Tips, Hint, & Strategies: My beef with “flashcards.”

I have always hated flash cards.

I remember the first time a teacher had the class make flash cards and the directions were something like:

Write the word on the front of the cards and then put a simple definition of the word on the back.

Following these directions, I made twenty or thirty cards, then lost half of them in my room a few days later. The ones I managed to find I ended up not studying because well, I was bored reading the same things over and over and the definitions were hard to remember anyway.

No matter how many times I tried to make flashcards the result was the same. Tons of cards, some lost, other avoided. Then, once I got to college, “memorized” definitions were never on exams anyway. Honestly, when is the last time you saw a question on an exam that asked you to provide the textbook’s definition of anything? I had an anthropology teacher once who had us memorize the definition of culture but that was the one and only time in all of college when I was required to memorize a definition verbatim. All other times I was required to know context of words or examples, and the definition of a word was of little use.

This is why I like vocab cards.

Vocab cards encourage critical thinking and creativity. This is why vocab cards are hard to make but also what makes them so effective. Look at my cards below:


There are lots of different ways to make effective vocab cards but, no matter how you make them, you should do some thinking while you make them. Simply copying information out of your textbook is not enough to help you learn the material.

The best part of vocab cards–at least for me–is how fun they can be. If you put questions on your cards you can pretend to play jeopardy. If you put pictures, you can spend time with crayons and color. I can brainstorm questions I think my teacher might ask, or those posed by my classmates in class, then put my answers on the back. When I make vocab cards I feel like I care.

I still, however, had problems keeping track of my cards. While I consider myself pretty organized, it always happened that I would lose one or two cards in my bag, in my car, or somewhere in a drawer at my desk.

So annoying.

A few years ago I worked with a student who was very disorganized and refused to make vocab cards because she would “always lose them anyway” and she hated to “waste time making something I’ll lose!” I challenged her to be creative and find a way to make vocab cards and find a way to not lose them. She came up with Flippers.

Flippers are amazing. Basically, take a sheet of paper; white, lined, three-hole-punched paper works just fine. Then, get a pack of Super Sticky Post-It Notes. The regular work, too, but the Super-Sticky kind really stay stuck long-term. Then, voila! Flippers:

20150316_142658~2 (1) 20150316_142715~220150316_142747~2

Call them whatever you want: flash or vocab cards can and do work, if you know how to make them effectively. Basically:

  • Be creative.
  • Be smart.
  • Think hard.
  • Ask questions.

For more tips about improving your vocabulary and making vocab cards see my Vocabulary Improvement Workshop.


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