Flashcards vs. Quizlet in Nursing School: Which Should You Use?

Lot so nursing students rely on flashcards as a way to memorize the ludicrous amount of information you’re expected to cover before each exam. And in our modern digital age, you’ve got both paper or digital options…so which is best? (Spoiler…some people are going to get really mad at my answer!)

Back when I was in nursing school, all I had available were the 3×5 paper notecards: a pink line crossed the top, with light blue lining the rest of the card.If I wanted to get fancy, I might even purchase colored flashcards to color-code the information! Or if I was attempting to make my own drug cards, I’d find the larger 5×7 inch size so that I had more space for all the extra medication details.

Nowadays, those “old-fashioned” paper flashcards aren’t your only options…digital flashcards are easily accessible on your phone or computer. But are they worth it? Or are paper flashcards still the way to go?

Which type of flashcard will help you learn the nursing information best?

Flashcards vs. Quizlet: Which is Best for Nursing School?

I’ve got 2 answers, depending on my mood. When I’m feeling ornery, here is my opinion: neither one.

When I’m tutoring a nursing student, I give a more nuanced answer: it depends.

(I told you this was going to make some people angry…)

The reason is because flashcards are a very passive learning strategy, and one that WILL NOT help you learn to think like a nurse by itself. If you rely on flashcards to learn the information, then nursing school will get harder instead of easier as you go through school. And you run the very real risk of failing a class.

That’s because the way you’re testing in nursing school is NOT the same as you were tested in classes prior to nursing school. So if you only rely on memorization, it’s no surprise that you don’t understand what your test questions are really asking you, no matter how hard you studied.

But of course, that doesn’t mean you should never use memorization in Nursing School! The real secret to nursing school success is to know when to use memorization, and when to use other study strategies.

Understanding the Role of Memorization in Nursing School

Even though I literally hate rote memorization, there actually IS a need for it in nursing school. There is a certain foundation of new nursing knowledge (like basic A&P, lab tests, or how to do certain hands-on nursing skills) that you simply need to memorize so that you can build on it later.

The problem is that most nursing students also try to memorize the more advanced content (like symptoms or nursing care!) that needs to be understood. If you have trouble prioritizing nursing actions on exams, then you’re probably guilty of this yourself.

Don’t feel bad, almost every nursing student makes this mistake at some point. But the smart, successful nursing students notice when it’s not working and seek out new ways to study that are more effective.

So how do you know what you can memorize with flashcards, and what you need to study differently?

The “1:1 Flashcard Rule” for When to Use Flashcards

Here’s my rule for when to use flashcards to memorize nursing info, and when to find a different strategy: If the information you’re trying to learn has a 1:1 correspondence, you can use a flashcard. If it is not, then use a different method.

Examples of When to Use Nursing Flashcards

If you need to memorize new vocabulary or root word definitions, those are perfect for flashcards. One side of the card is the word, the other side of the card is the definition…that is clearly a “1:1” correspondence!

Other good options for flashcards are memorizing lab values (lab test name:normal range) or remembering the prototype drug for a specific drug class.

Examples of When to NOT Use Nursing Flashcards (SPOILER: not med cards!!)

Notice I did NOT mention “drug cards” as a good example for flashcards. Yes, I said it’s good to memorize the prototype drug and the drug class it belongs to, because that is a 1:1 fact correlation. However, trying to memorize the name of a drug…and then aaaaall the things you need to know about that drug (mechanism of action, therapeutic effects, complications, side effects, nursing care…) is waaaaay too much to include on a flashcard.

Drug cards can be used as a reference, but they are useless for memorizing the information if you want to do well in nursing school. There are better ways to study that type of advanced information.

So what are those better ways?

How to Learn to “Think Like a Nurse” and Develop Your Clinical Judgement

Once you know what you need to memorize to build your foundation of nursing knowledge, then it’s essential to move to “Phase 2” of studying so that you can practice thinking about that foundational nursing knowledge. That’s what we call “thinking like a nurse”, and it is the skill that will develop your clinical judgement the most.

You can’t do it unless you already have a solid foundation of knowledge about what normal is though, which is why memorization is still important for some things. But even “thinking about the foundational nursing knowledge” sounds rather abstract and overwhelming to most nursing students. It begs the serious question, “How?

That’s where my Silver Bullet Study System comes into play. It’s a simple 4-step method that I’ve found to be the best way for nursing students to study in nursing school. Step 1&2 guide you through exactly WHAT you need to know (aka, most of your memorization will happen in these two steps), then Steps 3&4 guide you through exactly HOW to THINK about that information.

The result is that you are carefully and easily guided to think the same way that experienced nurses think, without feeling overwhelmed or confused. And as you consistently study this way throughout your semester, you will automatically be improving your Clinical Judgement.

And Clinical Judgement is ultimately what you’re in Nursing School to learn, which means it is ultimately what you’re being tested on. So as your clinical judgement improves, your exam grades will automatically improve, too.

So What’s the Best Flashcard Format: Paper Flashcards or Quizlet?

The best flashcard format is whatever you prefer…assuming that you’re following the “1:1 Flashcard Rule”, of course.

Personally, I still prefer paper flashcards on the rare occasions that I still have to memorize information. I prefer the tactile feeling of having something in my hand to touch, and to be able to visually see the progress I’ve made as I begin to set flashcards aside in my “accurately memorized” pile.

I also find that it helps that I have to create them myself. The process of writing out my own flashcards, thinking through exactly how to phrase things into my own words (which is a useful active learning strategy, btw), amplifies the effectiveness of the flashcard memorization for me.

But if you don’t have time to create your own flashcards, or if you prefer the convenience of having digital flashcards available at all times on your phone (which you’re probably already carrying around, anyway), then Quizlet is an excellent option. You can already find a lot of pre-made sets of digital flashcards that have been created by other nursing students. Some are even based off of the vocabulary lists in the textbook you’re probably already using!

Either way, as long as you make sure to stay faithful to the “1:1 Flashcard Rule” anytime you try to memorize important nursing content that way, you should be good to go.

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