"Memory Athlete" Gimmicks Tip No. 2: Composite Flash Card

A simple new method for powerful flash cards

Posted Jun 09, 2014

Teaching, learning, and remembering don’t have to be complicated. In my previous "Memory Athlete" Tip #1, I described a strategy based on linking mental images to particular locations in a familiar environment, such as one's home or yard. Here, Tip #2 describes my invention of a simple flash-card process that can help accomplish all three educational processes in a computer slideshow file consisting of only one slide. This one-screen file can serve as a single composite “flash-card” reservoir of information from which information can be organized and modified, saved for on- or off-line study and always available for self-testing (in principle, as is done with conventional flash cards). Conventional flash cards are typically limited to factoids, with a word on one side and definition on the other. But composite flash cards are fundamentally different because they provide a way to capture and learn whole cohesively organized concepts as well as factoids.

Moreover, the new type of card captures many well-established principles of effective learning and memory (Klemm, 2012, 2013). Unlike the common teacher-centric mode that stresses presentation and explanation, this new system incorporates the student-centered need to encode and remember presented information, all in the same visual and conceptual space.

The principle, as in Tip #1, is also based on the idea that remembering what the information is depends largely on where it is. Here, mental images are pinned to specific spots in a table in PowerPoint and animated so that you can browse through the items in proper sequence, one at a time.

The entire process is illustrated with nine key memory-improvement concepts in a single PowerPoint slide that serves as a “home page” (Fig. 1). The memory-improvement concepts, represented by clip-art icons in sequential left-to-right, top-to-bottom order are: 1) enhance motivation, 2) allocate learning time wisely, 3) organize learning material, 4) make nets of association, 5) don’t overload working memory, 6) reduce memory interference, 7) don’t multi-task, 8) think about what is to be memorized, and 9) self-test. Readers can get construction details and download this actual slide show from a link at http://03908f9.netsolhost.com/thinkbrain/educational-consultant/ (scroll down to the bottom until you see "Klemm cards").

Fig. 1. Edit view of a PowerPoint slide containing basic information about nine key concepts of effective learning and memory. In slide-show play mode, the objects (icon and associated text block) are coded for animation, so that each icon and associated bullet list appear in turn upon a mouse click. The opening screen in show mode will ordinarily be blank or contain the very first icon at upper left. Icons can have hyperlinks to other sources of information. Mouse click on an icon links to an enlarged corresponding bullet slide and its hyperlinks.

To illustrate the reasoning in Fig. 1, the mental image of the first icon conveys the self-evident idea that the fellow without a parachute is highly motivated to “hang in there.” To mentally link the bullet points, a learner could visualize him praying he doesn’t slip loose, helping him to “believe he can hang on.” Then imagine him clutching more desperately than he needs to, just to “fight boredom.” Then when he lands safely, he can be visualized as celebrating by playing his “A game” in basketball. As another example, the second icon of an alarm clock conveys the idea of managing time. Imagine seeing the clock set 10 minutes before the hour (“10 minute rule’). Then picture multiples of such a clock (“reserve lots of time”), each appearing as fast as possible (“don’t procrastinate”). Space the clocks apart (“space learning”). Silly, yes, but that is what makes such imaging memorable.

The spatial organization of the icons makes it easy to remember them and even their sequence. During recall required by self-testing or examinations, remembering the images automatically brings up the associated bullet-point ideas. To accelerate the speed at which icons can be memorized, a learner can think of associational links between icons. For example in Fig. 1, after seeing the motivation icon, an association can be made with the next icon (clock) by imagining that the parachuting people are looking at a clock to time how long it will be before they hit the ground.

Options for Use

Organizing and Presenting Information. The instruction mode is shown on the right side of Fig. 2. Cards can be created by a teacher, as the basis of a lecture, or by a student, who constructs it from lecture and/or assigned learning resources. Icons can be used as hyperlinks to separate slides that contain bullet points, text, or diagrams. Animating the objects allows them to be displayed one at a time.

Figure 2. Logic flow diagram for use of the flash card in two different modes: on the left for a single flash-card study and self-test and on the right for expanded organization or presentation of learning material. A slide show developed as shown on the right can still be used for self-test from the single flash card “home.”

