Study Card Strategy

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A12-TT-study-cardsA lot of our students feel like they study quite a bit (and sometimes they do!), yet their results on exams are not what they would like them to be.  Often the problem is the WAY they study – re-reading their notes and the text is common, while the more conscientious ones are recopying their notes (all of which are VERY ineffective, according to the research).  If you see students struggling, and they don’t seem to have effective study strategies, here’s one you can teach them! Students who are already doing well can also take advantage of this technique, getting the same results with less study time.

Three big advantages of using study cards:

  1. Preparing the cards, and using them the recommended way, involves actively WORKING WITH the material: picking out important material, summarizing and coming up with their own way to express it.  This is not just passive review, and it leads to better recall.
  2. Studying with the cards can easily be done in 5 and 10 minutes periods throughout the week, optimizing both time management and learning (spreading study time out increases retention).
  3. Studying with the cards avoids wasting time reviewing material the student already knows, allowing them to focus on what they aren’t that good at, yet.

Here’s how to do it:

Making the cards (instructions for students)

  • Get a package of small index cards, the ones that have lines on one side and blank on the other.
  • Read through your notes and identify the key facts or concepts for that topic.
  • Explain to yourself, in YOUR OWN WORDS, the concept or fact.
    • If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it well enough; read more or ask for help.
  • Write the name (or a short phrase about) that concept or fact on the blank side of an index card.
    • Can be ‘compare A and B’, ‘advantages of A’, ‘history of A’, ‘3 types of A’, etc.
  • Write your summary on the other side.
    • Be very brief
    • Use abbreviations, diagrams, arrows …
    • Take time to think about how to make your summary short and clear; THIS IS PROCESSING and is worth every minute. (Just making the cards is already very effective studying, even if you never look at them again later!)
    • If your summary side is getting too full (more than 3 or 4 points with a few words each), you need to break it into two or more cards, each with its own title or subtitle.  Discard the one you started out.
  • Make cards every week, on that week’s material.
  • Only add a new card when there’s something new and fairly important to learn.  Deciding what is important and what is not is also processing, and will help you remember.
  • Initially, keep all the cards for the same/similar concept/issue together.
  • Use a clear symbol to mark the concepts your teacher has emphasized as important.
  • When you’re done, you shouldn’t have to go back to your text or notes unless you later find you don’t understand something.

Using the Cards:

  • Look at the ‘name’ side; FORMULATE A QUESTION about that topic. (Creating questions is also processing, increasing retention).
  • Answer your own question, THEN check the other side of the card.
    • If you can answer easily, well and completely, put the card aside into a “successful” pile.
    • If you can’t answer, or not completely, repeat the answer to yourself, and put the card aside into an “unsuccessful” pile.
  • Keep your piles separate with coloured rubber bands or big clips (cards you haven’t done yet, the successful ones and the unsuccessful ones).
  • Carry some of the cards with you and study whenever you have 5 minutes.

Once you’re done the whole stack, you’ll have two piles of cards, the ‘successful’ ones and the ‘unsuccessful’ ones.  Start the whole process again ONLY with the ‘unsuccessful’ cards.  The ones you can answer this time go into your ‘successful’ pile. Keep doing this again, until all your cards are in the “successful” pile.

Ideally, you should review the cards again on another day, mixing up the topics. Again, go back to any cards that ended up in your ‘unsuccessful’ pile this time around. Just before the test, do it once more (with topics mixed up).

Students can also prepare cards themselves, and then use them to study with classmates – which we also know from research leads to better retention and recall of information!

Main difficulties students have with this technique

  • Preparing the cards is time-consuming, initially. Encourage them by letting them know they’ll get way faster as they get used to the technique, and ask them to bring you their cards each week, as a way to keep them on track. Also, remind them of how much time they’ll save NOT re-reading their text and notes before the test, and NOT spending hours cramming the day before or the day of the test.
  • Students often put too much info on each card, or make too many cards because they can’t figure out what’s most important. Get them to bring you a few cards when they start using this strategy, and coach them on how to prioritize and summarize.


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