7 Common Flashcard Mistakes to Avoid

Flashcards are amazing at decreasing your study time or increasing the amount of information you can memorise. But if you’re not careful, you might end up making flashcards that are ineffective and useless. Bad flashcards eat up your time and create frustration, the last things you need when you’re studying for a test! So learn from our experience and avoid these 7 common mistakes.


1. Using Flashcards As Teeny Tiny Notes

Ever notice how most flashcards you see online are basically just really tiny study notes? I’ve never understood why people do this. The whole reason we want to use flashcards is because reading summaries is such an ineffective way of studying! Because nothing good comes from scribbling your notes in your tiniest handwriting on small pieces of paper.

Primarily, your flashcard should do one thing: ask a unequivocal question that has a clear, correct answer.

I think the reason many people try to cram all of the relevant information onto the flashcard is because they want to know that information is ‘somewhere’. But simply writing the information down or re-reading it does nothing for your recall. So if having pretty study notes soothes you, feel free to make all the teeny tiny notes you want. Just don’t tell yourself you’re studying.


2. Making the Questions Too Small

When you’re studying a certain topic and making flashcards, many of your cards will make sense to you. For example, when I started learning French, I made flashcards that asked for the gender of a certain word.

Q: Maison
A: Female (La maison)

This was a great way of memorising the gender of some of the most common words in French. All was well and I answered correctly during reviews, so before long these cards were scheduled for months later. And that’s when the trouble began.

Q: Maison
(Me: “House. Hmm, what a bad flashcard, left out the article when I made it. I should fix that”)
A: Female (La maison)
(Me: “Crap!”)

Take the time to actually write out your question, so you’ll know what’s being asked even if you see this card years from now. It’s important that you’ll understand the question even when it’s out of context, because you’ll probably end up combining most of your decks and mixing up your topics.

For my own card, I first changed it to this:

Q: In French, words have a gender. What is the correct article for ‘Maison’?
A: La

But then I realised I’ll never actually need that specific piece of information. Instead, I want to give the correct article in relevant contexts, so I scrapped the card and added these instead:

Q: Le chat est dans {{the}} maison
A: La

Q: J’aime {{that}} maison
A: Cette

Q: {{My}} maison est verte
A: Ma


3. Making the Answers Too Long

A good flashcards needs a simple and clear answer. You need to be able to judge if your answer was correct, and it should be either “yup, correct” or “nope, incorrect”. There should be no maybes.

Of course, there are a lot of situations in which you need to test your understanding of a more complex topic. You cannot always avoid longer answers. I’ve found using cloze deletions can really help tackle those more complex flashcards.

Let’s take an example of my own studies.

It might be tempting to create flashcards like “what happens in the sexual development of people with androgen insensitivity syndrome”, but obviously this card would ask for a question that is too complex.

Instead, I made about twenty cards. For example:

Q: What gonads do people with AIS develop?
A: Testes

Q: Because people with AIS have testes, their Sertoli cells and Leydig cells produce MIS and testosterone. However, people with AIS are insensitive to which substance?
A: Testosterone

Q: Why do the Mullerian ducts of people with AIS degenerate?
A: Because their Sertoli cells produce MIS (and they are not insensitive to that)

I also used image occlusion to cloze delete parts of my own study notes.

Making good flashcards takes time. It takes effort. Once you’ve made a good flashcard, the majority of your work is done, really. Reviews are just the icing on your flashcard-cake.


4. Using the Front-Side as Study Notes

There might be some information you don’t believe is important enough for a flashcard, but that you still kind of want to remember. But not really. But maybe a bit. It might be on the test. You would not be the first to try and cheat the system by putting information on the front-side of your flashcard, hoping that the repetition of re-reading it will help you remember.

I’ve seen flashcards like “Dude Whatshisname, who was involved in the study I think is boring but I might be quizzed on it, was the inventor of what software?”.

You should not do this, because it makes reviews so much harder and longer. You end up only half-reading your own questions because you know they’re full of irrelevant stuff.

Re-reading does not work.

Repeat this to yourself: re-reading does not work.

So make up your mind, do you want to remember this fact? If you do, then turn it into a flashcard. If you don’t, that’s fine. Just don’t clutter up your flashcards with those study notes you don’t really want to learn.


5. Using Correct/Incorrect Questions

Many tests consist of statements that you need to determine are correct or incorrect. These types of questions are an acceptable way of testing the knowledge of students, but they are a terrible way to study.

The problem is that you remember the fact, and then you remember whether it’s true or not separately. The flashcard “Q: Le maison. Correct or incorrect” is terrible because it repeats “le maison” in your head, causing you to remember “le maison” when it really should be “la maison”.


6. Not Asking for What You Want

Another thing to watch out for is making sure you’re actually telling yourself what answer you want. Say your flashcard asks “What is the mean height in the Netherlands?” and your answer is “1.81 for men, 1.69 for women”. This is a bad flashcard, because you’re asking two questions: the mean height for men, and for women. On top of that, you’ve now burdened yourself with another thing to memorise: the fact that your mean height card needs two answers. If you forget one of these three bits of information, you’ll answer incorrectly! So you’re setting yourself up to fail.

Make sure you don’t have to memorise anything about how your flashcard works. Instead, allow yourself to put your effort into remembering the important facts.


7. Not Using Your Senses

There’s nothing more boring than a long, monotunous procession of identical looking flashcards. Because memory is about linking new information to existing ones, make full use of any ‘hooks’ you can find to attach your new info to. Use mnemonics, use humor, use images, use your senses.  Bring the information to life and you’ll see how easy it becomes to remember. Don’t be afraid to go crazy, because your brain remembers weird things better than anything else.

Go on and create some kick-ass Anki cards!

3 thoughts on “7 Common Flashcard Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Thomas O'Neal

    “The problem is that you remember the fact, and then you remember whether it’s true or not seperately.” It used to be “separately.” No one told me of the gnu spelling. I’ll add it to my Whoops flashcard deck.


Leave a Reply