Writing Good Flashcard Prompts

This work emerged from my (Gurjot’s) brief employment at a startup building a spaced-repitition system based ed-tech software.

Clear. Concise. Accurate. Interesting. Memorable.


  1. Cards must be
    • Small: focus on one atomic unit; be concise, remove unnecessary words
    • Connected personally: to pictures, sounds, context and/or personal details
    • Connected thematically: to related ideas and concepts
    • Meaningful: emotional investment is important
  2. Provide [[memory anchors]]. These can be emotional or personally intriguing.
  3. Prompts should encode ideas from multiple angles. Can be made possible with inter-subject, inter-class, inter-topic relations.
  4. Prompts should force [[active recall]].
    • Discourage pattern matching (in a chapter about Gandhi, most answers will be Gandhi)
    • Discourage cheap hints (“rhymes with parrot” - carrot)
    • Keep the language consistent so a hook is made
  5. Avoid orphan questions.
    • Avoid single questions that are largely disconnected from the subject
    • If it’s an important tangent, add at least 3-4 questions so it forms a meaningful chunk
  6. How to write lists
    1. Keep the list in the same order every time. This can build a “visual shape recall”.
    2. Break large lists into smaller meaningful sub-categories, i.e., create bunches of items in the list.
    3. Provide memory hooks that require effort to recall, not simple “rhymes with” hints.
  7. Cloze tips
    1. Keep it atomic, maintain the order.
    2. The system should ask you to fill in more blanks simultaneously as performance on individual entries improves.
  8. Add meaningful prompts to figures Instead of just - “what does adiabatic curve look like?”, also add - “how does adiabatic curve differ from isothermal curve?” and “what are the x- and y-axis on an adiabatic curve?”
  9. User should have the option to permanently hide a card from the deck.. This should be done only for those cards that the user finds really elementary - so basic that they aren’t even worth putting in the furthest pile. Example: Class 10 student could hide a card about “Who was the first prime minister of India” or “how to calculate LCM of two numbers” This “hidden pile” will not be a part of practice/learn but can still be perused if desired.
  10. Spaced repetition review sessions often become boring and detached without a steady stream of new prompts
  11. Personalisation of flashcards. Flashcards work best when the content is personalised, i.e., it contains contextual information that acts as an memory anchor. However, that is limited by the constraint that the information has to be concisely presented. Conciseness can come from usage of acronyms and abbreviations. This too, however, works best when developed by the learner themselves because it acts as a personal memory anchor that does not require overt recall. To tackle this we have two options -
    1. Push users towards creation tools: When the user makes their own cards, they’ll learn better. But the problem is that practically everyone in India is unaware of flashcards + spaced repetition, so we need to show them what it is first.
    2. Show them how spaced rep can help: We need to give the user the best possible experience flashcards + spaced rep can offer for them to not only understand how they work but also appreciate their utility. For this to be possible it would be best if a small slice of content was chosen and worked on holistically.


  1. Andy Matuschak, “How to write good prompts: using spaced repetition to create understanding”
  2. Michael A. Nielsen, “Augmenting Long-term Memory”
  3. Andy Matuschak’s Notes
  4. Nicky Case, “How to remember anything forever-ish”
  5. Dr Piotr Wozniak, “Effective learning: Twenty rules of formulating knowledge”
  6. Scott Alexander, “Nonfiction Writing Advice”