Cecilia Astolfi , Teacher of Physics, Brentwood School, UK
Flashcards are a method of retrieval involving a prompt or question on one side of a card, and a statement or answer on the other side. They can be on paper or digital, using web-based platforms, and all obtaining similarly positive results (Sage et al., 2016). They provide a way for students to learn and self-assess independently, making them particularly helpful for revision – the study of work in preparation for exams. Since retrieval practice is an effective study technique (Roediger and Karpicke, 2006), flashcards have the potential to be leveraged for better progress and revision, particularly when compared to the relatively ineffective strategy of re-reading, which many students prefer (Karpicke et al., 2009).
This article is intended as a preliminary study into what kind of guidance students need to be given to produce high-quality flashcards and use them effectively, based on qualitative observations during a series of lessons with IGCSE students: a Year 10 boys’ class and two Year 11 classes (one girls, one boys only). Both classes had a range of abilities and achievement. My starting point for the study was observations made through the years as a secondary school teacher, when I would simply instruct my students to make flashcards without realising that I was making the implicit assumption that they knew how to. The main issues identified relate to selection of content, organisation of it on the flashcard and how to use the flashcards once made. These are addressed in the paragraphs below.
Impact was monitored by noticing instances of students making or using flashcards unprompted and by asking for verbal feedback during lessons and written feedback as part of post-test reflection. This qualitative data indicates that the majority of Year 11 students were keen to produce and use flashcards and were grateful for the specific guidance, especially in terms of formatting and the use of quizzes as scaffolding. Year 10 were more split, with some enthusiastically embracing flashcards and others reluctantly joining in. The difference in response may be attributed to the different levels of exam pressure felt, and therefore different willingness to engage in active (rather than passive) revision (Seibert Hanson and Brown, 2019), as well as a mismatch between self-belief and efficacy (Kornell and Son, 2009).
Problem: Students struggle to select the crucial content that needs to go on flashcards. Solution: Provide them with self-marking hinge questions with instant feedback
Which words are keywords? Which units are relevant? Which facts are essential? Textbooks give some hints about this by using bold or coloured boxes, and exam board specifications may include definitions. However, neither may be easily accessible in terms of language or the way in which they are presented. I trialled the use of a self-marking Google Forms quiz, to which I had added specific feedback. After taking the quiz, students were instructed to make flashcards based on the questions that they had not answered correctly. Each student could focus on their areas of improvement and could directly use the wording of the quiz. As an additional benefit, the quizzes helped to further the students’ progress by providing low-stakes formative assessment and immediate feedback (EEF, 2018).
Problem: Students crowd the flashcards, leading to cognitive load and ineffective use. Solution: Provide model formats
In science, there are hundreds of context-specific keywords, dozens of formulae, and symbols that change meaning based on topics. I noticed that students tended to write too much on each card, as if everything is important, because they could not make a selection. A study by Sage et al. (2019, p. 461) states that ‘students recalled more words and reported expelling more effort on ready-made over self-created flashcards’; I propose that this is affected by the intrinsic difficulty of content creation and organisation. By having both True/False and multiple-choice options on the self-marking quizzes, students were exposed to two different styles of flashcards that they could make. A third type involved crafting and providing a template to revise all rearrangements of an equation.
Problem: How to use the flashcards. Solution: Simplified Leitner method
When I encouraged students to use their cards, they would just read both sides – which is consistent with creating the ‘illusion of competence’ that Karpicke et al. (2009) refer to, and with findings related to self-organised study in college students (Hartwig and Dunlosky, 2012). I therefore introduced a simplified version of the Leitner system (Jones, 2019): read one side; answer the question or give the definition, as appropriate; check whether correct; if yes, place on the right; if no, place on the left. Once the deck is finished, repeat the cards on the left until they all shift to the right. Going through an entire mixed deck is preferable than doing it by topic, as it allows for spaced retrieval (Kornell, 2009). I have not tackled the issue of how often the flashcards should be revisited – those interested may want to refer to Karpicke (2009), Kornell and Bjork (2008) and Swehla et al. (2016).
If those deceptively simple skills were not explicitly addressed, they would have caused wasted time and frustration for all parties involved, leading to disappointment in summative tests and worsening of teacher–student relationships. Instead, I was able to use the flashcard-making and -using activity to praise and support individual students while they worked at their own pace. As Cornelius-White (2007) shows, having a positive student–teacher relationship is crucial to the success of any pedagogical approach.
My plan is to embed flashcard making and use as a metacognitive strategy with all my classes, within the VESPA model (Oakes and Griffin, 2017), which addresses student mindset, metacognition and transferable skills. Having identified possible issues and support methods, lessons can be tuned and monitored, allowing me to gauge the impact of guidance on flashcard creation and use on student progress.
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Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Improving secondary science. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/improving-secondary-science (accessed 10 February 2019).
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