Life After Flash Cards: How to Upgrade an Old Teaching Approach


Ah, flash cards. They’ve been around for many generations. A trusty old teaching approach to practice fact fluency. Some teachers love them… while others truly despise them. Are they as bad as some think? Let’s explore the pros and cons of using flashcards to teach math facts in the classroom.

Are Flashcards Bad?

All throughout college, I was taught that using flash cards was a bad thing. Flash cards promote a shallow level of learning. Students who learn math facts using flash cards won’t have a good understanding of the concept behind the skill. Flash cards don’t allow students to apply their conceptual knowledge to any higher order mission. Flash cards can be stifling. Flash cards are lazy. Flash cards are outdated. Flash cards are not effective teaching tools.

And I agree with all of that.

I don’t use flash cards to teach anything.  I agree that flash cards are not an effective way to introduce math skills. I use hands on activities with concrete examples to demonstrate and practice new math skills. I strongly believe in learning by doing. My students must master the mathematical concepts long before they get their hands on a set of flash cards.

Then Why Use Them?

So why use them at all, you ask? Because ultimately, we do have to memorize the basic math facts.  Wait! Don’t scroll away! Hear me out.

Have you ever seen a 7th grader counting on their fingers to solve 13 - 8? I have. Or a high schooler drawing little dots on their paper to add 9 + 4? I’ve seen that too.  Maybe you know some adults who still an extra moment to do simple math facts in their head. Raise your hand if calculating the tip in a restaurant gives you anxiety. 

That’s okay to use those tricks and to take an extra moment if you need to. But how much easier (and less embarrassing) would it be if you just knew the answer right away?

I’m not saying that teachers should devote a large amount of time to flash cards. Not at all. In fact, just the opposite.

I used flash cards any time we had a few minutes until the bell rang. I allowed my class to practice their math facts using Flip Cards. I gave them the choice of practicing on their own or in pairs.

Wait, What Are Flip Cards?

Flip Cards are like flash cards with a twist. Each card has a number in the center. Pinch the number you want to add, then flip the card over… Your finger will be pointing to the answer! On the opposite side is the subtraction version.

So to solve 5 + 8, you’d pinch 8 and flip to find 13. On the opposite side, you could solve 13 – 5, by pinching 13 and then flipping to find 8. Cool, right?

My students named them our Magic Math Cards because they were amazed by them! You can get Addition/ Subtraction Flip Cards, the Multiplication/ Division set, or the whole Bundle in my Exceptional Thinkers TPT shop.

A Word on Mad Minute Activities

Sometimes after practicing with our Flip Cards, we’d do a Mad Minute activity. And what a difference we saw over time! Each time we completed a Mad Minute sheet, each student would set a goal for themselves for next time. We approached Mad Minute as an opportunity to push ourselves further throughout the year.

If you haven’t heard of Mad Minute, it’s when students complete as many math facts as they can in a given time. Some students absolutely LOVE it, while others get nervous at the thought of it. If a student decides to opt out, allow them that choice. If you’re going to do Mad Minute in your classroom, I think it’s important to set it up to be a fun, no pressure activity.

Say It With Me: Fun... Not Stressful.

Students competed against themselves, and not anyone else. It was just for fun and if anyone wanted to opt out of Mad Minute, they were welcome to continue practicing with their Flip Cards.

I had different levels available for students to move up through. They even graphed their progress on a data sheet to show their growth over time (All of these sheets are included in my Flip Card Resources).

Math Fact Automaticity is a Good Thing.

So while rote memory tasks may not be a good way to teach a new math skill, they could serve as beneficial review and reinforcement activities. It’s okay to sprinkle them in once in a while! You’ll be amazed at the difference a few minutes here and there could make!

Incorporate some extra review with those basic math facts… and maybe your students won’t become the adults at the table squirming when the check comes. If only we all had those math facts down pat. Maybe I need to go practice with some Flip Cards

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