The 5-Sided Flashcard

Best study technique ever (or, this week).

Posted Oct 13, 2014

The first flashcards were probably etched on small stone tablets by anxious cave-students.  Innovations since then have included printed cards, new fonts, color, and the ability to design flashcards on-line.  But I’m here to tell you about what I (humbly) consider the best innovation ever:  The 5-sided flashcard. 

Why do we need a flashcard with more sides?  Because the goals of education are changing. In the old days (yesterday, for example), learning consisted largely of memorizing facts. Two-sided flashcards are great for that. Term – Definition – Done. But educators are realizing that students need more than a list of facts to make their way in the world (and to justify the huge tuition they pay).  According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, essential learning outcomes include not only knowledge, but:

  • intellectual and practical skills, which include critical thinking, writing, and teamwork
  • personal and social responsibility, which includes ethics and intercultural knowledge
  • integrative and applied learning, which includes the ability to synthesize knowledge and keep learning

Pretty tall order, no?  This is why we need to expand our flashcards.  Here’s my idea, with an example generated with my First-Year Seminar class last week:

Side 1: Term or Concept.  Okay, so this isn’t an advance—you have to start with the basics.  In my class we were talking about ethical virtues, and we talked about humility. The term itself is Side 1.

Side 2: Definition. Again, nothing new here. Merriam-Webster defines humility as “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people.”  In class we talked about not assuming that our own ethical judgment is always good or correct.

Side 3: Example, Picture, or Story. Now we’re getting somewhere. On tests, teachers often ask students for a definition of a term.  Or they give students a definition and ask for the term.  But sometimes teachers ask students to provide, or recognize, examples. Students get stuck if they’ve only memorized words and can’t picture a concept, or tell a story with or about the concept.  So why not make this part of studying!  Here’s a story about humility:  A guy understands that just because he’s gotten a haircut doesn’t make him qualified to teach someone how to be a barber. Or, as I’ve written about elsewhere, just because you have had and recovered from a psychological problem like anxiety doesn’t make you qualified to treat it professionally.   

Our class discussion turned to other virtues—one of them being prudence. Here’s one of the definitions from Merriam-Webster: “caution or circumspection as to danger or risk.” One student said, “Well, that’s the same thing as humility.” The student appeared to be lumping the terms together because the language of the definitions was not sufficiently different.  He needed to play a little with the concepts to get them clear in his mind.  If we had only a 2-sided flashcard to work with, I might have repeated the definitions and students might have memorized them but still been confused.  With Side 3, however, we told additional stories about people being humble and prudent.  Here’s one that may help: Two people walk into a bar.  Herman, the humble person, says, “I’m not sure I can hold my liquor that well, so I’m only going to have one beer.”  Paula, the prudent person, says, “I’m driving and I don’t want to get into an accident, so I’m only going to have one beer, too.”  Many students have a much easier time understanding definitions when they have pictures, stories, and other applications. When confronted with an example on an exam, students can match the picture in the question to their own pictures, and see which one matches the best.  Thinking in pictures can be very effective in addition to thinking in words.

Side 4: Similarities to Other Terms or Concepts.  My students saw similarities between humility and prudence:  They are both virtues, they are valued by most societies, they may lead to better decisions about ethical dilemmas, etc.  Putting concepts into perspective by looking at similar concepts is deeper processing than memorization and will lead to better learning.  But, wait!  We’re not finished!  We need one more step.

Side 5: Differences from Other Terms or Concepts.  Our class noted that Herman was looking inward at his ability, while Paula was looking outward at consequences.  That’s one difference between the two virtues, and it makes the definitions more meaningful and relevant. Our discussion led naturally to differences between humility and additional concepts, such as overconfidence, benevolence, and green peppers.

Remember the dreaded “compare and contrast” questions on essay exams?  Sides 4 and 5 incorporate this question into students' studying to help them assess and develop good thinking skills. Why wait for teachers to ask the questions to find out if you know something?   

Here’s my hypothesis:  When students design and use 5-sided flashcards they will do much more than memorize.  They will understand, apply, and even begin to analyze what they are learning.  Some readers will notice that we’re moving right up Bloom’s Taxonomy into higher levels of thinking.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology  (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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