Flashcard fatigue can be real. The prospect of grinding through your homemade or digital flashcard decks, seemingly everyday ad infinitum, takes a lot of discipline. And although effective (if following certain card-making rules), some students just don’t like using them.
So how do you study without flashcards?
The best ways to study without flashcards are by active reading or listening, writing questions instead of notes, and using the Feynman method to write/teach what you’re attempting to study. Couple these techniques with real question/problem practice for even more effectiveness.
If you’re unsure about what these techniques involve, don’t worry. We’ll get into all that here in this article. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- The best study techniques to use (that DON’T involve using flashcards)
- How you can study from notes, videos, or books and remember core concepts
- Smart ways to study (outside of the common techniques)
- If you can be successful studying without flashcards
Ready to get started? Let’s dive in.
List of study techniques (without flashcards)
Here are (based on my own learning philosophies developed while studying medicine) the best study techniques you can use that don’t involve making, buying, or downloading flashcards…
1. Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique, so-called thanks to the brilliant way the physicist and polymath Richard Feynman explained things, focuses on teaching or explaining concepts.
Obviously, you’ll need some input first (like reading or watching a text or lecture), but the act of then writing or drawing out what you’ve read, watched, or heard, helps you better understand and effectively remember it. As does coming up with a simple analogy to explain it.
Breaking this technique down into chunks; i.e. stopping every couple of minutes to summarize/explain what you’ve been studying, makes it easier. You can then tie all the pieces together at the end in one informative burst.
The key thing to remember with this technique is to keep it super simple.
Pretend the person you’re explaining it to is 5 years old. Think of the things they’d ask about the subject and do your best to answer them.
And if you can’t? There lies the beauty of this technique. It tests what you don’t fully know or understand yet from the thing you’re learning.
So go back, fill in the gaps in your knowledge and master the subject at hand.
Here’s a quick video explainer on how best to use the Feynman technique…
2. Active reading/listening
This is another similar technique that doesn’t call for flashcards. It involves actively paying attention to what you’re learning (regardless of the medium or source).
You might also see it called “critical reading” (very briefly explained here).
It could look like this for a textbook:
- Reading 2-3 paragraphs.
- Pausing (or closing the book) and summarizing out loud what you’ve just read.
- Stuck? Go back and read what you’ve missed.
- Repeat the process until you can fluidly explain the concept/idea without a prompt.
Of course, you can apply this to reading a YouTube video or listening to a podcast. It just involves hitting pause and then running through the same steps.
Yes, this takes a lot more mental energy (and time) than passively learning. But it’s exactly because of this that you’ll improve your understanding and save time on re-reading the same thing later.
The harder you tax your brain (or the more mental effort you go to), the better you’ll study, understand and recall.
3. Questions NOT notes
Instead of summarizing lectures or reading into notes, use questions instead. This is the foundational principle the Cornell Note Taking System is based on.
Aim to make these questions short and simple. And with only a short answer.
This is very close to making flashcards except you’re not actually making them. You’re instead breaking down lectures, classes, learning materials, etc. into the similar formatting you’d use if you were to make flashcards.
The reason for making them into short questions is similar to the effectiveness of a “cloze” card. It makes it a lot better to understand and recall when you skim over the questions on a second or third pass.
Employing this process in your classes can help hugely when it comes to recalling concepts, and breaking more complex ideas down into smaller chunks that flow together.
You might even take these questions and put them in a big spreadsheet file or word document for later review.
4. Scoping the subject (then mind mapping)
A good place to first start your studying is by “scoping” out the subject.
Grab the syllabus. Look at the major points. Work out how they might group together. Form a big (but very superficial) picture of the entire subject.
You can also do this with YouTube-based learning by looking at playlists and the individual titles of videos. Or chapter headings in a book.
Attempting to map these out and piece them together on paper can be very beneficial to know where to “hook” each individual topic onto later (as you come to study them).
This is something popularized in Barbara Oakley’s course Learning How to Learn.
It’s also something that flashcards (esp. if they’re all jumbled up) are horrible at helping you achieve.
5. Practice questions/problems
The best remedy to not using flashcards is to instead hammer down on past paper questions, practice problems, and anything else that closely resembles your exams or tests.
You can even learn off questions as you go; paying close attention to answer paragraphs (important you find good sources).
The hardest task here is pushing through the difficulty. You’ll likely suck in the beginning but just sticking with it – and doing as many questions as you can – will lead to drastic improvements over time.
It’s often, for this reason, I argue skipping instructional texts/videos altogether, and heading straight for a good question bank or book.
How to study notes and remember them
I’ve talked a lot above about how to study notes and remember them. The core principles are to break lessons down into smaller chunks and assemble them together as you go.
Stopping frequently to explain principles aloud, coming up with simple analogies to visualize, and jotting down questions, can all help massively.
Just don’t re-write your notes.
And there’s also some nice scientific evidence that coffee (if you’re a regular drinker) can help.
How can I study smart?
As I mention in my article on how to study consistently, none of the techniques above are going to do much unless you develop the habit and routine to use them.
To study smart, you must do these things:
- Eat well
- Sleep well
- Study with zero distraction
- Study with effective techniques
- Study with a commitment to proven techniques (yes, that might mean abandoning flashcards)
- Begin well in advance
Every article or video you might ever read or watch on this question will revolve, for the most part, around these points.
There is no magic bullet. Just like flashcards are no magic bullet.
Will I fail if I don’t use flashcards?
100% no. People pass exams (without the use of flashcards) every day. Even really tough exams like the medical school admissions test (MCAT), or law, nursing, or engineering exams.
Is it better to study with flashcards?
Flashcards can be very effective. But they need to be formatted well to really work (the University of Maine has some good tips here).
The main reason for their effectiveness is that you can introduce spaced-repetition learning with them. This is an evidence-based learning technique that helps you with remembering things over the long term.
Still, despite these pros, flashcards are a personal choice.
Some students lean heavily on them, while others might make lighter use of them (or no use at all).
The techniques mentioned in this article can be both solid stand-alone study methods and good supplements to flashcard use.
Is there an app for flashcards?
There are a ton of apps. From subject-specific mobile apps to digital apps like Anki or Brainscape, and websites like Quizlet or Memrise.
The overwhelm of knowing what to choose/use is another good reason to avoid flashcards entirely.
Especially if you use your precious study time researching and learning how some of the above work!
What are the disadvantages of using flashcards?
The most obvious disadvantages include:
- Time spent making them
- Cost (if you buy pre-made decks)
- Fatigue (esp, if this is the ONLY way you choose to study)
- Ineffectiveness (if you don’t apply, or better conceptualize, what you learn)
There’s also the idea of misplaced trust. A lot of health and medical students use pre-made Anki decks for various subject areas (myself included). While these can save a ton of time and are free, they’re not always accurate or effectively formatted.
That means you could be learning incorrect facts that could trip you up on a real exam.
And this may also be true for any paid deck you might buy on Amazon (or a bookstore), no matter what subject you study.
So make sure you do your research into what the best flashcard decks are to use.
What approach is best for me?
The best way to figure this all out – and to know if studying without flashcards is right for you – is simple. You have to test it.
Take a low-stakes period (where you don’t have serious exams or commitments coming up) to try employing some of the techniques mentioned above one-by-one. Give each a good amount of time commitment (a dedicated study block) and get some initial feedback by attempting past papers, practice questions/problems, etc.
Be diligent with your approach. Be honest with the feedback. Reassess what techniques work (and what don’t).
Keep experimenting still you settle on something that gets results.
Not doing this is the MOST COMMON mistake average or poor students make.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.