Size is the first consideration.

You can buy small, blank flashcards.  1.5 x 4 inches is a good size for short, simple phrases.

For longer phrases, 2 x 4 inches is better.

For on the job flashcards, like when on a field trip, you want something bigger to write on, like a 5 x 7 inch.

Color is the second consideration. When studying languages I used yellow for Spanish, blue for French, light green for Italian and pink for Polish.

For medical topics one could use yellow for neuroanatomy (yellow like the myelin covering of neurons), blue for pulmonary, pink for cardiac and light orange for renal.

The benefit of having multiple colors is to keep the subjects separate, if you mix them into the same set of Leitner boxes.

Of course, you could have separate sets of Leitner boxes for each subject.

Is it good enough to just have computer flash cards.  Computer flash cards are great, but it is better to use multiple methods.

The brain remembers stuff better when you write it out by hand.  This is one of the benefits of making your own handwritten flash cards.

The computer may crash, your internet service may be down, the flash card website you use may go out of business…

It is good to have a backup, handwritten version of the flash cards.

There are many ways to make flash cards.

As Rod Stewart said, “Every picture tells a story.”

I like picture flash cards.  You can draw your own diagrams or illustrations.

I often buy 3 copies of a book that has lots of good illustrations.  For example, for a biology class.

The first copy is for reading, studying and making margin notes.

The second is for cutting out the picture on page A to make a flash card.  Cutting out the picture on page A, often ruins the picture on page B, on the other side.

That’s the reason for buying the 3rd copy, to be able to cut out the pictures from side B of the page.  This can be an expensive habit.

Therefore, one can buy cheap used versions of a book or older versions of the same book.  Or, one can just draw onto a 5 x 7 inch blank notecard the key points from the book illustration and use that as a flash card.

When reviewing these flash cards, I just look at the picture and try to describe the key aspects of it.  Better yet one can describe them out loud.

While the picture flash card itself can only be looked at from the Leitner boxes, the key aspects of it can be put onto computer flash cards.

I like DVD courses that come with a printed syllabus.  The ideal syllabus is one that has actual copies of the power point slides used in the lecture, printed typically 6 on an 8 x 11 inch page.

While watching the DVD course, one just follows along with the lecturer and then writes notes in pen on the syllabus on the corresponding printed power point slide.

Then after the lecture, I cut the useful slides out of the syllabus.  This will be about one out of three with a lecture that covers relatively new material and one out of 10 with a lecture that is mostly review.

This process of picking the slides to be cut out and sometimes writing additional information on them is review number one of the material from the DVD lecture.

The cutouts are then put into a pile in front of the computer.  Then, a day or two later, the information from the cutouts is entered into a computer based flash card system such as Super Memo or Anki. This is review number 2 of material in the DVD lecture.

After the cutout has been entered into the computer, the cutout is then put intoLeitner box number one.  The flash cards on the computer and the flash cards in the Leitner boxes are then reviewed periodically.

Next review of the computer flash card is review number 3 of the material.  Then the Leitner box cutout flash card is looked at to serve as review number 4 of the material.

This is 4 repetitions of the material and it has only moved (most likely) so far to Leitner box number two.

The computer based flash cards have a SIRS (spaced interval repetition) timing system whereby after answering the card you indicate whether it was easy or difficult.

If easy, then the duration is lengthened before subsequent rehearsal.  If the card was difficult, then the duration is kept brief before subsequent rehearsal.

The timing is set up so that the more difficult cards are looked at more frequently and more often.

This is great because it efficiently focuses your time.  You study what you need to study, rather than wasting time going over stuff that you already know well.

The intervals are spaced out to keep your memory and comprehension at a high level. This enables you to rise above the forgetting curve of Ebbinghaus.

Piotr Wozniak on his website has written a lot about how to format flash cards, and it is well worth your time to read his detailed perspective on the subject.

A couple of key points are as follows; keep it brief.  The brain remembers better if you give it small pieces at a time.  For example, a simple question like “Who was the most important French diplomat to work for Napoleon? Talleyrand.”

That is a good, straight forward question.  The brain prefers to store information in simple packets like this.  In general it is less effective to try to put too much information onto one flash card.

