On Flash Cards

One of the things parents of gifted kids get accused of a lot is forcing flashcards on their children.  In reality, that doesn’t happen a whole lot.  Gifted kids tend to learn to read and count without flashcards.  Many of them learn basic arithmetic and other facts just through repetition in day to day school stuff.

However, flashcards do have their place.

DC1 is ready to move on from 2nd grade math to 3rd grade.  There’s all sorts of neat new things to learn.  Unfortunately we started hitting perfectionist melt-down road-blocks.  DH finally figured out that these melt-downs were happening when multiplication was involved.  Coincidentally, DC1’s end of the year report-card came with a note to practice DC1’s multiplication facts over the summer.  (She also sent a reading fluency workbook that ze loved so much ze’s finished it, links to suggested booklists, and some handwriting practice.)

So I sat down and had a chat with DC1 about maybe learning hir times tables this summer.  At first ze was resistant, but I explained that when I was in 2nd or maybe 3rd grade, I had trouble with my times tables too and my mom had to eventually sit me down and drill me with them until I got them.  (And then I became the fastest in the class, sometimes tying with but usually beating another kid named Ahmed at Around the World, but I didn’t tell DC1 that.  Competition is out these days.)  I’ve also helped tons of people learn their times tables with flash cards, including DC1’s aunt.  So grudgingly ze agreed to try, and I promised ze’d know the times tables by the end of the summer, which was 2 months off.  Ze figured that was a good goal and was a little excited by it.

Day 1 went smoothly with DC1 giggling at already knowing all the times 0s.  Day 2 with the times 1s went similarly.  We had a few hiccups with times 2s on day 3, especially with 12.  Anytime ze didn’t know one, we’d stop and figure out how to get the answer.  Then I would put it back in the pack randomly.  If ze didn’t get it a second time, I’d put it back in the pack one card away so ze would see it again almost immediately.  We’d go through the entire deck once, removing cards ze got immediately and repeating cards ze got wrong or took time to get until the entire deck was gone through correctly and immediately.  The cards that ze didn’t know right away would show up the next day too as review.

On the times 3s, we had to take a break, but got through.  Ze started being able to figure out how to get 3*6 if ze already knew 3*5 using the techniques we’d used for times twos.

On the times 4s, we had a full blown melt-down.  Tears, daddy-intervention cuddles time, not knowing, snack breaks, the whole thing.  Horrible.  But when cajoled back, I showed hir 7*4 (a sticking point), and ze said immediately “28, but I’m just guessing”, and then 4*4 was “16 but I’m just guessing” and we explained that that’s how memorization works.  It was truly a lightbulb moment for DC1 and ze flipped through the times 4s as if ze had always known them.  Suddenly they were easy.  Ze ran off to get quizzed by DH, who was appropriately impressed.  “I’m just guessing and I get the answer,” DC1 explained.

Next day times 5s, which ze mostly knew and could easily figure out on hir own via skip counting.  A couple of the times 4s still giving trouble, but nothing major– more like 4*3 = 16 no? 12.

Times 6s were mostly unfamiliar (starting with 6*6, but reviewing 0-5*6), but we got through them without any fussing.  DC1 had gone through a mindset change, the likes of which ze probably hasn’t done since learning to ride a bike or finally being able to swim.  (Both of which happened long enough ago ze may not really remember.)  Ze realized that ze could do the seemingly impossible if ze just worked at it and practiced enough.

Next day we took a break from new numbers in order to clear out all the legacy times that could use more review.  To my surprise, after the first go-round only 6*6 remained.  DC1 was very proud of hirself and eager to do the times 7s the next day.  We also spent two days on the times 7s, with only one remaining.

And so on until we got through the times 12s.  (Honesty compels me to admit another small meltdown on the times 8s, though not as bad as the 4s.)  Then general review through all the cards, keeping the ones ze didn’t know automatically.  Then the pages of multiplication tables the teacher sent home, 5 minutes a day.

And now we can go onto more interesting math stuff.

So… flashcards.  Much maligned, but useful.  Even rote memorization can sometimes teach a real lesson about persistence and growth.

Do you have strong feelings about flash cards one way or another?

