By: Karolina Woroniecka & Martin Bauknight
Why Flashcards Work
Did you know that flashcards have been around since the 1800s when paper became readily available to the average student? Since then, thousands (maybe millions) have used flashcards as a memory aid at some point in their educational careers. Over the last 30-40 years, researchers have taken a closer look at the effectiveness of flashcards and other learning techniques. The important concepts of “active learning” and “spaced repetition” were born through this research.
Active learning refers to any learning activity in which the student dynamically participates or interacts with the learning process (versus passively taking in information). This is why taking the time to create your own set of flashcards is so critical. Making your own flashcards (rather than using a premade deck) forces you to interact with the material, increasing your retention rate.
Spaced repetition is another reason flashcards are so effective. Spaced repetition involves reviewing the material at different intervals based on difficulty: more complex concepts are reviewed more frequently until they’re mastered, then reviewed again at progressively more spaced out intervals.
Spaced repetition is considered by many in medical education to be the best way to retain the vast amount of information needed to succeed on the USMLE Step exams. Essentially, repeatedly reviewing flashcards over longer intervals of time lifts the “forgetting curve” so students can better retain what they have learned.
Source: a depiction of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve derived from the research of Hermann Ebbinghaus from 1880 to 1885
Flashcards Meet Medical School
Medical students worldwide have become hooked on spaced repetition flashcards, facilitated by the release of the Anki app in 2006 (Anki is the Japanese word for “memorization”). Many medical students swear by Anki, and Anki’s popularity has largely been attributed to the fact that it is free to use and offers many high-quality flashcard decks for USMLE Step 1 and Step 2.
Anki is often used in tandem with First Aid and the UWorld question bank (QBank) to make flashcard sets based on the material being reviewed in each resource. However, UWorld, the QBank leader for USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK test preparation, recently launched its own Flashcards feature. Since then, many students have opted to stay within the UWorld platform to create and review their flashcards.
UWorld’s Flashcards Features
UWorld’s Flashcards have several unique features that make them particularly well suited to USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 prep. For example, a “Study” feature completely integrates UWorld’s Flashcards with the UWorld QBank, making creating flashcards simple and less time-consuming than having to switch between platforms. Take the following example:
Whenever you come across a classic presentation, a high-yield concept, or an exceptionally delicious bite of knowledge, you can just click the Flashcards pop-up window and add that content to a new or existing card in your deck. Of course, you can also copy and paste any written or visual content onto your card!
For students who use flashcards primarily to reinforce material from incorrect answers (detailed explanations), the UWorld Flashcards feature allows you to add proprietary UWorld images, tables, and charts featured in UWorld explanations to your flashcards. Given the high-quality images, tables, and charts featured within the UWorld explanations, directly incorporating that content into flashcards is beneficial.
As the screen captures above show, you can easily drop images and tables—each one worth a thousand words—into a flashcard, and you’ll never have to worry about finding it later!
UWorld’s Flashcards feature is user-friendly(significantly more so than Anki’s somewhat cumbersome HTML software). Being able to quickly browse, organize, edit, and review your flashcards is a huge timesaver and can save many headaches compared to trying to merge or manage Anki decks, especially if students are new to the Anki app and haven’t learned all its quirks.
Integrated Spaced Repetition
When it comes to reviewing, a favorite benefit of using UWorld’s Flashcards is the spaced repetition “Study” feature. Within “Study,” you can customize your settings to increase or decrease the frequency with which you see a particular card. For cards you feel like you’ve nailed, you can retire the card by reducing the frequency to zero.
On the other hand, you can increase the frequency of a card you are struggling with. While paring down your deck can sometimes be challenging, remember that this is your study experience—your deck should include the most high-yield facts for you!
Another important thing to remember about spaced repetition is that it only works if you’re dedicated and keep up with your cards. Unfortunately, our memory doesn’t like vacations: while it’s possible to catch up after taking a day or two off from our flashcards, if you take a whole week off (or, *gasp*, a month!), you will be digging yourself out of that hole for a long, long time.
The good news is that you don’t have to dedicate hours each day to flashcards. Instead, most students find that they can get through their decks during their downtime throughout the day—whether they’re commuting, on break between clinical duties, or stepping away from other learning content like QBanks or videos.
Reaping the Benefits
With all these benefits, the best reason to use UWorld’s Flashcards is undoubtedly to memorize and still retain UWorld question content. Yes, making your own flashcards is time consuming. But the benefits of doing so, tailored to the material you got wrong, are astronomical, especially if you start making the cards early (eg, during your first pass of UWorld in your first or second year of medical school).
Combining the merits of daily flashcard review with UWorld’s reputation as the industry’s gold standard, QBank will give you a highly effective combo you should take advantage of while studying for the USMLE. Consistently using the flashcards will facilitate the acquisition and retention of all the high-yield facts you’ll need to know to ensure that you’re not struggling to remember details on test day.