Paper flashcards: Overview

If you don't like computers, you can track your facts with paper flashcards.

If you really want to keep what you learn, you need to commit to a daily program of spaced repetition. But if you’re not excited about all that extra time in front of a computer, take heart. Research on spaced repetition began in the 19th century, so obviously, it’s possible to do this with paper flashcards.

Personally, I used paper flashcards for many months. It wasn’t so bad, but since I use computers for so many other things, I eventually gravitated towards a flashcard program.

The big downside of paper flashcards is that you need to track them yourself. Here’s how I did it.

Make paper flashcards with index cards, or cut computer printouts into cards.

Normal printer paper works fine. You could also try perforated card stock, but it’s pricey.

Track the cards with small sticky notes.

Attach a sticky note to each “batch” of cards you review together.

You could do this for every single card, but I found that I could do batches of cards, and it was a lot faster. (On the flip side, if you do record the tracking data on each card, you won’t lose your work if you drop the cards and they get shuffled.)

You can use letters to indicate which review you’re on. The first review is A, the second B, etc. See the schedule of reviews. Each batch needs both the current review, and the current due date.

After you review a batch of cards, cross out the letter and the due date on the note.

Usually, that date is today’s date, unless you’re behind.

You calculate the letter and date for the next review.

If you just did B, the next review is C, the 3rd review. You check the schedule for the 3rd review, and find that it is “1 week”.

So you write a C, and the date for one week from today. That’s the next due date.

Note that instead of grading on Again to Easy, like in Anki, you only grade right or wrong. I mean, you could try to calculate different review intervals, but I was way too lazy for that.

If you get a card wrong, you simply keep that card at the front, and refile the rest of the batch. Now the card you need to see again will be waiting at your next review, and you can add it to your next batch of new cards.

Refile this batch in the row of cards, at its new due date

Since the row is ordered by date, it’s easy to find the place to file it. Put the batch between the cards dated before it and the cards dated after it.

The newest cards are first. So the batches due are always at the front.

So the basic routine: review the cards, grade yourself, re-date them, and refile them.

Paper flashcards may be more work (and hard to back up), but they have some advantages

  • You can carry them anywhere, and they don’t depend on computers.
  • It’s easier to rearrange them, and highlight or draw on them.
  • You can also try both ways, and see which you prefer.

Possible catastrophes?

I never did figure out how to back up my paper cards. In general, paper data is probably much safer than electronic data that isn’t backed up, but that’s not absolute.

What I really worried about was knocking over the whole case of cards. Only the first card of each batch would have its attached sticky note. But with a good case, that’s not really that likely. I used an excellent old metal case I found at a library book sale.

In theory, you could lay out all the cards on a table every month or so and photograph the lot. But really, using paper flashcards is a commitment to the paper way of doing things — you trade off easy backups for other advantages. If you try it, let me know how it goes.