46 Responses to “On Flash Cards”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I don’t have feelings about flash cards, but I sure as f*cke do about learning the times tables! I hated memorizing them with the passion of a billion suns. In second grade they gave us times tables worksheet packets, and I so wanted to avoid them, that I attempted to flush mine down the toilet. It clogged and flooded the classroom. Much shame and opprobrium ensued.

    • chacha1 Says:

      The one time I got in trouble at school, it was because (in 3rd grade) I didn’t bring back an initialed sheet of 3x. Mom’s fault, but I was the one who got hauled out in the hall and paddled. So I have multiplication trauma too. :-)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        paddled(!) OMG, corporal punishment.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Yeah. For the grievous crime of not bringing back an initialed piece of paper to prove that my parent had seen my class assignment, an 8-yr-old got hit several times by an adult.

        South Georgia, 1974.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:


        School districts in my state actually do have the option of corporal punishment (which is odd because if you foster a kid, you do not have that option… I wonder if teachers can hit foster kids…), but it is an opt-in thing… the school district has to opt-in and the parent has to sign a paper saying they’re ok with it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Turns out teachers CAN beat foster kids, even though foster parents cannot. The CPS requests that foster parents request that teachers do not, and if the teachers are not amenable, CPS will make a direct request on the child’s behalf, but the school does not have to abide by it. Ah, red state 2013.

  2. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    I don’t have feelings about flash cards either, but this brought back memories—pleasant ones. I also struggled with times tables, so after third grade my mother worked with me all summer. Every day she made up a worksheet with multiplication problems on it, and when I finished it I had a treat, which varied. Sometimes it was a piece of candy (some gummy thing I loved then but loathe now), or a small toy like something to add to my dolls’ house, but my favorite was when she’d draw a paper doll at the bottom of the worksheet, so I had it in front of me while I worked, and when I was done she’d cut it out and make some clothes for it. Once it was the mouse Miss Bianca, from Margery Sharpe’s children’s books (The Rescuers, etc—if you don’t know them, I bet you’d like them). Since my relationship with my mother was so strained later, it’s nice to remember the childhood days, when she really was at her best. We had fun, then.

  3. Kellen Says:

    Ehh, times tables in adult life seem to be something that it’s embarrassing to not have memorized if a quick calculation comes up in conversation, but I would still recommend using a calculator rather than relying on memory when doing a math test or say, a tax calculation for a client, rather than relying on the faulty human brain. Also, in my experience as an auditor, interestingly, of all the people I deal with, the people who work in the warehouse are the best at doing addition and multiplication in their heads, since it’s something they do more frequently since they have to count inventory. And I will write down the counts and do the math on paper, and check with a calculator, since my job is to make 100% sure I have the right number.

    Anyway. I like flash cards in general. I’ve found that for learning foreign languages say, skipping the flash cards to learn it more organically does not do me any favors. Using the flash cards enough, the words are in my head when I need them later.

  4. Chelsea Says:

    That’s how I learned them. I remember taking them with me wherever we went so my parents could quiz me. I’m sure it wasn’t my 8-year-old idea of fun, but I don’t remember it being too traumatic. And I honestly can’t think of how else you would learn them.

    As a side note, I studied a lot of math in college, and the best study aid I ever had was a dry erase board I’d use to write a proof, erase, write it again, erase, and on and on until I knew it.

  5. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I’ve probably got ten sets of flash cards that people have bought my kids. I always forget I have them! I should probably break those suckers out. Can’t hurt anything!

  6. Steph Says:

    I remember doing multiplication and other math flashcards, but whether I was doing them because I (or my sister or cousin) needed them, or because I thought they were fun, I don’t recall. I think it might have been just for fun – the three of us liked educational trivia stuff. I don’t think we went above 10, because I still struggle with 12s. And I still use the finger trick to check my 9s on a occasion.

    I made flashcards for myself when I got older. It was really only helpful for foreign language vocab though. With other subjects I realized it was the repetition of writing it down that was helping me, and less reviewing them, so I went to loose-leaf for that.

    Flashcards are definitely helpful for anything that is straight-up memorization, which is an area I struggle mightily with. Understanding why you’re using them is helpful though – it’s to get the basic building-blocks into your head so its there for instant recall, so you can move on to the more complex stuff.

  7. Cloud Says:

    I have no recollection of how I learned my multiplication tables, although I’d guess using pen and paper, since I’ve always been best at memorizing if write things down over and over.

