10 Tips for Effectively Using Flashcards in Medical Board Exam Preparation

July 17, 2023
No matter which exam you’re preparing for during residency, medical school, or PA school, flashcards can be a valuable tool when it comes to preparing for medical board exams, especially while balancing other responsibilities. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the benefits of using flashcards, provide tips for how to incorporate them into your board review, and walk through some sample flashcards.

Why Use Flashcards to Prepare for Boards?

Flashcards are a powerful way to optimize how you acquire and retain information for the time you put in. By condensing complex concepts into bite-sized, easily digestible pieces, flashcards provide a focused and structured approach to studying. You can use them in brief intermissions when you are between patients in clinic or wards, waiting for the OR to be prepped, or waiting for public transport to take you to the med center since a day of parking is more than your hourly wage.

The power of flashcards comes from something known as active recall, or remembering without a prompt or hint. It’s an effortful form of recollection that strengthens neural connections and enhances long-term retention. This means whether you’re a competitive resident looking to ace exams, or a busy trainee with the humble goal of passing your board exam, incorporating flashcards into your learning routine can boost your comprehension, speed up your learning process, and help you succeed with relative ease.

So, flashcards are no doubt a great study tool. But how should you use them, what should be on them, and how should they be organized? As they say, the devil is always in the details, so here are some tips for how to make the most of your flashcards when preparing for boards.

Tips for Using Flashcards to Study for Your Medical Boards

1. Create Your Own Flashcards 

Making your own flashcards allows you to actively engage with the material and reinforce your learning. It allows you to jot down important concepts, definitions, diagrams, mnemonics, or key points in a way that makes sense to you.

Of course, if you are too busy, you can take a mixed approach and use flashcards from a database, then create your own for topics you struggled with. That way, you can customize the cards and focus on topics you need to spend more time on. This method will save you time in the long run, and help you internalize difficult concepts. 

2. Keep Them Concise 

Flashcards work best when they contain bite-sized pieces of information. Avoid writing long paragraphs or complex explanations. Use bullet points, keywords, or short phrases to keep the content concise and easily digestible. You can also input images, diagrams, or algorithms if that suits you. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a few example cards that are brief yet effective!)

3. Focus on High-Yield Topics You Struggle With 

Identify the high-yield topics or frequently-tested areas on the medical board exam. Prioritize them when creating flashcards to ensure you allocate your study time effectively. This is particularly beneficial for medical topics that involve a significant amount of memorization.

By breaking down complex information into manageable chunks, flashcards help you focus on one concept or fact at a time. This targeted approach makes studying more efficient and helps prevent cognitive overload. 

Flashcards can be customized to address specific areas of knowledge that you struggle with the most. If you have identified certain topics or concepts that require improvement, you can create flashcards specifically tailored to those areas. By focusing on your weak points, you can dedicate more time and attention to mastering challenging material and improving your overall understanding.

4. Categorize and Organize Your Flash Cards 

Group your flashcards by subject, system, or topic. This helps you review specific areas of knowledge and maintain a structured study approach. Consider using different colored flashcards or dividers to visually separate different categories. Additionally, digital flashcard applications like Quizlet or Anki help to make organization a breeze. 

5. Utilize Active Recall 

Flashcards are most effective when you actively recall the information rather than simply read it. If there is a question on one side of a flashcard, try to answer it before flipping the card over. Actively retrieving information strengthens your memory and helps you identify areas that need further review.

6. Use a Flashcard System With Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a study technique that optimizes long-term retention by reviewing information at gradually increasing intervals. Flashcards are an ideal tool for implementing spaced repetition. When you review a flashcard, you can indicate how well you remembered the information. Based on your response, the flashcard system will adjust the interval until you review that card again. This approach ensures that you review the material just before you are likely to forget it, reinforcing your memory and enhancing long-term retention. Build daily flashcard review as a habit and you’ll eventually get through your flashcard deck with relative ease. 

7. Incorporate Different Formats 

Flashcards can be used for more than just simple question-and-answer formats. Try using them for case scenarios, clinical vignettes, or to compare and contrast different concepts. This variety will keep you engaged and help you apply knowledge in different contexts.

8. Use Them for Collaboration and Teaching 

Collaborating with others can enhance your learning experience. Exchange flashcards with classmates or form study groups where you take turns quizzing each other. This allows you to benefit from different perspectives and fill in gaps in your knowledge. Flashcards can be shared with colleagues or used for teaching purposes.

Explaining concepts to others or discussing flashcards with peers not only solidifies your own understanding but also promotes active learning in others. By teaching or discussing flashcards with colleagues, you engage in a process known as the protégé effect, where the act of teaching others deepens your own understanding and retention of the material.

9. Use Them to Track Your Progress 

Keep track of your performance and mark the flashcards based on how well you know them. Use different symbols or colors to indicate whether you answered them correctly or if they need further review. This helps you focus on areas that require more attention.

10. Be Sure to Take Them With You! 

You likely have a busy schedule and limited study time while balancing other responsibilities. Flashcard apps and actual cards are portable and can be carried with you wherever you go, allowing you to study during short breaks, while commuting, or during downtime at the hospital. This convenience enables you to make the most of your available study time and turn otherwise idle moments into productive learning opportunities.

Sample Board Review Flashcards

Before we wrap up, let’s take a look at a couple of flashcard examples, so you can get a better sense of how they can be used. For instance, here’s one for a high-yield topic in board exam prep:

Front side:

Which infections are treated with metronidazole? 

Back side:

Giardia, Entamoeba, Trichomonas, Gardnerella, Anaerobes, H. Pylori

Remember the mnemonic: GET GAP Metro

By using flashcards like this, you can test your knowledge and actively recall the uses for metronidazole. I like this card because it incorporates a mnemonic as well, which can make for faster learning and easier retention. This format allows you to quickly review the information. 

Here’s another example of a flashcard for studying a pediatric concept:

Front side:

What are the common signs and symptoms of croup?

Back side:

– Barking cough

– Hoarseness

– Inspiratory stridor (a high-pitched, musical sound heard during inspiration)

– Respiratory distress (e.g., retractions, tripoding, nasal flaring)

– Low-grade fever

– Sore throat

This flashcard helps you review the common signs and symptoms of croup, a common respiratory condition in pediatrics. By actively recalling this information, you can reinforce your knowledge and be better prepared for pediatric-related questions in your board exam.

Further Reading

Flashcards are particularly valuable for board exam preparation if you’re a busy student or resident. They condense complex topics into bite-sized information, making it easier to review and memorize essential facts. Flashcards enable focused and efficient review, allowing you to cover a wide range of topics in a relatively short amount of time. By repeatedly reviewing flashcards in the days leading up to the exam, you’ll reinforce your recall and increase your chances of success, especially if you use the tips above. 

As a final thought, it must be noted that while flashcards offer numerous benefits, they should be used in conjunction with other learning modalities. Be sure to combine flashcards with active reading, attending lectures, practicing clinical skills, and answering questions from a Qbank. All of the above will help you be ready for exam day!

If you’re interested in more (free!) content for your boards, check out these other articles:

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By Mike Ren, MD

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