19952002 David H. Williams

How do you study? Most of the students I've managed to pin down on this subject are finally reduced to admitting that they study by reading their notes. In some cases they rewrite the notes, which does involve repetition (presumably good for memory) and makes the reading and rereading of the notes easier. In some cases students may also read and reread the text as well.

The problem with this style of study is that it does not create the confidence necessary to do well on an exam. How can you be sure you know something just because you've read and understood it several times?

Another problem with the read, reread, write, rewrite method of study is that it tends to leave you flat shortly after you stop. When you go back to studying the next hour (or day or week) you find yourself back at square one.

I like to think of studying to the point of mastery of the material as a process very much like climbing a ladder. You will never get to the top unless you can hold on to each rung of the ladder. Typical study methods force you to start at the bottom rung each time. But how can you reach the top (mastery) in just one study session? The answer is you can't. So, you must find a way to hold on to the rung you had reached during your last effort. The typical read/reread study method can never do that simply because you never really know where you are on the ladder. Again, just because I have read and understood some material does not necessarily mean that I can answer questions about that material on an exam. Until I can be sure that I am able to answer the questions about a topic, I don't have the confidence to lecture to students on that topic. How can students feel comfortable walking into an exam unless they have the confidence which comes from knowing the answers to all (or most) the questions? How can study bring a student to this level of confidence?

The answer lies in the ability of students to ask questions of themselves and become reassured that they know the answers. The only reasonable way to achieve this is to MAKE FLASH CARDS. By introducing flash card technology into your study method you will replace quantity with quality. You will begin to develop the true confidence you need to master the exam and the quiz. You will improve your grade dramatically.

Students new to flash cards and those who have tried them before with varying degrees of success may find the following pointers on flash cards helpful.


This helps us to know what we were asking for even if the next time we look at our card is two or three weeks after it is written. It's amazing how much we forget about why or how we did something even in a few days. Full sentences are also good practice for writing and force us to think more carefully about the questions and answers.


It is a common mistake for students to try to cover too much on a single flash card. They're stuck on the idea of rewriting notes. The point is to break the information up into manageable bites. Try to keep structure and function separate, for example.


The information in a typical biology course may be divided into four categories: definitions, lists, diagrams, and relationships or equations. Examples follow.

Define the term 'prokaryotic'. What are the two basic cell types? Show the structure of a general amino acid. What is the relationship between phagocytosis and intracellular digestion? What is the equation for a saturated non-cyclic hydrocarbon?

In your study effort, concentrate first on the definitions of terms. If you come into an exam with only these committed to memory you may still be able to achieve a grade of to 6070%. Add lists and you may, barring mistakes, get a 7080%. Diagrams, equations, and relationships will round out your perfect score (as always, barring mistakes).

On the other hand, if you come to the exam with full knowledge of the diagr ams, equations, and relationships but none of the terms and lists you are bound to fail. When you make flash cards bear this in mind and concentrate on the terms and lists first. Only when you have these committed to memory should you worry much about the diagrams and relationships.


There ARE many advantages to flash cards. You can keep them wrapped in rubber bands by topic. Each topic can have two categories: the ones you know and the ones you don't know. More sophisticated (and time consuming) approaches may have three such categories: well known; pretty well known; and need work etc.

You can study flash cards anywhere, anytime: in your car at a stop light; in a traffic jam; at a doctor's office; while waiting for your car to be repaired; during short breaks at work. You can show your flash cards to your instructors and they can evaluate them easily. They are a silent testimony to the amount of work that you have done.

Often students have shown me their rewritten notes and asked if they were OK. Quite frankly, I don't have the time or patience to read long sets of handwritten notes to search for errors or omissions. With flash cards, on the other hand, it is an easy matter to see if the student is on target. Omissions are also easy to spot if the cards are arranged in an orderly way.

The great thing about flash cards is that while they seem tedious and time consuming, making them actually constitutes high quality study time. And the time is well spent because they will still be there when you need them again. The more careful you are about making the cards the greater will be the benefit. Review is a cinch. You will always know where you are on the ladder of learning by the relative size of the two piles in each category (known and not known).

A few more suggestions will help to round out your knowledge of how to use flash card technology to your best advantage. ALWAYS carry your cards with you. You never know when they will come in handy for unexpected blocks of down time or to show your instructor what you have been doing. NEVER loan your flash cards out. You may never see them again and you have put a terrific amount of work into them. Take care of your flash cards and they will take care of you! Flash cards don't have to be fancy and it's up to you what format to use (3x5 or 4x6, lined or unlined, colors, etc.). The copy center (or equivalent) at most colleges typically sell plain card stock in standard sizes at a very economical price. Index cards are cheap enough that most everyone can afford plenty of them.

Good luck on your next exam!