Do Students Know How to Use Flashcards to Study?

This post was first published on my Generation Science blog.

One of my favorite education authors (Daniel Willingham) points out in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, that students’ study skills should not be assumed. Anyone who’s been teaching a few years (maybe a few weeks) knows that study skills and study habits are definitely on a spectrum. I’ve got the kids who memorize everything and their polar opposites, who study nothing. Some of this is about habits and motivation. Thankfully there are those students who just want to do well and whether it’s natural skill or help at home, they are able to assimilate a lot of information and skills and can show off their learning quite well on exams.

But what about everyone else? Over the last couple of years, I have built even more review (aka informative assessments) into my lessons. I think frequent quizzes and what I call graded reviews are a good way to do this. However, I know from my research on the topic that I also need to explicitly teach study skills. Flashcards are one of the most effective study techniques out there and the subject of biology is a great one for learning to use them. Therefore, I assigned making flashcards to my 7th graders as part of their preparation for a quiz on the 6 kingdoms of life.

I told the students the following: “For this unit, you are required to make at least 12 flashcards on the kingdoms’ notes. The flashcards can be physical (index cards) or on Quizlet”. Now comes my very stupid mistake, I asked, “Does everyone know how to make flashcards?” Lots of head nodding and yeses followed. I can’t believe I fell for that!

adult alone despair emotion
Photo by Ana Bregantin on

The one smart thing I did do was make the flashcards a graded assignment and, therefore, I looked at all of them. I was so happy to see the many “shared” Quizlet sets in my email and the pile of index cards on my desk. Sadly, this feeling was quickly replaced with despair as I read card after card that had nothing whatsoever to do with our kingdoms’ notes! Or, if they did have to do with the notes, ALL OF THE NOTES WERE ON ONE CARD! Before I could confront my students about this, I had to mentally run through the stages of grief to prepare myself. Once I got over the shock, pain, anger and depression I was able to move back into problem-solving mode and just view this as an opportunity to teach my 7th graders how to make and use flashcards – which is what I should have done in the first place!

In retrospect it was helpful for them to make the cards incorrectly, because “mistakes are the best teachers”. This was holding true for me in this instance and for the students. Here are the steps I took to rectify our mistakes:

1. I thanked the students for making their flashcards, everyone had done so by the due date.

2. I asked them, what material is this quiz on? Everyone (more or less) could tell me that the quiz is on the 6 kingdoms. However, through discussion it became clear that some didn’t quite seem to realize that the quiz was specifically ONLY on the notes on the 6 kingdoms. It can be mind-boggling how some students are so clueless about what is going on. We had been studying the kingdoms for two weeks. We have very specific notes on the kingdoms that were taken on specific graphic organizers in their notebooks. The daily review questions were ONLY on these notes. Yet, somehow, some students didn’t quite realize that this is the material that they needed to know for the quiz! This is where deep breathing techniques are helpful and reminding my adult self that 7th graders are only about 13 years-old and lack the life experience and brain development to think like I do. What seems so obvious to me is not so obvious to all of them. There are the students whom never miss a beat (and thank God for them), but the rest are children that need explicit, direct instruction in almost everything and it’s my job to realize this.

3. I asked my students to open their notebooks to the kingdoms’ notes and calmly, with a smile, pointed out that the quiz is on these notes and only these notes; therefore, the flashcards needed to be specifically on these notes.

4. Step 4 is critical – I asked my students, what is the purpose of flashcards? This got to the heart of my biggest mistake which was assuming that they knew this! Again, through a brief discussion, we came to an understanding that the point of making the flashcards was so that they would use them to study for this quiz. No, this was not obvious to everyone, and, I should have known better to assume that it was.

5. I presented incorrect flashcards on the smart board – I pulled some from the Quizlet sets and some were photographs of physical ones (only a couple of each were enough to make my point). I asked, what is wrong with each card. Funny how easily they could point out the mistakes of others! Here are the mistakes that I highlighted:

  • One, making cards (mainly on Quizlet) that were not from the notes. Quizlet is handy in that the program “suggests” answers to the clues that you type in. This is time-saving if the answers are the answers you need to know; however, they were not the answers my students needed to know! For example, we had very specific information to learn about each kingdom. When a student typed in the clue “bacteria”, Quizlet suggested an answer. Rather than seeing that this answer had nothing to do with our notes, the student just clicked on the answer and his/her work was done! In their minds, they had completed the assignment. The point of the assignment was lost on them (for which I am at least partly to blame).