    I think somethings are good to memorize. However, somethings I don’t get the point of memorizing- like glycolysis and the periodic table- two things I had to memorize in college. In the glycolysis case, I could push electrons around and basically derive the cycle on the test (which I did, to the great amusement of the TAs). The periodic table I could derive some things, but other things just had to be memorized and that really annoyed me. I thought it was a colossal waste of time. I still don’t know what benefit it was supposed to bring.

    On flash cards- we use them to help learn languages, and the kids love them. It is a primarily kid-driven exercise.

  8. bogart Says:

    I have no objections to flashcards, am a fan of rote memorization for things that need to be memorized (multiplication tables, verb conjugations), and recognize them as a useful tool for such.

    Dullest comment ever! Plus I only used one set of parentheses (probably a record low for me) (oh, wait(!)).

  9. Undine Says:

    I liked flashcards back then and still do for languages and math. What other exercise gives you an instant win, time after time after time? It’s like playing cards, except that you get to control the outcome.

    I think we used to chant out the times tables in class, too, because sometimes when I’m multiplying in my head I can hear an echo of it.

  10. plantingourpennies Says:

    I always hated actual flash cards, but if I wrote everything down on a single sheet of paper I would remember it. I would do the column of problems and fold back the answer column to test myself.

    We had multiplication speed tests, which were a huge motivator in getting it down pat. I think the time limit was 30 seconds, maybe a minute? But week 1 was the ones table, week 2, 2’s, etc. with the problems in random order. If you didn’t score a 100%, you had to repeat it the next week and everyone could tell repeaters since we had different colored paper for each of the “tables”. It only took one or two people repeating for it to be evident that you wanted to get it perfect the first time. The final test for the unit was a big test with a mix of all the tables.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s definitely a good way to self-test.

      People are really down on the speed tests these days too. I’m not really sure why. I mean, they’ll explain why and how speed is irrelevant and so on, but I don’t really see how it does any actual harm. (It doesn’t even take much instructional time away from other things.) I’m a fan of overlearning things so they stick.

  11. chacha1 Says:

    I know there were flash cards in my past. :-) “Rote memorization” is simply the best (IMO!) way to store up a supply of data that does not, or should not, require active thought – like 2×6 = ?. Well done.

    This is, of course, also a useful lesson on persistence & repetition. The world would be a better place if fewer people gave up the first time they didn’t know the answer.

  12. Debbie M Says:

    I love your explanation that being able to guess right is what memorization is all about. You can know the answer without knowing why it’s true, how it was derived, what the root words mean, etc. Awesome point.

    I have always hated memorization and will do pretty much anything I can to escape it. For example, I haven’t memorized what 6 + 8 is, but that’s because I can remember that it’s the same as doubling the number in the middle (7 + 7) and I have memorized that one. And with 8 + [other things], I just take 2 off the other thing and add that answer to 10.

    And my dad taught me how to not memorize 9’s, though I now prefer this even more elegant technique: Put up your ten fingers and whatever you’re multiplying 9 by (say 3), count over to that (3rd) finger and fold it down. Now how many are on the starting side (2 fingers) are the first digit and however many are on the other side (7 fingers) are the second digit (answer = 27). Fortunately, I never had to learn past the 9’s (which is all I think you have to memorize anyway), though my mother did have to learn through the 12’s.

    However, it really is awesome to just magically guess things right all the time and so I have recently decided that I should occasionally memorize another new thing like a new account number or a new license plate.

    And for when you have to memorize huge piles of things, like foreign languages, I love flash cards. And that’s because once I know something, I can take them out of the pile so my study time can be pretty efficient. But normally I don’t feel like making flash cards, so instead I put things on a sheet of paper and fold one side over the part I am trying to learn. I hear there are electronic versions that scientifically decide what to show you next based on how often you’ve gotten it right lately–that seems the best of all.

    I always hated 6, 7, and 8 on the multiplication tables. I learned 8 x 8 by a teacher asking me when I wasn’t paying attention: “Blah blah blah. Debbie?” “What?” “Well, what is it?” “What?” “Eight times eight!” “Uh.” “It’s sixty four!” Burnt into my memory forever.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I bet you have your x11 memorized. :)

      DC1 loves that trick for x9. Me, I do X-1, 9-that in my head each time. (3×9 = (3-1) (9-2))

      • Debbie M Says:

        I still have to think about 11 x 12, but yes, I do know the other ones! And I have 12 x 12 memorized.

