Under-Appreciated Ways to Use Flashcards - Part I
Those who know me well sometimes call me a “flashcard freak,” - and they are not wrong.
I first discovered flashcards at the end of high school, as I was getting frustrated with my own forgetting curve. I learned so many interesting facts as a student, but without regular use of those memories, time erased them faster than the vacuum cleaner from Inside Out. All of this changed when I discovered spaced repetition software, and it became an integral part of my learning. However, up until recently, I haven't shared this with many people - I thought it would just sound nerdy and weird!
At EAG in London, I ended up talking to Flo and the team at Thought Saver. I was fascinated to discover that they were as excited about spaced repetition as me. In particular, we bonded over all the innovative ways in which flashcards can improve people's lives. Traditionally, people use them mostly to improve their memory of foreign languages or general knowledge trivia. But wouldn't it be even better to use them as a learning tool for what's most valuable in life? Flo described her vision of helping people learn about well-being and decision-making. I also had many thoughts on utilizing it for better mental health and relationships. This got us inspired to collaborate!
How I use flashcards
Flashcards have been with me through thick and thin - I used them to prepare for my Oxford application, for all my exams and job interviews, and even for my mental health! As a result, I've accumulated more than 40,000 cards over the last ten years.
Why would I do such a freakish thing? Well, where do I even start?
1. Because it works. Active retrieval of information is one of the most effective methods for memorizing anything. In the scientific literature, you can find it under terms such as “the testing effect” or “desirable difficulty during learning” - Basically, it refers to any effortful recall of information. While passive learning (such as listening to a podcast episode) can make us feel like we will remember the information in the future, we won't know this for sure until we put our knowledge to an active test. While flashcards are not the only way to practice this, they do make it particularly convenient and systematic.
2. Because it makes learning so much more efficient. With flashcards, you only spend time learning what you currently don't know very well. As you recall a card accurately, its next revision gets moved further and further into the future. That way, you spend most of your time on what you know the least.
3. Because you can create a handy database of facts. Flashcard software has become the one place where I gather most of my study notes, work notes, insights from books and podcasts, and even life lessons. This becomes extremely useful when I need to remind myself of a particular topic. For example, if I am asked to teach a seminar about serotonin, I quickly search through my database and revise all cards I’ve ever made with that keyword. Before this, I kept lots of random notebooks that I hardly revisited.
4. And lastly, because it’s so versatile. While you can't use flashcards for learning everything (believe me, I've tried it all - from statistics to dancing), you can use them to learn a lot of stuff.
This versatility will be the focus of this first article, leaving my flashcard-making and learning techniques for future editions.
So, what could you find in my 40k+ cards? Well, let's start with the more conventional content:
1) General knowledge
This one is pretty straightforward, and a typical card looks something like this:
Front of the card: What’s the capital of Venezuela?
Back of the card: Caracas
2) Specific knowledge
In addition to general knowledge, I also have a lot of niche knowledge, usually, facts that I need to remember for my work. For example:
Front: Common problem when clients set goals in therapy?
Back: They set too many goals and become overwhelmed/exhausted
3) Practical tips
Next in line are practical tips for my life that are useful to remember or regularly remind myself of. This could be:
Front: How does it work when I want to visit my GP?
Back: I have to make an appointment at least a week in advance
4) Health and safety facts
While this sounds boring, they are arguably the most important things we should all remember. This can include first aid, such as:
Front: What should you do before giving first aid?
Back: Check for danger to yourself or others
Or even fire safety, like:
Front: What are the most common preventable causes of fire?
Back: Candles and drunk cooking
5) Foreign language learning
Of course, this is a classic, and the flashcard community has many tips on it. I am no exception to this practice and therefore have many cards like:
Front: shoes 🇪🇸
Back: los zapatos
So far, none of these types of cards were likely too surprising for you. Now let’s get weirder!
6) Life lessons
Whenever I make an important “note to self,” I try to turn it into a flashcard. This can include the mundane, such as:
Front: What should I always bring on an airplane?
Back: A warm sweater
All the way to the more profound, like:
Front: What helps me perform better as a therapist?
Back: Being kind to myself and avoiding perfectionism
This slowly brings us to the topic of how flashcards improve my mental health. There are several types of information I like to memorize for this purpose, such as…
7) Moments of gratitude
I’ve always been a fan of gratitude practices - after all, it’s a pretty evidence-based way to increase your wellbeing. However, while I liked to write down what I'm thankful for, I struggled to build a habit around coming back to those notes to savor and strengthen my positive memories.
That's when I remembered the tool that helps me remember anything - flashcards! I started making cards like:
Front: Favorite memory from Christmas 2021
Back: Stepdad teaching me to make potato salad
I became a huge fan of this. Regularly reviewing moments of joy made me realize how easily I could forget them and how much better my life is when I don't.
It also made going through my flashcards more fun, as it provides irregular rewards in between other (sometimes pretty boring) cards from my database.
8) Relationship tips
Our relationships with partners, family or friends often require effective learning. From remembering your anniversary date, to changing the way you clean the kitchen - stronger memories can help! For that reason, I have many cards that look like this:
Front: My mum gets annoyed when I forget to…
Back: turn off the lights around the house
Speaking of relationships, there is one that we often neglect - the one we have with ourselves. That's why I like to make cards to remember successes I'm proud of, difficult situations I overcame, positive feedback I received, or failures I want to approach more compassionately. For example…
Front: What I'm proud of about my summer teaching
Back: That my lectures were well received and I was asked to teach again
10) Lessons from therapy
To reach the most advanced Jedi stage, connect your flashcard learning with therapy! Really, is there a better way to grow? Therapy can bring us so many helpful insights and strategies - and the best way to maximize their benefit is to make sure we actually remember them.
This topic could warrant a whole other article, but the simplest way to get started is to try cognitive restructuring for your unhelpful thoughts. For example:
Front: Reframe the thought “I should never make any mistakes”
Back: Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. I will try my best, but I will be kind to myself if it doesn't work out.
Well, there you have it - the first in the series of “how flashcards changed my life!” There is a lot more that I could say, but I will leave the rest of my yammering for future editions.
Until then, happy flashcard-making!
This post was written in collaboration with the team at Thought Saver.