Multiple studies have shown that “spaced repetition”, where you retest your knowledge at increasing intervals, is a more effective way to study than cramming, where you attempt to learn a large amount of information in one sitting. This applies to many study methods but lends itself well to learning with flash cards.
Flash cards usually consist of small index cards with the target question or information on one side and the answer written on the reverse. They are commonly used for learning the vocabulary for a new language with the target word on the front, and the translation on the back.
Using language as an example, you would take a small number of cards (perhaps 10 – most people can’t remember more than 4 or 5 at a time) and test yourself. You would read the word on the front and translate it, turning the card over to see if you were correct. If you were correct, the card would be placed in a second pile for revision later (perhaps the following day), if you were wrong the card is placed at the back of the pile to be reviewed sooner, perhaps in an hour. The following day, when reviewing the day old cards, if correct, they are placed in another pile for 3 days time, if incorrect they stay in the same pile for the following day.
Research shows that it’s easier to remember the first and last things you study in any given session (serial position effect). By studying with spaced repetition, you increase the number of first and last things you learn which gives you a good advantage over sitting and learning for several hours straight.
There is no research to suggest the best intervals for review. Though one study showed that the longer you want to remember something, the bigger the intervals should be. This is an example schedule:
1 hour, 3 hours, 1 day, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, 21 days, 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, 6 months.
Any cards you can’t remember go back in the same pile, cards you remember move up to the next pile. They can all be kept in an index card box with dividers to remind you when to revisit a pile.
There are several software options if you don’t want boxes of cards everywhere, or you like to have your revision on you where ever you go. Try something like “Anki” which lets you design flash cards that can use on your smartphone, tablet or computer.
You can use flash cards to learn anything. Check out this post to see how to design the most effective ones…