Flashcards: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Flashcards: most wine and spirits students use them; many despise them. As for myself, like most educators, I have a love/hate relationship with flashcards. Here’s why:

The Bad: Flashcards can be used solely for “rote memorization” and are often blamed for the trivialization of knowledge and an ensuing army of factoid-focused nerds.    

The Ugly: I know students who skip their reading assignments or their lectures—and dive straight into memorizing the cards.  These folks are robbing themselves of the opportunity to gain a true understanding of the subject matter.

And yet, flashcards can be an efficient and effective study method, which leads us to:

The Good: Flashcards utilize active recall and are a natural way to use spaced and targeted repetition. They are best used for fact-heavy (as opposed to concept-heavy) topics and as such, work well for vocabulary words, dates, regulations (aging requirements, grape[s] allowed in a certain product), numbers (yields, abv) and any manner of facts and figures. Flashcards also trigger your meta-cognitive faculties (did I get it right? yeah me!) which can help with attention and engagement. They’re bite-sized and portable, and a great way to use small bursts of time to study.

And…believe it or not—flashcards can, with a few tweaks, be useful for a deeper level of learning well beyond rote memorization, which leads us to:

The Excellent: Here are a few ideas for the most excellent use of flashcards:

Say the answers aloud: Whether reading, quizzing, summarizing, or flashcarding, studying out loud is always a good idea. As a more active form of study, it uses more senses (sight, hearing), and motor activity than just reading. This leads to better memory retention!

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Add in a bit of elaboration: Don’t just state—elaborate! Using hot pink or bright yellow cards, create a deck of “instructional” flashcards with questions. These questions, used alongside your fact-based cards, should encourage you to think a bit deeper on the topic at hand. To use, shuffle the decks together, placing an instructional card at intervals of 3 or 4 cards—or keep the decks separate and use an instructional card along with every few fact-based cards. Some wine-related examples of instructional questions might include:

  • Have you ever had this wine? If so, describe it. If not, describe a wine have you had that is similar.
  • What is unique about this wine/region/grape/place/regulation?
  • Is this regulation stricter or more lenient than most?
  • What region, city, or landmark is close to this area?
  • What is the quality/reputation/price point of the wine/region/place (whatever fits)?

You can keep this technique super-simple and in your head by asking yourself one of these cheeky questions after every other card:

  • Who cares?
  • So what?
  • And this matters why…?

In my opinion, this study technique destroys the flashcards-equal-factoids conceit. Boom.

Use Confidence-based Repetition: Confidence-based repetition allows you to focus on what you need to learn without spending valuable study time on things that you already know. Here’s how it works: as you go through a stack of cards, divide it into three piles depending on how confident you are in your knowledge, and as your revision progresses, concentrate on the material you don’t know well (or at all). You can label these three piles as follows: “I know it (heck yeah),” “I kind of know it (I’ve heard of it, but can’t remember it),” or “I don’t know it (I have no clue/WTF).” As you progress, your “don’t know” stacks will get smaller and smaller, and when your “I have no clue” pile is tiny, add those cards into your next stack and move on.

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Best practices for a pre-made/digital deck: If your subject matter is super-fact-heavy, a pre-made flashcard deck can save you time. But please-please-please make sure your deck comes from a reliable source (not a random stranger off the internet). Once you’ve determined your flashcards are legit, here’s an idea of how best to use them: run through a stack/section of flashcards one time to see how you do. If you miss nearly all of them, go back to some other forms of study and revision, and then try again. When you reach the point where you get at least half of them correct, copy down (make physical copies of) just the cards you missed and work from there.

Make your own cards: Creating your own cards is a form of active learning. It involves summarizing complex topics into concise statements, and at the very least requires you to write something down. Using new information (whether it be writing something, saying something, or creating something) triggers the production effect. This means that you are more apt to remember something that you personally made, did, or said. Heck, it’s now part of your life experience and more memorable than something that you just read or heard.

Stay excellent: Avoid the following flashcard foibles:

  • Wrong time: Do NOT be tempted to dive straight into the flashcards or (gasp!) attempt to use flashcards as a means of instruction. The proper use of flashcards is in the revision/review stage of learning—after the student has the “big picture” and a good understanding of the surrounding concepts.
  • Wrong subject: Flashcards are not the most effective study technique for complicated subject matter, concepts involving hierarchies, anything that requires a two-page flowchart, or subjects that are mired in debate and/or opinion. They are also not ideal for the study of geography…unless you paste (or draw) an actual picture or map on the flashcard.
  • Over-reliance: Flashcards are not a silver bullet to wine or spirits wisdom and should always be used in conjunction with other forms of study and revision.

In conclusion: if someone tells you that flashcards are a bad way to study, react in shock and surprise— pretend they just told you that they don’t like a good old-fashioned make-out session with someone they love. Just roll your eyes and tell them (in your best Marlene Dietrich voice), “well, dahling, you must be doing it wrong.”

Click here to check out the rest of our posts on “How to Study Wine and Spirits”

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

One Response to Flashcards: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Shields Hood says:

    OMG

    Great.

    Shields T. Hood
    General Manager
    Society of Wine Educators

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