A how-to guide: flashcards

November and December means exam-season for a lot of us and for me, exam-time means flashcard-time!

Flashcards were my go-to resource during revision time at school and university. As I say to my students when we’re about to make some or I am taking them through my how-to guide, I thought to myself: “Well, they seemed to have worked at GCSE, so let me use them at A-Level”. Then from there I used them up until and including my third year of university.

When I made this guide then, I knew I had to add just the right amount of guidance but also leave enough room for creative freedom. The key ingredients stay the same, but stylistic changes are up to the students; one size does not fit all, after all. That being said, I don’t myself know the real ‘key’ ingredients to a flashcard. Hence why I am putting it out there so colleagues from across the country can advise me (and ultimately my students) on what else might work well/could be added/could be changed, etc…

So please feel free to do that at @mr_perez5 – in fact, I’d ask that you give me some sort of feedback if you do go on and use this resource, either on how it worked for you or ways to improve it.

The main types

There are so many ways to revise and I use flashcards with students as part of a ‘balanced diet’ of other methods: My school has had a big drive on helping students to revise properly and help knowledge ‘stick’ (using 7 distinct but complementary strategies school-wide) because we know we need to teach students HOW to revise – we can’t just order them to do it and then expect it.

There are also lots of different ways of creating flashcards and I know in my own school, students and staff use them so differently. I therefore whittled it down to just five:

  1. Case study based.
  2. Keyword/concept/process focused.
  3. Diagram centred.
  4. Exam question/answer.
  5. Q&A cards.

There are pretty self-explanatory but I will focus on 1 and 4 as they’ve raised the most questions when I’ve shared them with colleagues:

Case study based

The only thing here that needs explaining is volume of content. Too little = why make the card in the first place? Too much = you are setting yourself up for failure, your brain is not THAT powerful (also, even 9 markers do not need that many facts or figures).

Lastly, my knowledge of dual coding has grown somewhat since making this resource. Hence, firstly, apologies to @olicav (and actually the late Allan Paivio too!) if this is too simplistic. However, I felt students needed it to be this simply for them to “get it” and buy in. Nowadays I accompany the resource with my own verbal explanation of the basic theory behind dual coding and students seem to like this – they get its value when it is broken down in layman’s terms.

The most important thing I note though, is that the diagram needs to work for them – i.e. if it helps them remember that bit of info and recall it later. This is why although Year 11 students ask me Year 7 level “is this okay, sir?” type of questions, I always say – “if it works for you and you understand it, yes.”

Exam question/answer

These are split into three types:

  1. Plan type 1
  2. ‘Perfect’ answer
  3. Plan type 2, no diagram (usually for 6 or 9 markers)

The following aren’t so much tips, but warnings as how this can used incorrectly:

  • Plan type 1: sometimes students plan for a question which they’ve made up and due to their lack of knowledge of AOs and exam paper design, this question is unlikely to ever come up. Therefore, I advise they always ask you about it.
  • Plan type 1: “combination of phrases” box needs to be carefully constructed and is something low-ability students will struggle with a lot.
  • ‘Perfect’ answer: Low-ability students struggle with some things, high-ability with others; in my experience they go ‘over the top’ and waste time. I advise against this on the slide as well as the general advice against memorising answers – this is a big ‘no, no’ as we’re creating geographers, not regurgitators.
  • Plan type 2: this is a bare bones plan, you will not be able to write down everything. Also, that question along the top is an past exam question and may never come up again – so you must tell students to react to the question on the day, not just really on a ‘ready made’ plan (‘here’s one I made earlier’ is unlikely to perform well on the day of the exam with these sorts of questions)

Where?

I am not sponsored by them or anything but I know a lot of my students rely on Wilko’s products for their revision materials. Having said that though, sponsorship wouldn’t hurt (wink, wink), @Wilko. Failing that, @WHSmith, @RymanStationery, etc… – a couple hundred free packs wouldn’t hurt…

Anyway! The point is that flashcards are relatively easy to source and even easier to properly organise. Get them made by your school’s DDR department using coloured, lined card and then have students keep them safe in envelopes, using treasury tags, etc…

By the time exams roll around, and depending on how early on they began they process/how much they did at home, students could be outside the hall waiting to go in and sifting through tens of cards having used them carefully during revision.

In sum…

Ultimately, these one-slide guides are inspired by what worked for me during my time at school/university and then what I’ve found worked for some students. Some students have turned around to me and said, “Sir, that way of doing that particular flashcard doesn’t work for me so here is what I did instead”. That’s fine!

But they can work if done well, that’s the point – stylistic, small changes are not worth discussing. I use the example of a Year 11 last year who, upon taking advice I shared in lesson, decided it was worth doing the below type of flashcard for ALL the “strategies used to reduce the development gap” (3.2.2 CEW). 8 flashcards in total and using the fairtrade one helped him get 4/4 in that 4 marker on it in Paper 2. That’s not to mention the ‘keyword focused’ one which helped him with the first question on Paper 1 on extreme weather, nor the ‘diagram centred’ one which helped him the waterfall question in that same paper.

As always, and as mentioned earlier, if you have any questions about this or would like to offer up tweaks/improvements then please feel free to contact me via Twitter!

Abdurrahman Pérez (@mr_perez5)
November 2019

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