. Simple enough, right?
Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The questions you ask on your flashcards have to be engaging in the first place, otherwise there’s no way you’re going to remember them.
You should also make the questions so that the answers aren’t only one word. I know it’s a lot of effort, but make your brain work when you revise – push yourself to think about the question every, single, time.
Sometimes, when I make flashcards, I find it hard to come up with good questions to write down. A helpful tip I’ve learned from experience is to look for questions on past exam papers.
Questions from past exam papers can help you out massively, because 1) they’re directly related to your subject, and 2) they help you practice your exam technique.
2. Use The Specification When Writing Out Your Flashcards
Making effective flashcards can be a bit of a pain in the arse, but there are certain resources that can help you.
Your exam board specification, for example, can be very useful. Using the specification means that all your flashcards will be useful, and you won’t have any unnecessary ones taking up valuable time.
It doesn’t matter what exam you’re taking – GCSE, A-Level, BTEC, etc. All exams have a specification, and so it’s just a matter of finding yours.
When making your flashcards, make sure you use a specific learning objective mentioned in the specification. This way, all your flashcards will be a reflection of the content you need to know.
They’ll also be fairly close to what you’ve learnt in your classes, so that’s handy too.
Below is an excerpt from the AQA GCSE Biology Specification, which shows a learning objective is to be able to ‘carry out calculations involving magnification, real size, and image size’.
A useful flashcard that you could make out of this learning objective is to put the question ‘What is the formula for magnification?’ on one side, and then the formula on the back.
When I was in school studying for my GCSEs, I made it the top priority to make flashcards from the specification. I knew that the closer I could get to knowing my exams inside and out, the better chances I had of passing.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what will happen if you don’t make your flashcards from the exam specification. Straying too far from the stuff you need to know will effectively make your flashcards useless.
If you’re unsure as to where to find your exam specification, just look it up! Use the internet to find what you’re looking for, and I’m sure there’s an exam specification for every subject in every level of learning.
If you can’t find it online, talk to your tutor/teacher. They teach you the content, so I’m sure they must be able to find the list of things you need to know.
Just make sure that you flashcards are as closely related to the specification as possible. The closest flashcards to the specification are the most effective ones, so make sure your flashcards are the same.
3. Add A Bit Of Colour To Your Flashcards
Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. Sometimes, revision can seem like all work and no play (that’s probably because it is). Adding colour to your flashcards can lighten the mood, and at the same time make your revision more efficient.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll get easily distracted whilst doing your revision. Lots of distractions and things that, frankly, might be more fun, get in the way of your exam preparation.
That’s why it’s so important to stay focused on your flashcards. Keep on grinding out your flashcard revision, and exam success is inevitable.
A way that many students I know use to stay focused is to add splashes of colour and design to their flashcards. Making your flashcards as eye-catching as possible will ensure that you stay focused on them for longer.
It doesn’t really matter what colour you use, as long as you make it visually appealing to you. Make sure that when the time comes for your exam, these flashcards are going to be remembered.
It’s also important to remember, however, that your flashcards aren’t entering any fashion contests. If your friends say that your flashcards are horrifying, don’t listen to them.
At the end of the day, they’re your flashcards, and you’re the one revising from them. Just make them visually interesting to keep focus, and enough that you’ll remember them for your exam.
Try not to spend too much time colouring them in, too. Where many students go wrong is they take way too much pride in their work, and spend valuable revision time colouring in flashcards.
In fact, a good way to avoid this is to use coloured paper to begin with. It means that you don’t have to waste time colouring in, and you also don’t have to waste money on expensive pens.
When I made flashcards for my GCSEs, I used a different colour of paper for every set of flashcards. I had blue for physics, purple for chemistry, green for biology etc.
This helped me out massively, as when I went into my exams I could associate colours with facts I needed to know. Colour association can make your flashcards very, very effective.
4. Don’t Put Too Much Information On Your Flashcards
Yet another common mistake made by students is putting too much information on your flashcards. This, quite literally, is a schoolboy error.
Piling information onto your flashcards is seriously not a good idea. I mean come on, it’s even in the name – ‘flash’ cards.
To make the most effective flashcards, you want short ‘flashes’ of information on the answer side, with a question on the front.
There is another way to do it, but I’ll talk more about that later.
Try to make each flashcard so that you have a singular question, with a singular answer. It’s okay to have a short answer (like an exam question) but usually no more than 4 lines.
I’ve seen many of my friends make this mistake before. Not only is it ineffective for your revision, but it also means that you’ll have to make a whole new set of flashcards.
