Flashcards in practice

7 December 2018

As part of our ongoing endeavours to provide our students with effective revision material and support, the geography department at Durrington has recently developed a series of knowledge organisers intended to distil the core elements and key concepts that students need to know, and the department needs to consistently teach, to be successful. When discussing the merits of knowledge organisers, discussions kept returning to the same point – how could we ensure that our students used the knowledge organisers effectively? As a department we decided to provide some guidance to students on how they could use the knowledge organisers which included providing blank templates for them to fill in from memory and online multiple choice questions quizzes to test their knowledge.

However the main thing we recommended to students is that they use the organisers to create revision flash cards for each topic. The knowledge organisers were broken down into sections and students were instructed (for homework) to create 2 or 3 flashcard covering the content in each section. What we therefore envisaged was our students returning a set of effective flashcards perfectly suited to supporting retrieval practice and revision; however the reality was not so perfect. The first set of flashcards created by our students had the following common issues:

  • Inappropriate amounts of content, ranging from too little (one key word and a short hand definition unsuitable for the exam) to a summary of all their notes written in tiny handwriting. 
  • Students were creating questions that did not reflect what or how they would be asked in the exam – this created a disconnect between the knowledge and its application in the exam.
  • Students were commonly saying that they had only tested themselves on the cards once since creating them, meaning that students were not “overlearning” the content

In response to this the team decided to provide a “tight but loose” guidance on what made effective flashcards in Geography, much of thinking behind this came from Chris Runeckles blog on flashcards, which can be read here. The added benefit of undertaking such an activity as a team was to ensure consistent delivery and expectations across the department. The initial stage was to determine a set of “House Rules” for students to follow when creating and using these flash cards. The full list of these can be seen below, and included ideas such as ensuring all flashcards were titled with the unit of study and the number of flash cards in that unit set. The idea behind this was to allow students to mix their flash cards up when testing themselves allowing for interleaving in their revision, but also making it easier for them to re-sort their cards if they wished. We also made it explicitly clear to students that they should not stop using their cards even if they feel confident with the knowledge on them, encouraging them to overlearn the information so as to increase their fluency with it.

Once we had established these house rules, we wanted to give students concrete examples of what these rules actually looked like in practice. Reviewing the best flashcards we had been given, we identified three successful flash card styles. Firstly those that encouraged retrieval of key vocabulary but used exam command words such as “define” or “outline” rather than “what is”, secondly those that used incomplete diagrams or outlines of our dual coding case study diagrams with key information or sections blanked out, and finally longer answer exam questions with the metacognitive planning of the answer on the reverse thus forcing students to not only retrieve declarative knowledge but also procedural knowledge as well. Model examples of each flash card type (see below) were then created following the “House Rules” so students could replicate the style when creating their own cards.

While the initiative is still in its infancy, the flashcards now being created by our students are much tighter, efficient and appropriate to the challenge of GCSE Geography than they ever were before.

By Ben Crockett

Posted on 7 December 2018
Posted in: Blog

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