In this article, we provide a structured approach to writing flashcards and creating high-quality flashcard decks. We also discuss how to study effectively with flashcards to improve your long-term retention of knowledge (including the use of spaced repetition flashcards).
- Keep the question specific – avoid open questions; each question should be easily interpretable by the reader and lead to one specific answer.
- Avoid the use of acronyms to be as clear as possible.
- Avoid linking cards – a linked card is a card that presumes the reader has read the card immediately preceding it – each card should be answerable individually, no matter the order.
Question Structure and Content
|Simple recall||Q: What nerve supplies the trapezius muscle?|
A: Accessory (XI) nerve
|Testing a very specific piece of information; it is quick to write and quick to learn.|
These questions are the bread and butter of a good deck.
|Fill-in-the-blanks||Q: The ovarian artery descends within the ______ ligament and freely communicates with the _______artery?|
A: Suspensory; uterine
|Useful when information is difficult to condense and can give clues to the answers with a little bit of context.|
|Definitions||Q: Define anteversion of the uterus.|
A: Refers to the position of the uterus in which its long axis is bent forward on the long axis of the vagina
|Provides explanation of those long medical words.|
Good use of these cards will make sure no consultant can trip you up with unfamiliar jargon again!
|Compound questions||Q: What is the triad of symptoms of pulmonary embolism and what ECG finding is most likely to support its diagnosis?|
A: Triad – Chest pain, breathlessness, tachycardia
ECG findings – sinus tachycardia
|These are questions that ask two or even three things related to the same topic. Useful when talking about classical symptoms and their related investigations to confirm a diagnosis.|
|Lists||Q: What are the contents of the cubital fossa?|
(Aid: Really Need Beer To Be At My Nicest)
A: Radial Nerve, Biceps Tendon, Brachial Artery, Median Nerve
|Lists can be useful when learning anatomy, signs/symptoms, investigations, treatment regimens etc.|
Top tip: If the question has a definite number of answers, indicate it in the question with a bracketed number or in the example shown on the left, include a mnemonic
|Point, explain and quiz||Q: Sinusitis can lead to the development of mucous filled cysts in the ethmoid air sinus, what is this called? What complications can arise?|
A: Ethmoidal mucocele; presses on orbit and cause diplopia
|These questions are good for information that is useful to know of but not essential for wrote learning (for exams or in general).|
The questions begin with a description that helps jog your memory and then asks specific questions.
Flashcard Deck Structure
Plan your deck
Organisation is key and taking five minutes before you begin writing a deck to decide exactly what’s the scope of your deck will save time in the long run and you can be confident that you have exactly the content you want.
Know your target audience
Think about the level of knowledge you have on the topic and think about who you are writing them for (i.e. junior medical students or senior medical student).
Types of decks
This can vary depending on what you want to achieve with your flashcards. For example, it may sit somewhere along the spectrum from an ‘Exhaustive Deck’ to a more concise ‘Focussed deck’ (see below).
How to Study using Flashcards
Using Spaced Repetition to Study Flashcards
Studies have shown that there is in-fact a ‘correct’ way to learn flashcards. To do this we use a system of spaced repetition. This method takes advantage of our brains’ ability to learn things more efficiently when studying is spaced out over time. Many online flashcard resources have a system that allows you to rank the difficulty of cards and then tend to show you those cards you find difficult more often than the ones you rank as easier. This is repeated until you’ve learned the deck.
If you have physical flashcards you can achieve the same thing using the Leitner System, an application of spaced repetition as detailed in the diagram below.
Stepwise Guide to the Leitner System
When going through your deck for the first time, assign each card to a pile numbered from one to five based on how confident you are with your answer (5= totally confident and 1= not at all confident).
Once you have assigned every card to a pile, have a go at the cards in pile one, your least confident. If you get the answer correct, advance it to the next pile. If you get an answer wrong, it remains where it is.
From then on you can follow the system of promoting or demoting the cards until every card is in pile five (as shown in the diagram) and you are confident with the deck.
You can vary the number of piles anywhere from three to six but we recommend that you don’t go over six as it becomes overly time-consuming. You can also choose how often to revisit the deck; if time isn’t a pressure you can do a couple of cards a day to learn the deck over a longer period of time. The choice is yours.
Flashcards are a great tool for both teaching and learning; there’s a lot of value in taking the time to create them as well as revising from decks created by others. Using the information here, anyone can go away with the tools to create a fantastic set of decks and learn them in time for the next set of exams.
With a bit of planning and some varied styles of questions, it’ll keep the experience of learning dynamic and fun. Any topic that can lend itself to flashcards; whether it’s anatomy, physiology or even OSCE prep – why not give flashcards a go?