Too much information on flashcards means that when exams roll around, your revision will be blurry. What I mean by this is that the information you did put on your flashcards will be muddled up, because you mashed it all into one flashcard.
And trust me – the last thing you want in your exam is a brain fart because you messed up your flashcards. I’ve done it before, and it was not a great experience.
The main goal of flashcards is to have as many as you can for a subject or topic. The more flashcards you have, the more likely you are to pass your exams.
This cannot be substituted for higher volume of information on a single flashcard. It may sound like a Guinness Book Of World Records title, but I assure you that it will get you nowhere.
So, the question is, how do you avoid making the same mistake as many other students?
I’d say try and restrict yourself to writing under 20 words for the question, and under 30 words for the answer. Making your flashcards this way means that you’re forced to make more flashcards, as opposed to filling them up.
5. Make Your Flashcards As Neat As Possible
One mistake I definitely made as a GCSE student was making my flashcards messy. This was not intentional, I just had bad handwriting.
Messy lines and frequent spelling mistakes were a common occurrence in my classwork, which carried through to my flashcards. I think it’s safe to say I was not anyone’s favourite student.
If that sounds anything like you, I’d suggest getting your handwriting up to scratch before you attempt to make some effective flashcards.
Untidy, disorganised flashcards lead to an untidy, disorganised head space. You can’t learn effectively if your head isn’t clear and ready to learn.
The neater your flashcards are, the more likely you are to remember them. I know this is true, because I’ve made lots of flashcards in the past – neat is best.
In addition, neat flashcards will help your motivation to revise. Especially for me, I find that neater work is easier to revise from and I’m more inclined to work for longer, if that’s the case.
Motivation is essential when creating and revising from flashcards. If you’re not motivated to revise, then you won’t retain any of the information from your flashcards.
Also, if you’re not motivated whilst making your flashcards, they’re not going to be any good. Unless you’re in the right headspace when making your flashcards, they won’t be effective in the slightest.
If you really don’t think you can get your handwriting up to scratch by the time you need to make your flashcards (or just can’t be bothered) then there’s an simple alternative.
Make your flashcards online! There are tons of resources available out there for you to use to make flashcards. Not only does it make your work neater, but it saves on paper wastage too.
I’m only just starting to use Quizlet to make my flashcards, but I’m loving it already. All your flashcards for all your subjects are right in front of you, and you can access them from anywhere.
Not only that, but if you can’t be bothered to make some for yourself, chances are somebody has already done it for you. You can access other student’s flashcards too, if you’re ever in need of some emergency revision.
6. Don’t Be Afraid To Have Drawings On Your Flashcards
For those of you that doodle during class instead of learning the important content, boy have I got the tip for you.
Everyone does a bit of classwork graffiti every now and again, it’s only natural. But, how on earth will it help you on your flashcards?
The answer is, memorability. Sketching on your flashcards can massively help your retention of information.
What this means is that the more you sketch diagrams and helpful annotations on your flashcards, the better your chance of remembering them will be.
There is, however, one condition – They have to be helpful, and directly related to the flashcard. If they’re not, then they’re not going to be helpful at all.
Think about it – if you’ve got a super effective flashcard on Maths equations and you waste your time drawing a tomato on the card, how is that ever going to help you?
If you’re struggling to understand what I’m actually on about, here’s an example to help you.
This is a sketch of the method of titration on a chemistry flashcard. The question that goes with it asks how to set up titration – a relevant question with a relevant sketch.
This is the perfect way to set up your flashcards, if you want to do some sketches. Sketching relevant information will help your understanding, and make you more likely to remember it.
Subjects that you want to put sketches on your flashcards for usually tend to be harder subjects. For example, all of the sciences have great opportunity for sketches.
All those RPAs you have to do? Sketch them straight onto your flashcards. Get them into your memory, because they’re bound to come up in your exam.
You can even sketch representations for maths, too. I used to sketch all of the different transformations of a graph functions, just so I could remember them easier.
The reason sketches work so well on flashcards is because your brain finds it easier to remember images. Not only this, but you can associate those images with facts.
Just make sure that you sketch images relevant to your subject. Fail to do this, and you fail to make effective flashcards for your revision.
7. Spread Out The Content Of Large Topics Onto Many Flashcards
Yet another mistake lots of students make when creating flashcards is putting way too much info on lots of cards. Not only does it make it harder to revise, but you’re much less likely to remember it all, too.
I’ve already gone over why you shouldn’t pile up information onto one card, but why should you spread large topics out?
Surely it’s just better to have less, really good quality flashcards than a ton of smaller ones? After all, it’s quality not quantity, right?