  • Two, putting too much information on a single card. There are 6 kingdoms and many students put all of the information for each kingdom on one card, which of course makes the cards pretty useless for studying. This explained why a few students complained to me that they didn’t have enough information for 12 cards. At the time I didn’t understand how they could be saying this and just told them that of course there was enough information and to just go and do it. But, if you don’t understand how to use flashcards then this, again, is not at all obvious.

6. I presented how to correctly make the flashcards for the quiz. Using Quizlet, I made a card on the board that had all the correct elements. The clue was “all are autotrophs” and the answer was “plants”. One clue with one answer – not one clue with 15 answers. I made one more, “all are heterotrophs”, with the answer, “animals and fungi”. I started to have one of those great moments in teaching when you can sense little light bulbs turning on in my students’ heads. The explicit, direct instruction was working! Duh!

7. I asked students to suggest clues and answer for a few more cards and their responses were right on target.

8. I reassigned the cards – everyone had to remake cards for tomorrows class during which we would practice using them.

9. I checked the new Quizlet sets before class and quickly thumbed through the sets of physical cards and was pleased with the results – all were correctly made! A moment of euphoria for a teacher.

10. I demonstrated how to use the cards with a volunteer. Based on her responses we made three piles of cards.

  • Cards for which she immediately knew the correct answers and didn’t need to keep practicing.
  • Cards for which she did not seem to know the answers at all.
  • Cards that were in the middle – answers were partially correct or she was not confident about them.

11. I told students to pair up and to do the same with a set of cards. Since about half had their cards on Quizlet, I paired those with physical cards with those with Quizlet sets. In retrospect, I will require physical cards for this lesson in the future and Quizlet can be used after they know how to do this correctly. Only one student read the clues and the other answered. This does result in both students studying and we did have some time to switch later on. The point here is to teach HOW to use the cards.

12. I demonstrated how to study the cards in pile # 3 (the “I almost know it” pile). Demonstrating is the key here. I asked my volunteer the clue and if she was still uncertain or completely incorrect, I had her repeat the correct answer several times. I showed that once the student truly knew the information then that card could be moved into pile # 1. Students practiced this for a couple of minutes.

13. I instructed the students to pick two cards from pile # 2 and have the student repeat the correct answers several times.

14. I instructed students to hold onto these two cards and then pick five cards from pile # 1. I had them shuffle these cards and then practice with them for two minutes. Since we still had a few minutes I had them switch roles.

15. I assigned studying with the cards as homework AND I sent an email to their parents explaining the assignment. I think this is critical. Flashcards can easily be used alone, but I wanted to increase the odds of my students doing the studying and using them correctly by including a family member. I know not every family helped their 7th grader study, but many did I and I could fully see this in the quiz grades.

Here is the email that I sent:

Dear 7th grade parents,

7th graders are learning how to use flashcards to study. Flashcards are proven to be one of the most effective study techniques.

Students had two options for using flashcards:

  1. physical cards (index cards)
  2. Quizlet – online flashcards

To help your 7th grader study for Friday’s quiz, please consider doing the following:

  1. If student has physical cards – have a family member ask the flashcard terms and student responds – students should create 3 piles:  cards fully known, cards that are almost fully known and cards that need repetition. Here is a resource that explains this method. Keep studying until repetition pile is empty. They should do this today and tomorrow.
  2. If student has a Quizlet set – please be sure that the student spends at least 20 minutes playing the flashcard games. Quizlet also has a built-in system for having you repeat cards that you don’t know well. Also, the cards can be printed and used as physical cards.

It’s important that 7th graders learn the value of this study technique so I appreciate your support with this. We practiced using them correctly in class on Tuesday.

Quiz results:  The scores were overall really good on this quiz. Of course, I still had a handful of students who only earned a D or an F. I talked with these students individually about whether they did the studying and all admitted to not doing it. This is the tough part for us teachers – we cannot control what happens when they leave our classrooms and it is very important to accept this fact. However, I can do what I can do so I required that the students have their paper signed by a parent. We talked about being honest about the lack of studying and getting the signature. All students did so and on-time which was quite the treat!

Take away:  Nine years of teaching does not mean I will not still make assumptions about what my students are thinking. But more importantly, remember that “mistakes are the best teachers” and use this truism to your advantage. I’ll require that another group of students make flashcards and I plan to do it the same way, but without the personal grief because I will expect them to make mistakes.

Flashcard Resources:

How to study with flashcards: The 3-pile method


Other teachers have been my best resource for improving my teaching so please share your experiences with teaching study techniques in the comments section below. 

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