How to make Effective Flashcards

How to make Effective Flashcards

Flashcards help you to remember ideas much more efficiently. But making perfect flashcards can be surprisingly challenging. We created Thought Saver to make capturing ideas and quizzing yourself a lot easier (to help you actually apply what you learn). This article discusses the topic of flashcard content - how do you write flashcards that most help you achieve your learning goals? Great flashcards allow you to remember more of what you learn and help you apply what you learn at the correct times in your life.

We’ve talked to many people who find making flashcards a chore, they don’t know where to start, or the cards they have created are not that effective. If you are in this boat, you are not alone!

To retain ideas and then relate them to your own life, you must create flashcards keeping certain principles in mind. This document outlines ways to make questions and prompts that facilitate effective learning, motivation, and triggers.

Part 1: Great flashcard fronts (i.e., writing effective "prompts" or "questions")

1. Precise Prompts

Prompts for retrieval practice should be precise about what they’re asking. Vague questions will elicit vague answers, making the answers much harder to remember.

Bad (Vague) Prompt Example

Q: What is an effective learning method?
A: Slowly increase your listening speed until it’s fast enough that understanding the content is challenging but possible. The sweet spot of speed will likely change depending on what activity you are doing and how dense the content is!

The answer to the question above could be a multitude of different things, which makes it confusing and hard to remember!

Good (Precise) Example

Q: What is an effective method for learning more information when listening to content?
A: Slowly increase your listening speed until it’s fast enough that understanding the content is challenging but possible. The sweet spot of speed will likely change depending on what activity you are doing and how dense the content is!

The answer above was specific to the question: there weren’t multiple possible answers. Increasing the chance people are going to remember the answer.

2. Don’t “give the answer away.”

Although you want to provide precise information, it is also good to use prompts that don’t make recall so easy that it’s no longer recall!

“Giving the Answer Away” Example

Q: What is the “Recursive Sampling Technique” and why should you be asking, is this information valuable to me?
A: Recursive sampling involves iteratively asking yourself, “Is this information valuable to me? Helping you to continually prioritize what you read.

Not “Giving the Answer Away” Example

Q: What is the “Recursive Sampling Technique”?
A: Recursive sampling involves iteratively asking yourself, “Is this information valuable to me?”

3. Avoid questions with more than three ideas

Avoid having more than three ideas on a flashcard if it is just naming them, e.g., “What are the four techniques for managing stress?”

Part 2: Great Flash Card Backs (i.e. writing great "answers")

1. Keep answers as atomic as possible (i.e., a single irreducible unit).

Complex Answers (not ideal) Example

Q: What is “Intuition Flooding,” and how can you use it to help boost your understanding of a topic?
A: “Intuition Flooding” enables you to develop a profound, intuitive grasp of a topic. It involves finding many examples of something you want to understand, carefully scrutinizing them one by one, and jotting down any interesting observations you have or patterns you notice. Helping you develop an intuitive grasp of a topic (by scrutinizing dozens of examples of the object of study). For example, if you look at 20 examples of good onboarding UX design and take notes, you will start to appreciate what is and isn’t effective. When you go to design your own onboarding, you may find that you have developed an intuition for whether something works well or not.

Atomic Answers (ideal) Example

Q: What is “Intuition Flooding”?
A: By looking at many examples of something, you will start to develop an intuition for what is effective and what is not.

2. Keep answers concise (~ under 280 characters) and high in information density while avoiding unnecessary words.

It’s hard to remember long paragraphs of information. Leading to the experience of quizzing yourself on lengthy cards to be challenging and unrewarding, as you will often feel like you aren’t making progress. An additional reason to keep your cards brief is to focus on the vital bit of information that you are trying to remember (see the spot the core technique in our other blog post). We chose 280 characters as a basic rule of thumb (primarily based on Twitter).

