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Flashcards — the means by which so many of us learned our multiplication tables, state capitals, chemistry symbols, and vocabulary words. There’s something laborious yet comforting about them.
I’ve had my kids use flashcards since I started teaching over ten years ago. But I began to notice a trend early on — most kids don’t know HOW to use them. The more I observed, the more obvious this became. Instead of using their flashcards to master unknown material, my students were sticking to those cards that they already knew, because it made them feel, well, smart. The icky ones they didn’t know would be pushed off to the side. OR, they would attack a large pile of cards, going one after the other, getting many wrong and feeling frustrated, defeated, and stupid when they couldn’t remember them after a long, hard study session.
So I taught them how to do it. This method has worked beautifully for my kids in both third and fourth grades, but it can work for all ages.
First you divide all the cards into three piles or pockets. (Go to my Teachers Pay Teachers link here to get your own free pockets!)
- Facts you know and don’t even need to think about
- Facts you kinda know but need a few seconds to answer
- Facts you do not know at all
I’ll ask a brave student to volunteer with me in front of the class. “Someone,” I caution, “Who does NOT know most of their facts yet. Someone who is not afraid to take a risk in front of everyone and fall flat on their face. Someone who is brave and wants to get better at their facts and is not worried about what other people think.” This sets the tone that failure is part of the package. The person coming up knows that we all recognize that what they are doing is exceedingly brave and that we will respect them for it. And the kids who are watching get the message that this is not easy and, yes, this person will fail. So deal.
In front of everyone, I’ll test them through part of their cards, demonstrating how to put the cards into the 3 pockets. “Be strict with yourself,” I urge. “If it takes you even two seconds, put it in pile 2. Don’t let yourself get away with anything.”
Then I put the #1 pile off to the side and completely ignore it. “She knows those,” I’ll tell the group. “Testing her on those may feel better for her, but it’s a waste of time.”
Tackle the #2 facts. “We’re going to begin with just two flashcards.” Test the student until she gets each card’s answer immediately. Be encouraging and have fun! This will relax the student and everyone else. At this point, it becomes comical pretty quickly, since you’re only playing with two facts. Feel free to access your silly side as she keeps restating the same answers to the same two questions. Stop and explain to the group that this person now has these two facts in her short-term memory. “But watch what happens when we introduce a third fact into the mix. If this student is like most people, her short-term memory will fail her and she will forget one of these facts.”
Sure enough, the student almost always trips over one of the facts mastered just moments ago. “What you’re witnessing is the long-term memory trying to take over the short-term memory. Forgetting those facts is normal and expected. So you have to relearn them. But this time, it won’t take as long to learn the facts.” I then test her on just those three facts. After a while, she masters them. “The long-term memory is getting a little bit stronger. But it’s not there yet. When we introduce a fourth fact, she’ll forget one of these. I can almost guarantee it. Not because there’s anything wrong with her brain. Quite the opposite. She’ll forget one because it takes a while for the long-term memory to get strong. Just like building muscles, it takes patient practice.”
We do this until we get to 5-6 facts and then we stop.
I turn and ask the kids, “So can any of you guess what would happen tomorrow if I tested her on these same 5 facts?” By now, the kids have caught on. She’ll forget most of them. BUT relearning them tomorrow will take much less time than learning them today did. The long-term memory is getting stronger.
At this point, I’ll send them off with their own 3-pocket set and their flashcards as they’re dying to try it out for themselves. After a while, we reconvene and share what it was like.
I work with fourth graders, so I will tell them that once their facts are in their respective pockets, they only need to practice for about 5 minutes a day and that they shouldn’t try to learn more than 4-5 new facts in one session. As facts become firmly entrenched into their long-term memory, they can move them to the #1 pocket and revisit them every week or so. Once the #2 pocket is empty, they move on to the #3 pocket.
This method makes so much sense to kids and they are fascinated by how the short- and long-term memory works. And it is pretty fascinating! It also helps them see why cramming for a test doesn’t work long-term. Slow and steady really does win the race. They feel ownership over their learning and over their own brains. It’s such a blast to witness this transformation!
We now use these pockets for our United States Differentiated Flashcards and our Multiplication Facts Flashcards. But you can download and print off these free pockets and use them with any flashcards you already have. The free download contains both colorful and greyscale.
If you copy them on cardstock, they’ll last longer, but regular paper works fine too. The colorful ones are fun if you have a color printer. You can also print out the greyscale on white paper and have the kids color them in or you can print the greyscale on colorful cardstock to give them extra kick. Laminating would make them them last even longer, though I’ve not tried that step yet, as the plain cardstock has been sufficient for my needs.
Once they’re printed you can use scissors or a papercutter to cut off the bookmark. Then fold on the fold line and staple or tape the sides. (If you want to go super fancy, use washi tape. Two staples per side work great for me, though.)
Teaching students how to use their short- and long-term memories to their advantage is a very powerful tool and you’ll see an immediate shift in their patience with themselves during study time. Sometimes I’ll set aside five minutes for my students to work on their facts. (I literally time them so that they get a sense of how little time is needed.) They’re amazed by how much they can accomplish in such a short interval. They learn firsthand that more study time does not necessarily equate with greater fact retention, but that efficient, focused study always does.