A student or teacher could play the complete slide show, or whatever portion is desired at a particular time, by mouse clicking through the icons and their bullet lists, and launch into the detail slides by clicking on the ICON (as opposed to blank space); each detail slide has links on it to return back either to the bullet list or to the “home” flash card. A link is not needed to go to the next detail slide is not needed, as each slide in that path appears on a mouse click on open space. Obviously, this same home card can be played for self-testing via the flash-card mode process on the left of Fig. 2.

Before clicking, the teacher may want to ask the class what they think or know about the role of motivation in learning. During or after explaining the bullet points, the teacher may wish to pause before the next click to answer questions, orchestrate class discussion, launch a traditional slide show, show a video clip, conduct a demonstration, conduct a hands-on activity, or whatever. In an on-line tutorial, a hyper-linked audio file could provide the instruction.

When all items in the home page are displayed, students see a grand overview of the content, and, as with matrix notes, it should be easy to discern cross-cutting relationships among the ideas. In Fig. 1, for example, students might discern that organizing the material requires thinking hard about meaning and relationships or that multi-tasking creates interference effects. 

Teachers can spread the instruction across multiple class periods from the same card (after class one, for example, she would resume in class two where she left off last in the flash card and repeat with each later class. Since each subsequent class period brings up the original card, teachers can click on previously displayed objects as a review. In an on-online environment, students can self-pace as they work their way through the card’s information.

The teacher may want to tell students in advance to take notes as each icon is presented. After the lecture, the computer file (the single flash card) can be e-mailed to students, and they can modify the bullet points on the basis of the notes they took in class. Alternatively, if students have computers in class, they can load their copy of the slide show and make notes directly in their copy. Once in their possession, students can customize the file and use it again and again for study and self-testing (see below). A whole semester could be taught this way, with each lecture based on its own single card.

Flash Card Self-study and Testing. Cards can be designed simply for study and self-testing (left side of Fig. 2). Extra slides to expand on a given icon’s mnemonic representation are added at will, and links to them can be created from any icon to an expanded bullet list, which in turn has hyperlinks to any number of extra slides on that topic.

The same approach can be used by students to construct their own flash cards from textbooks, videos, websites, or other information sources. This might be an improved way to document Web quests.

With a composite card constructed with each icon and text box tagged for animation, the learner simple clicks through one item at a time. Thus, the composite card serves as a study and self-test tool wherein the learner tries to memorize the icons and the ideas they represent. True self-testing is easily done when the learner anticipates what should appear upon mouse click and then adjusts recollection to correct any memory errors. 

Students can study a card file in edit mode, which allows the student to see, all in one place, both the “big picture” and the fine detail of the information presented in lecture or gleaned from other sources. One typical problem in education is that academic content is dumped on students as an overwhelming mass that obscures perspective and context. Students can easily feel like a rat lost in a maze. But if they could look at the maze from the top view, they would easily see how to navigate it. When students can see and think about the total display of information on the home page screen, they may find it easier to see cross-cutting relationships. Different icons can be substituted and re-arranged (first “group” the icon and its text box) if needed to enhance the inherent meaning for a particular student. The student can even add cells to the table and insert new material and links that were not included in the original information presentation. 

Perceived Benefits

The advantages of this system would seem to include the following features:

