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How to Use Flashcards to Prepare for Board Exams

  • by Dr. Michael Stephens
  • May 27, 2022
  • Reviewed by: Amy Rontal

Flashcards can be a great adjunct to your studying, but only if you know the right ways to use them. Read on to learn a few tips to make the most out of the time you spend working through flashcards.

Flashcard Decks: Your Options

Anki is well-known among medical students for its use of spaced repetition to boost information retention. As with any other flashcard application, you have to fill in a blank or identify a term from a prompt.

The unique aspect of this service, however, is that afterward, it will ask whether you were right or wrong and how easy or difficult you thought the question was. Anki then uses your input to specify the interval of time before you see that card again. If you mark the question as “easy”, it might be many days before you see it again, but if you mark that you answered it incorrectly, the question might recur in mere minutes. If you continue to get a question right, the length of time before it comes back will increase.

Sounds complicated? Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a software engineer to use Anki. The platform allows you to make many adjustments in how cards are presented. You can embed images, use so-called cloze deletions, and take advantage of spaced repetition based on whether your answer is right or wrong. However, you don’t have to use all of these tools: the default settings are perfectly sufficient to provide you with the best of spaced repetition. All you need to do is plug in the content you want to learn and stick to the study plan Anki lays out. Feel free to spend less time learning all the “bells and whistles” of Anki and more time learning the material.

If you feel overwhelmed by Anki but still want to use flashcards, that’s also OK! There are many other options that may be more intuitive like Quizlet and even handwritten index cards. These options don’t give you the ability to set intervals for when you will see harder or easier cards again, but using them can still be time well spent. Just choose the option that works best for you.

How To Use Flashcards: Ground Rules

  1. Flashcards shouldn’t be your primary means of studying.

Cards are meant for content review, but they can’t replace textbooks and question banks. It’s reasonable to spend an hour or two each day working through decks, but if you’re spending more than that, cards will inevitably come at the expense of learning new material and ultimately will slow you down.

  1. Make your cards correctly.

A great flashcard is short and to the point. The perfect one contains just enough information to remind you of the answer when studying it later. Don’t paste in large paragraphs of text and don’t make a card that’s too vague.

  1. Stick with your routine.

The main strength of this study method is it allows you to return to information you’ve seen before, but spaced repetition is valuable only if you go through your cards on a regular basis over a long enough period of time. You don’t have to use flashcards to do well on a test day, but if you plan to use cards, make sure you have enough time to review them and do it regularly.

Be wary of unwieldy pre-made decks

A common pitfall is using large libraries of Anki cards made by previous students. These decks may be impressive and comprehensive, but you will have difficulty keeping up with the number of new and review cards each day and inevitably spend most of your day doing these decks in lieu of using other more important resources. Furthermore, the deck isn’t really tailored to your strengths and weaknesses; you might find yourself having to wade through many cards covering topics you already know before you get to ones covering topics you don’t.

A deck you make yourself better targets high yield content and isn’t going to be so large that you find yourself having to spend hours each day to keep up. Not to mention that you learn a lot while putting cards together! A good approach is to pick one or two short facts from a question explanation or the page of a textbook and incorporate them into a card. You may not be able to put in every piece of content, but you’ll slowly develop a high-yield deck you can use to study. If you consistently put in just a little time flipping cards every day, you may be surprised how much information stays with you by the time test day comes.

Integrating Flashcards into Your Study Schedule

Cram Fighter allows you to select flashcard decks you’d like to study (or add your own custom decks). You can then adjust your flashcard settings to indicate how many flashcards you want to study each day and generate an accurate estimate of your workload (along with the other Qbanks, textbooks, and lectures you have in your schedule. Check it out now by creating a study schedule with a free Cram Fighter trial account.

About the Author

Originally from the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati, OH, Mike finished his undergraduate degree at a small Kentucky liberal arts school called Thomas More University. From there, he attended medical school at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA, where he was involved in the Medical Student Government, Dermatology Interest Group, and University City community clinic. He completed a preliminary internship in Internal Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA and is currently a dermatology resident in the Harvard combined program. Outside of medicine, Mike enjoys hiking, playing tennis, and just generally being outside. Though the Patriots and Eagles might have Super Bowl wins behind them, he will always be a Bengals fan at heart.