6 rules for making better flashcards

by Gabe

Flashcards using spaced repetition are easily the best way to memorize content for the MCAT.

But I find that most people’s flashcards could be much better. If you learn the basics of making good flashcards, you’ll be able to memorize all the content you need to know with less effort in the process.

Rule #1: Understand before making flashcards

When you’re studying a new subject it can be tempting to jump right into making flashcards for every term you run across. But you need to make sure that you understand everything you make a flashcard for.

For example, if you were going to make a flashcard for a complicated physics equation you should start by making sure you at least know the equation reasonably well. Do you know what the different variables mean? Do you have a decent sense of what happens when you change the variables?

Making things into flashcards without understanding them will just lead to frustration in the long term when you keep getting them wrong.

Rule #2: Keep your cards simple (one fact per card)

An example of a bad flashcard would be:
Question: Proline
Answer: Proline is an amino acid with a nonpolar side chain. Proline can interrupt the secondary structure of proteins.

Instead, you should break it into a few simpler flashcards:
Question 1Is the side chain on proline polar/nonpolar/aromatic/charged?

Answer 1: Nonpolar

Question 2: What amino acid can disrupt the secondary structure of proteins?
Answer 2: Proline

You should really only be testing yourself on one fact per flashcard. If you’re learning a complex idea, break it down into multiple simpler chunks.

Also, make the question clear! In other words, make sure it’s very clear what the flashcard is actually looking for. If you just write proline on the front, you won’t know what the answer is supposed to be. Is it looking for the structure? The polarity? The molecular weight? Make it specific.

Rule #3: Make flashcards for easily confused concepts.

If you’re trying to learn two terms that are easily confused, don’t just make two separate cards for them. Instead, also make an extra card that asks you to define both of them.

For example:
Question: What is the difference between amphoteric and amphipathic?
Answer: Amphoteric means a substance can act as either acid or base. Amphipathic means a substance has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic elements.

Rule #4: Use images in your cards

If you use images in your flashcards, you’ll remember them better. It’s as simple as that.

If you’re using Anki, it’s incredibly easy to add images. On a Mac you can just press Control-Shift-Command-4 to take a screenshot which you can then paste into your Anki card (on Windows the shortcut is Windows + Shift + S).

Plus there’s an Anki plugin called Image Occlusion which you can use to create fancy flashcards where you cover up a part of a diagram and test yourself on it. This is especially useful for memorizing things like the biochem pathways.

Rule #5: Avoid long lists

If you put a long list as the answer to a flashcard you’re almost never going to be able to get it right. Here’s an example of a bad flashcard:

Question: What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease?
Answer: Bradykinesia, resting tremor, pill-rolling tremor, masklike facies, cogwheel rigidity, and shuffling gait.

When you see this card, your chances of getting that whole list correct are very low. And it’s just going to be frustrating!

Instead see if you can break up the list into smaller pieces with more context. Maybe like this:
Question: What is the symptom of Parkinson’s disease that can be seen in the face?
Answer: Masklike facies

Or, if you can’t avoid using a list in your flashcard, at least say in the question how many items there are. For example:

Question: What are the three personality disorders in cluster A?
Answer: Paranoid, schizotypal, and schizoid.

Rule #6: Overlapping cards are okay

There’s a lot of ins and outs to the science you’re required to know for the MCAT. So you may make a flashcard on a concept but later realize you didn’t quite cover all your bases.

In that case, it can be really useful to make a second flashcard that covers whatever new information you’ve picked up. And if it overlaps a bit with the card you made before that’s actually good. The more associations you have with a piece of information the more likely you are to remember it, so having a few flashcards on it will only help.

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