Study in a Flash: How to use Flashcards for GCSE/A-Level Revision

There are some tried and tested study methods which have never lost favour with students around the world. One example of such a method is the trusty flashcard. These little cards are great for a range of subjects for helping you master the essential facts, as well as vocabulary for language classes and special terminology for other class. GCSE and A-Level students know very well that no single study method will give them everything they need. It needs to be layered, starting with the essential facts as a foundation and the headier details to be worked on after.

Flashcards are the perfect vehicle through which to lay that foundation. When prepared and used properly, they will help you cover reams of factual information and vocabulary in a relatively short period. Below we’ve prepared a handy guide to prepare and then use flashcards. We will take foreign language vocabulary study as our example, but the principles apply equally to any content.

Preparation:

First, choose appropriately sized cards so you don’t have to waste paper. Many normal revision cards are quite large for vocabulary study, so you can buy then and then cut them in half to get more use out of a single pack, and not waste paper.

Second, write your main flashcard revision materials yourself. Writing the cards yourself is a part of the process; like the first leg of your studying journey. While there are some good choices of smartphone apps for flashcard practise, these should be used as bonus practice. 

Third, keep your flashcards simple — write the word/term being studied on one side, and the definition on the other. You should use your own words when writing the definition rather than copying directly from your textbook or source material.

Fourth, colour coding is very useful. You can either buy differently coloured cards, or use another method like bunching the cards together and colouring the ends, or using coloured stickers or a highlighter mark on each to denote in which series each card belongs. You could use one colour for verbs, another for nouns, to give but one example. This will help you stay organized as your flashcard volume expands.

Using your Flashcards:

The most common and effective method to use your flashcards is known as “spaced repetition.” Using this method over a period of several days should see you mastering large amounts of detail and content quite easily. Many of the most lauded app-based programs use the same or similar method with their own content.

The method goes something like this:

Step 1 — Practice words on the cards for 20 minutes by looking at one side, either word or definition, and then recounting what’s on the other side. When you get one firmly right, put it in the “Done” pile, if you’re unsure or wrong, arrange into a “Not quite” and “Don’t know” pile respectively.

Step 2 — Take a five-minute break

Step 3 — Study for another 20 minutes

Step 4 — Leave the cards for at least one full day, but no more than 2

Step 5 — Repeat the process again

It’s simple, methodical and seemingly mundane but its extremely effective, and you can always think of ways to liven up the study, like giving yourself stricter time limits, adding elements like making sentences with the words before you proceed to the next one, and so on.

Easy though it may seem, there are still a few things you need to think about as you progress.

The first thing you need to consider is that you need to be strict with yourself when it comes to flashcard learning. It’s easy to look at a card, get it half right, look at the other side and say to yourself, “Oh yes, I knew that, I knew that,” and then add it to your “Done” pile. If you struggle to remember or get any part of the answer wrong, don’t put it into the “Done” pile just yet. A good way to solve this is to do flashcard practice with a friend who can more objectively tell you when you get something wrong.

Another thing to remember is that you should shuffle your flashcards well each time you practice. There’s always a danger that if unshuffled, you still start to remember the cards from their order and not from a place of genuine knowledge. That can be subconscious, and you may feel you know it, but when it comes to a test situation where the order “crutch” has gone, then you could be in trouble.

When you have finished practice, you should take the items from the “Don’t know” and “Not quite” piles and study your main material again before attempting another practice. The most important element of studying is focusing on the things you don’t know. That’s how you make progress and raise up your final scores.

GCSE and A-Level revision is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself plenty of time to make and use flashcards properly. They’ll be no good to you made and used once on the day before an exam. Make flashcards an early part of your revision preparation. And good luck!

There are ready-made flashcards for immediate download in my shop