How to Memorize Flashcards More Efficiently

When you get to the last month or so of studying for an exam, besides doing as many practice problems and practice exams as possible, you’re probably also focused on memorizing an intimidating stack of flashcards. I’ll be honest, I always hated the tedium of memorizing flashcards.

Over the years I tried different approaches to figure out how to memorize flashcards more efficiently and effectively. Below are three techniques I learned along the way that I think will save you a lot of time when memorizing all of the lists and formulas.

Technique 1 - Don’t go straight through a stack of flashcards

By default, I think a lot of people take a stack of flashcards and then just flip through them in order, from top to bottom.

The problem is that in a stack of flashcards, there are three types of cards:

  • Cards you know REALLY well and have immediate recall
  • Cards you know well enough and can recall without looking at the back
  • Cards you don’t know and you need to look at the back for the answer

The problem with just going straight through a stack is that you see each of these types of cards with the same frequency. Ideally, you want to see the cards that you don’t know a lot more often than the ones you know really well. Otherwise, you waste a lot of time reviewing cards you already completely memorized.

Instead, this is the approach I used:

  • Grab a stack of flashcards for a particular paper or section of the syllabus.
  • Pick up the top card. If you know the card, put it to the side in a separate, discard pile. If you don’t know the card, put the card back to the bottom of the stack you’re going through.
  • Keep going through until ALL of the cards in the stack are in the discard pile.

When you use this method, you only see the cards you know once each time you go through the stack. You’ll see the cards you don’t know multiple times (maybe 3 or 5+ times) before you remember them correctly to put them in the discard pile. This way, you spend a lot more time on the difficult cards that you haven’t memorized yet.

Another benefit of this technique is that it ends up mixing the cards for a particular paper. When you always see the cards in the same order each time, you may remember cards just because you remember the card before it. When the cards get jumbled up a bit, you need to think more to remember correctly. This also helps you to commit flashcards to memory.

Technique 2 - Do staggered reviews of cards

This is a technique that is popular for language learning. The idea is that you’ll see a new word a number of times during a lesson, but for words you’ve already learned, you see them much less frequently, just enough to keep from forgetting them.

Here’s how I incorporate this idea:

When I go through a stack of flashcards and hit a card I know so well that I have immediate recall when I see the prompt, I put that card in a separate stack that I’ll only go through once a week or so. Again, the goal is to not waste time going through flashcards that I’ve already memorized.

These are the stacks of flashcards I used:

  • Stacks of cards that I try to see daily or every couple days for the cards I’m still learning
  • A weekly stack that I know really well but still want to see infrequently
  • A stack of cards that I’m comfortable that I don’t need to see again

Over time, the goal is to have the cards move from the daily stack to the stack of cards that I don’t need to see again. A day or two before the exam I’ll go through ALL the cards in the last stack, just to make sure that I’m still all set with them.

Technique 3 - Teaching an imaginary classroom

In the past I used to just go through flashcards by looking at the prompt, then thinking about what the answer is and if I recalled the answer, I moved on.

Over time I realized that this approach just isn’t all that effective. For my fellowship exams I did the following instead:

First, I read the prompt out loud.

- If I know the answer, I say it out loud - If I don’t know the answer, then I read the back out loud and then I take it a step further and explain the answer aloud as if I was teaching a class.

Basically, what this looks like is me walking around my apartment, looking at flashcards and explaining different actuarial concepts aloud to an imaginary group of people. If people saw me, they'd probably think I was crazy, but it worked.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Let’s say I’m looking at a Brosius flashcard:

I read aloud: “When is the Least Squares method appropriate to use?"

Thinking: Hmmm. Can’t remember that one. Something to do with the book of business being stable. Not sure.

*Flip the card over*

Reading aloud: “Appropriate if there is a series of years of data and can assume a common distribution for X and Y losses. Fluctuations are due to randomness."

Explain aloud: “So, when we look at a set of data, it’s important that there aren’t systematic changes to the book of business such as a mix shift in the book. Least Squares works when the data as of two different development periods (X and Y) have stable distributions. Also, if there’s significant premium growth over the years, we should probably use loss ratios for the method instead of straight losses."

If you’ve never done this before, it will probably seem a bit awkward and if someone was watching you do it, they’d probably think you’re a bit on the crazy side. BUT, trust me, you’ll learn the flashcards a lot quicker and you'll understand the material better for those Blooms problems than you would if you just look at the front, shrug your shoulders, then look at the back and move on.

When you just look at the card, all you’re doing is reading. Your brain is much more engaged if you’re reading a flashcard, saying what’s on it, listening to yourself say what’s on the card and then teaching the material (or pretending to!). This is because teaching helps you learn a topic a lot better than just studying it yourself.

Now, I’m guessing you won’t find a captive audience that wants to learn about a Brosius paper that was written a couple decades ago about an esoteric insurance reserving method. BUT, you can still simulate this by acting as if you were teaching.

Find out what works for you

It’s a lot easier to just pick up a stack of flashcards and flip through them. However, I’ve found that there are much more efficient ways to learn flashcards than doing this.

Try these three techniques and see if they work for you. Ultimately the goal is to learn the material as efficiently and effectively as possible so that you’re not wasting all your free time doing flashcards.