When it comes to flashcards, that’s not how it works. Obviously you want high quality flashcards, that’s a given – but you’ll need as many of them as you can if you want to succeed in your exams.
More flashcards = more likelihood of exam success. That’s what I told myself when I was making flashcards, and I did pretty well in my GCSEs.
That tip is also holding out for A-Levels, too. The more flashcards I make, the easier I find my subjects.
The real problem is the temptation to beef up flashcards when the topic is particularly large. That, or even just skip the topic as a whole.
Do not beef up your flashcards or skip a topic. Varying sizes of flashcards messes with your flow of revision, and makes it harder to remember what you put on a flashcard.
If you want your flashcards to be as effective as possible, keep them all the same size. That way, when going through your flashcards, you’ll be able to keep a nice, fast rhythm.
You can usually tell what topics are the larger ones by looking at the specification of your subject. If you don’t know what I mean by that, it’s basically a course outline provided by your exam board.
Spreading all that information out onto more flashcards will help you absorb all of it. Like the best ways to revise article says, revise little but often.
It might be a lot more paper used, but the higher chance of success in your exam is worth it. And besides, you could always just make your flashcards online, too.
8. Put In The Occasional “Keyword” Style Flashcard
I know what you’re all thinking: ‘but earlier on you said that effective flashcards should have questions on’, and you’d be right for saying that.
Effective flashcards do have questions on, but there is another way you could layout your flashcards.
There are two main types of revision: exam technique revision, and content revision.
Exam technique revision focuses on being able to get full marks in your exam questions, rather than going over actual content. This is great if you’re not quite reaching full marks in questions you really should be.
Content revision is more about making sure you know what you’re writing down, in the hopes of minimising mistakes. This revision is better for if you know how to answer a question, but you’re just not sure what the actual answer is.
Question style flashcards lean more towards the exam technique revision, which is what you should be doing in preparation for your exams.
Keyword style flashcards, however, are more focused on learning the content. Learning the keywords of a topic means that you’ll be able to use them more freely in your exam, and pick up more marks.
The more keywords you revise, the stronger your links between the subject will be. The stronger your links between a subject are, the better you’ll do in your exam.
However, take care – keywords are not the be all and end all of the content you need to know. You need to know how to use them in context, and what they mean when put together.
You also need to be careful not to fill up your flashcards with keywords. They may be useful, but you’ll find it far more helpful if you give yourself questions instead.
I’d say that the closer you get to your exam, the more question style flashcards you’ll want to be using. Throw in the occasional keyword style flashcard, but don’t make it your top priority.
Obviously, if you’re still shaky on the content, then I’d suggest using more keyword style flashcards. However, in a situation like that (so close to your exam) I’d suggest using a different revision technique.
Once you’ve got the content down (be it through keyword style flashcards or other revision techniques) then why not go all out on exam technique?
At the end of the day, it’s your revision that will help you in your exam. I feel you need more of one and less of the other, then go for it – it’s your revision.
9. Don’t Rush Making Your Flashcards
One of the easiest mistakes to make (in my opinion) is to rush your flashcards. Creating your flashcards too fast can lead to mistakes, and sloppy work.
Mistakes in your flashcards lead to mistakes in your revision. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but you need to make sure that all the facts and figures you write down are correct.
Rushed flashcards also look messy. I’ve already talked about what untidy flashcards can do, they make your revision ineffective.
Messy workspaces lead to messy knowledge, meaning you could have gaps all over the place. Gaps in knowledge can lead to loss of marks in exams.
What all this means is that you should spend some time making the best flashcards you can. Taking the time to produce some really effective flashcards can be the difference between passing and failing your exams.
I know it seems like a lot of effort to make flashcards and actually take the time to make them effective, but it’s worth it. You have a much higher chance of success if you really think about your flashcards and take the time to create them.
Not only that, but if you spend time making your flashcards, it sets up a good work ethic for the rest of your revision. Start as you mean to go on, and so make high quality flashcards for high quality revision.
A big mistake made by students when making flashcards is that they take time to ensure quality, but they do all the wrong things.
For example, an easy mistake to make is to spend ages making your flashcards look pretty. Obviously, make them look appealing, but don’t waste precious revision hours decorating your flashcards.
Another simple mistake is students tend to spend ages looking for the right material to go on their flashcards. Like I’ve already said, you can find everything you’ll need to know on the subject specification.
Just make sure your flashcards are making you recall information and not recognise it – that is probably the most important tip I can give you.
As long as you’re pushing yourself with your flashcards, I’m sure there’s a little room for error.