Teaching Materials - Flashcards
How students learn
We have five senses that allow us to receive information and learn about the world – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. And of these five, three are absolutely crucial – sight, sound and touch. Very early in childhood our brain starts to develop a preference for one, two or three of these channels and becomes increasingly good at acquiring information through it.
Using visual imagery to learn
A study completed in 2002 by Silverman found that of the 750 students surveyed, 33% were strongly visual learners and another 30% were moderately so. Thus, the majority of students had a preference for using visual imagery. However, many modern classrooms rely on reading, writing and lectures to impart information, which are methods more suited to those students with a preference for auditory learning. This can prove detrimental for students with a preference for visual learning who may struggle to keep pace with the class.
How visual imagery supports better learning
Visual imagery can facilitate effective teaching in a variety of ways. It can reduce learning time, improve comprehension and help us to better retrieve and remember information. Words are abstract and therefore more difficult for the brain to retain, whereas visuals are concrete and, as such, more easily remembered.
An interesting study that supports the importance of visual learning asked students to remember many groups of three words each, such as dog, bike, and street. Students who tried to remember the words by repeating them over and over again did poorly on recall. In comparison, students who made the effort to make visual associations with the three words, such as imagining a dog riding a bike down the street, had significantly better recall.
About flashcards and teaching
Visual imagery in the form of flashcards has been shown to work well with a wide student audience. A flashcard or flash card, as they are also known, is a card bearing information on one or both sides. For example, a flashcard may have on one side an image showing a specific concept (such as a person running) and on the reverse side is the teaching concept written in words (‘running’).
The testing effect (show +)
Flashcards are an application of the testing effect – the finding that long term memory improves when time is dedicated to (a) testing a person’s understanding of information through having them retrieve it, and (b) providing feedback on their accuracy. An example is showing a student an image of a purple flashcard, asking “What colour is it?” The student then responds “It’s purple” and the teacher provides feedback “Yes, that’s correct.”
Their history and use today (show +)
Paper flashcards have been in use since at least the 19th century. One of the first was a set of phonics flashcards used to by an English educator to assist his students to learn how to read.
Today flashcards are both virtual (part of a software program) and physical and are used for a range of teaching purposes that include learning vocabulary, historical dates and formulas. In fact, flashcards can be used for any subject matter that can be learned through a question and answer format.
Size variation (show +)
Physical flashcards continue to be popular with teachers because of their practicality. They are portable, reliable and durable and are produced in two sizes – standard and larger format. Standard sized flashcards are commonly used for one on one teaching sessions whereas larger format flashcards work better with groups and therefore are popular in a classroom setting.
What makes and effective flashcard for teachers?
Flashcards that offer captivating imagery, carefully selected for their teaching purpose, have been found to be stimulating and motivate learning. For example, a brightly coloured sports car pictured against a dessert landscape is more likely to peak the interest of a student compared to a dull image of an every day car in a banal urban environment such as a car park.
Using spaced repetition
Flashcards exercise the mental process of active recall – given a prompt (the question) one produces the answer. It has been shown that the proper spacing of flashcards has been used to accelerate learning. Spaced repetition is an evidence-based technique that incorporates increasing time intervals between each review of a flashcard. Newly introduced and more difficult flashcards are shown more frequently while older and less difficult flashcards are shown less frequently.
Variety of uses for flashcards
Flashcards can be used in a variety of ways that includes matching (eg one red triangle with another), sorting (eg by animal/transport/food) and touching (eg the face that is happy). They can be used to evoke verbal responses (eg by asking ‘What is it?’) and as a visual cue for enacting a concept (eg ‘Show me sleeping’).
Whilst the image conveyed on a flashcard may be simple, its use may be for increasingly complex learning concepts. For example, the image of a car may be used to teach vocabulary (eg the word ‘car’), sentence structure (eg ’The car is red’), categorization (eg ‘The car is a transport’) and spatial reasoning (eg ‘The car is inside the garage’).
As a result of their broad application, flashcards are useful for teaching both children and adults. Likewise they work well in mainstream educational settings (ie in schools and universities) as well as for specialist services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. Whilst their potential application is broad, their success lies in being specific to the particular learning needs of the student.