        The 9’s trick you do is the way my dad taught me. The digits always add up to 9!

  13. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I’m surprised there aren’t any comments about how flashcards are bad. I hope we haven’t silenced our readership on this particular issue. (There are issues we want to silence dissenting views on, like say, misogyny, but flash cards aren’t on that list.)

  14. What Now? Says:

    Congrats to DC1! How fabulous to set a goal and reach it — well done!

  15. GMP Says:

    I come from a different educational system and we didn’t have flash cards at all. I didn’t hear of them until I came to the US. Of course, we still had to learn the multiplication table but I think there was a sheet or something. I honestly don’t know how we did it, but we did end up memorizing it.
    Anyway, I see my eldest using them, and they do send a sheet to cut out math facts for our kindergartner, so I supposed they are considered a useful tool in elementary education.

    Here’s an anecdote from my teaching experience. On a test last year (it’s a sophomore level course in a STEM field; I generally don’t make them memorize formulas, all the formulas are given on the test, but obviously the students had better seen them before the test or they will be of little use). Two students who I know are friends and study together and sat close to one another in the test had the exact same error on the test. I automatically suspected cheating, but had them come into my office together so we could discuss their results, and I asked what I should think about the two of them having this very unique mistake. One of them pulled out his flashcards and they said that the two of them learned off of the cards for the test; I flipped through the cards and, lo and behold, there was the mistake — they wrote the formula incorrectly on the flashcard and then they both memorized it. I told them to bring the cards before the next test so I can check them; it’s such a waste of effort to cram the wrong thing! Although I really don’t think for this particular course flashcards are at all necessary or useful, these guys seemed to like that as a studying method.

    • Sarah Says:

      In grad school I once studied polymer science on flashcards…..while driving my car 4 hours on interstate to visit my boyfriend (now husband). Effective and worth it. Bit unsafe.

  16. oilandgarlic Says:

    I don’t find flashcards useful and I don’t think I learned multiplication that way. However, if it works for some people, go for it.

  17. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    I learned the times tables because in second grade we had this thing going where you had to get through 30 problems in 90 seconds. First addition, then subtraction, then multiplication, then division. I had a bit of a competition going with (perhaps) the smartest boy in the class. I wanted to get through all the different problem sets first. I did.

  18. Leah Says:

    My parents had a neat plastic grid thing, large and grey. There were bright, multicolored tabs for each number on the top and left side. For 6×6, you’d lift the tabs and see 36 show up in the appropriate area. I was first introduced to this as a game to play in the car, and I somehow seemed to learn my times table in a fairly effortless way. That is to say, I don’t remember learning them, so I assume I learned them sometime early on in my memory. I remember doing times drill sheets in class and racing the other kids. I usually did pretty darn well.

  19. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I believe we learned tables by repetition. My mom would drill us all the time– in the car, in the kitchen, etc. Eldest was having issues with them and we got him on some multiplication games on the Nexus and that was it. I did a few of them to see if he could beat my score (Eldest loves competition) and that really got him motivated.

  20. mareserinitatis Says:

    I’ve probably written excessively on this topic, but my preference is to avoid flashcards and just give kids multiplication tables to reference as they do their problems. Older son wouldn’t sit still for flash cards, and he did fine just referencing the table (and eventually memorizing it). Younger son, however, started going through his math curriculum rather quickly and we found he needed to memorize some facts. Lower numbers were easier, but this is what we did for the larger ones (http://cherishthescientist.net/2011/11/14/another-approach-to-multiplication/). He seems to be doing fine with it now…though he occasionally asks for affirmation that he’s computed something correctly.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s actually pretty much what we did but in addition to flash cards. And doing sevens can be built on once the sixes are memorized. We didn’t just give the numbers if ze didn’t know them. Ze had to figure them out. But you can’t figure out all the numbers easily unless you have a base, which you gave you son with the twos and so on. What you did is not very different.

  21. Ask the grumpies: Math practice and enrichment for different kinds of learners | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] facts, we don’t really know any solution for that other than practice.  Flashcards aren’t much fun, but they do cement facts and make later math […]

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