  • Comprehensive. All manner of information can be packaged into a single card. Intervals between mouse clicks can be used for other modes of information presentation, discussion, and learning activities.
  • Compact. Everything is all in one place, viewable as a holistic display, yet the user can drill down via the card’s hyperlinks to extensive detail within the slide show.
  • Flexible/extensible. Cards can be constructed for presentation of information from any source: lecture, books, websites, or whatever. A given card can be modified at any point in time, by either the teacher or the student. Information content can be expanded simply by adding new table cells. Major topics can have their own separate and independent cards. Teachers can readily adapt the system for on-line or in-class teaching.
  • Organized cohesively. Ideas are organized as topics, and subtopic ideas are shown as associated bullet points. Sequential order is preserved (left to right, top to bottom). When the user drills down to a detailed bullet point slide, “return” hyperlinks quickly lead back to the home page.
  • Studied quickly. Students can view everything at once and zoom in on parts that need further thought or rehearsal. Students can modify any part of the slide as needed during the study process.
  • Self-tested in flash-card style. Students can anticipate what should appear upon the next click and check to see if they had it correct. Any needed modifications are quickly made on the fly during self-testing. This design discourages students from glossing over the memorization process by “looking over” material without really forcing a self-generated answer.
  • Embodied key memorization principles. This one approach captures a wide range of generally accepted principles that facilitate memory. Students and teachers are enabled and encouraged to:
  • Condense content is to essentials (“less is more”―Süss et al. 2002; Norretranders, 1998).  Memory capacity is limited and easily overwhelmed by too much information. Moreover, memorization is facilitated by excluding information that one already knows or can figure out.
  • Organize material by arranging like items in the same row or order a sequence in which rows are read left-to-right, top-to-bottom.
  • Chunk items in small groups by putting like items on the same row of the table.
  • Represent ideas with images, which are far easier to memorize than words (Rigney and Lutz (1976).
  • Create a spatial organization that itself facilitates memorization (Vaughn, 2007; Sparrow et al. 2012). Composite flash cards are a form of “method of loci,” an ancient technique that works because where information is provides important cues for what information is. Such cues help in both forming and recalling memory. Because only a few images are on a given row, it is a trivial task to remember the three or four images on a given row. To create location “pegs” for images on each row, users could use the classical number coding system (Klemm, 2011), in which row one would be indexed by an image of “tie” (as in neckties), row two by “Noah” (as in the Ark), row three by “ma,” (as in mother), and so on. Thus, for example, in row one a user can visualize a necktie wrapping around the several images on that row. A user could also make a visual story line that begins with a tie linked to an image of the first item on the row, which in turn is lined to the second item, and so on.
  • Capitalize on the convenience of having all memory processes (encoding, consolidation, retrieval) operate in the same visual format and space in which information is presented. This composite card structure is akin to matrix note taking, which offers the added advantage of making it easier to see cross-cutting relationships that may go undetected in other forms of note taking (Kiewra et al. 1991). The holistic display of all information makes it easy to perceive any one item in the same context, while at the same time making it possible to see two or more items in a new context.
  • Learners can self-pace study and review. Learners can easily self-test frequently and do so in a much more powerful way than the common approach of just “looking over” the material. True self-testing is apparently under-utilized by the typical student (Pyc and Rawson, 2010; Karpicke and Roedinger (2008).
  • The process of creating a composite card is engaging. Learners simply must think about the material to decide what goes where, what images are most useful, and what are the minimally useful number of key words.  In my 50 years of learning and teaching, I have become convinced that thinking about learning material is the best way to memorize it.
  • Easily constructed and modified. Anyone who knows how to use presentation software like PowerPoint can easily make, modify, and navigate the information content.


Foer, Joshua. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein, New York: Penguin.

Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Roedinger, Henry L. III. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science. 319, 966–968.

Kiewra, Kenneth A.; DuBois, Nelson F.; Christian, David; McShane, Anne; Meyerhoffer, Michelle; Roskelley, David (1991). Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(2), 240-245. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.83.2.24 

Klemm, W. R. (2012). Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.

Klemm, W. R (2013). Better grades. Less effort. On-line e-book. Bryan, TX: Benecton Press.

Norretranders, T. (1998). The user ilusion. Cutting cnsciousness down to size. New York: Viking Penguin.

Pyc, Mary A., and Rawson, K. A. (2010). Why testing improves memory: mediator effectiveness hypothesis. Science, 330: 335.

Rigney, J. W., and Lutz, K. A. (1976). Effect of graphic analogies of concepts in chemistry on learning and attitudes. J. Educ. Psychology. 68, 305–311.

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., and Wegner, D. M. (2012). Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 333, 776-778.

Süss, H. –M. et al. (2002). “Working-memory capacity explains reasoning ability—and a little bit more.” Intelligence. 30,261–288.

Vaughn, Dean. (2007). How to remember anything. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press