Part 3: Thought Saver Recommended Card Types

It’s one thing to remember the content of a card and another to apply that knowledge to your life. In our exploration of how to help people use knowledge more effectively, we looked at behavior change theories. We developed several different “card types” (i.e., different sorts of flashcards you can make) to make it more likely that you convert knowledge into action in the real world.

Designing your flashcard decks around these card types will help encourage behavior change - going from “learning” a concept to putting that concept into practice!

Type 1: Definition Cards

A card type that introduces terms to simplify the explanations of other cards. Consider whether it helps the user to know the definition. If not, don’t make a definition card. Definition cards might not always be necessary as there might not be any additional vocabulary that is missing.


Q: Define Recall
A: To bring (a fact, event, or situation) back into one's mind; remember.

Type 2: Concept Cards

Concept cards teach you tools or methods to solve one’s problems. They are very similar to definition cards, except that you end up with a tool in your tool belt instead!


Q: What is Active Recall?
A: Active Recall is a method for boosting your retention of information by actively trying to retrieve that information from your memory (rather than, say, passively re-reading it).

Type 3: Motivation cards

A card used to motivate people to use the information taught by demonstrating utility and appeal. To encourage one to think about why they might want to do certain things.

We split our motivation cards into two types, creating either intuitive desire or reflective desire to use the content.

  1. Intuitive Desire

Use anecdotal examples of people that succeeded in using this information or provide compelling descriptions of the benefits.


Q: Why is it an excellent investment to learn how to make your learning more efficient?
A: Learning efficiently can multiply your impact. Plus, the learning methods that people are familiar with from school tend to be inefficient - there are techniques that you can quickly learn to improve your learning processes.

2. Reflective Desire

Use well-reasoned evidence as to why this information is helpful in your life.


Q: How effective is Active Recall?
A: One famous study found that students using active recall could remember 80% of what they learned long-term, whereas, with traditional study techniques, students were only able to retain 36%.

Type 4: Example cards

Example cards help you understand specific cases to grasp concepts better or clarify definitions


Q: How can you use active recall to learn the definition of “intuition flooding”?
A: If you want to learn the definition of “Intuition Flooding,” you could create a flashcard like “What is “Intuition Flooding?” and then review the content. Before revealing the answer, take a moment to remember the solution, rather than merely reviewing the material passively.

Type 5: Step Cards

These cards provide a step-by-step explanation of how to apply the concept in a relatable scenario.


Q: What are the three steps of Incremental Reading?
  1. Skim the material once.
  2. Repeat the process several times.
  3. Review in detail.

Type 6: Trigger Cards

A card type that helps you associate the information with a real-world stimulus or context, so you remember to apply it.

When X happens, you should do Y.


Q: What should you do the next time you come across something you think would be helpful to remember?
A: If you think it’s worth five cumulative minutes of your time to quiz yourself on it, you should add it to Thought Saver!

Part 4: Further Reading - Top Sources on Effective Flashcard Creation

Super memo

Effective learning: Twenty rules of formulating knowledge

Andy Matuschak

How to write good prompts: using spaced repetition to create understanding

Michael Nielsen

Augmenting Long-term Memory

Research Paper

Twelve tips for medical students to establish a collaborative flashcard project

Derek Sivers

Memorizing a programming language


Using Flashcards to become a better programmer

Future Card Types in Thought Saver (we are in the process of building these).

Personalized Cards

Cards that encourage the user to think about what motivates them to do specific tasks or how ideas and concepts relate to their life. The user input cards encourage user reflection, aiding you to change your behaviors!


Q: What are all the positive things that would happen in your life if you spent time learning effectively every day?

A: An open text box for users to input personalised answers!

Other notes

This article brings together current best practices for flashcards and a mix of behavioral change techniques. In the future, we hope to do some empirical testing to evaluate how effective different card types are at helping people remember with the goal of applying ideas in their life.

We are continually improving our ability to make the most effective flashcards, and so we would love to receive any feedback or thoughts on how you think we could improve! Whether that’s on specific cards we have created or the framing of how to make effective cards.

Please send us a message at