For example, “Which important French diplomat had a club foot, was forced by his family into the church, read a lot, was fascinated by finance, left the church, felt that France was better off making peace with England and helped represent his country at the Congress of Vienna?  Talleyrand.”

Now that was a mouthful to remember all at once, and the brain would prefer it to be separated into shorter parts at a time.

So you may ask, “Do I always make my flashcard questions brief?”

Well the answer is, “No.” 


Because, sometimes, time is of the essence. There are often lots of flash cards to be handwritten or entered into Anki.

By the way, I started out learning about computer flash cards with Super Memo, but my computer was then switched over to Linux and this led to the Anki online flash cards being the most convenient method for me.

In order to get lots of flash cards, let’s say, 200,  typed into the computer, I just do it as fast as possible.

What do I recommend?

If you have the time, then try to optimally format your flash cards with short questions and concise answers.  You can write the question on one side and the answer on the other.

In actual practice, I usually just write on one side and then look at the card and think about it.  I try to see the concept in my mind’s eye.  I try to form a mental picture of the topic, what it means, what it looks like, what it relates to.  This should happen instantaneously.

I consider it a success if I can look at the card and immediately know the answer and picture it in my head.  That means I know it, that I own that information.

This card is then advanced to the next Leitner box, or the “easy” box is clicked on Anki.

If you know it quickly like this, then you are likely to also recall it quickly when you take a test.  In a sense, you are overlearning the material so that it copies of it are put into the “automatic, fast” part of your brain as well as the “conscious, logical, effortful, slower” part of your brain.

If there is a delay in mentally picturing or explaining the picture, it goes backward, into the earlier Leitner box. Fo computer flash cards, the “that was difficult” box gets clicked on Anki.

Piotr Wozniak calls this process of keeping flash card questions simple and brief, the “principle of minimal information.”

“As Robert Browning and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “Less is more.”

Piotr Wozniak also emphasizes the importance of formatting your flash cards to promote “active recall.”  This means writing it in the format of a question that needs to be answered.

I think that he is totally right.  However, I didn’t use flash cards until I was done with medical school.  I learned college and medical school with other methods, especially “condensed notes.”  In residency I had a simplistic flash card system.

In residency, I would carry a couple of 5 x 7 inch notecards in my pocket. Anytime something interesting happened in clinical work or was mentioned in conferences or lectures, I would write it down.

When I got home to my apartment, I would put the 5 x 7 inch flash card into an “inbox.”  Then I would review the material and look it up in a reference book.

Then, I would add any relevant information into my condensed notes system which consisted of adding margin notes to an outline format book called “Radiology Review Manual” by Dahnert.

Then the 5 x 7 inch flash card would go to an intermediate box and then to a completion box.  This was basically a 3 box “Leitner” system.  The condensed notes book of Radiology Review Manual was the equivalent of what I might use the Anki flash cards for nowadays.

This system worked well for me, and I got a 99% on the diagnostic radiology written boards test.

The key was that by taking notes of stuff that actually happened that day, an emotional component was added to the information.

This in a sense told my brain that the information was especially important to memorize.

I can tell you that none of the other residents in my cohort took notes during conference or lecture.  This seemed odd to me.  I think it was due to peer pressure.

For some reason, it is considered more “cool” to try to just “be smart,” than to act like you are “trying to be smart.”  I was actually teased about taking notes.

My attitude was, “I just want to be the best student that I can be.  I will use whatever method helps me to accomplish this.

I don’t care what people say about my methods or if they tease me, because I know that what I am doing works for me.  If they want academic success, they should be copying me, instead of making fun of me.”

Peer pressure is not just a high school thing.  It is a life long thing.

If I had the opportunity to do it over again, I would try to go by the recommendations of Piotr Wozniak as much as possible.

He also talks about other formatting processes such as “cloze deletion” etc.

Another thing that helps with making flash cards is to try to phrase things in a memorable way when possible.  For example, the same thing can be said in a clear simple way or a complex, confusing way.

You can buy a metal “flip ring” and put the flash cards onto that.  This helps keep them together and can be a way to organize the flash cards by subject.

From, “Straight A’s at Stanford and on to Harvard. How to learn faster and think better.”By Peter Rogers MD. Copyright August, 2014

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