Why should you use flashcards when studying for the CFA level 1 exam? Most of us can find more fun things to do with our time than writing and revising flashcards, but they are super efficient when attempting to drill the most important concepts into our brain and even more importantly enabling our brain to recall the information at will exactly when we need it.

I am sure you have had the experience of your thoughts running wild while you are attempting to read something. This phenomenon is particularly common when whatever you are reading doesn’t really capture your interest. If you are in a relationship you have probably experienced the same concept when he/she goes on about whatever topic you are not interested in. The mind has this wonderful ability to selectively block out “boring” information and fill in the space with more entertaining thoughts… 🙂 While this may work brilliantly in saving you from having to listen to boring conversation it is a two-edged sword as it unfortunately also works to help you not remember boring CFA material as well…

Our best weapon in keeping our mind engaged with the material is to ask ourselves questions. Our brains love questions and it is nearly impossible for our brain to wander off if we have just asked it a question. This is why you will find me promoting question practice all over this website. E.g. I really believe that practicing end of chapter questions is one of the keys to efficiently learning and recalling the CFA level 1 curriculum with the smallest investment of time and effort. Creating and revising flashcards is another means of forcing your brain to ask and answer questions. Most of us are able to learn enough information to pass the exam (unless we don’t put in the hours), but for many of us the problem is not learning enough, it is being able to recall the relevant information at will and quickly when prompted to do so during the exam. Creating and revising flashcards will help improve your skills to do so in a targeted way.

Should you purchase or produce your own flashcards?

There are several different ways for you to obtain flashcards. The easiest is probably to purchase a set of ready-made flashcards from one of the study providers. While this is time-efficient it has two disadvantages.

  1. You do not get to decide what is going to be on the flashcards, and the study provider may well have left out some important concepts, formulas, LOS etc. that you would otherwise have covered.
  2. You cut out part of the learning process by not defining and seeking out the answers to the flashcards yourself. The time you spend creating flashcards is not wasted, it could be argued that creating flashcards is one of the most efficient ways to study the curriculum. It forces you to define questions (to put at the front of the cards) and answers (to put at the back of the cards), and engages your mind to really pay attention to the most important information at hand.

As a result when I sat the level 1 test I went through the painstaking process of creating my own flashcards for each reading, and I think these flashcards was one of the most important steps in me passing the test.

How to use flashcards efficiently

I am going to share the method I used to create and revise flashcards when studying for the test. Now I do clearly not profess to have discovered the only way to use flashcards efficiently, but hopefully it will be instructive if I share my approach, then you can adapt it to your personal circumstances.

  1. As I progressed through the curriculum I would write the relevant LOS (Learning Outcome Statements) on the front of individual flashcards before starting any of the 60 readings (There is 529 LOS so we are already talking about a lot of cardboard!).
  2. Now irrespective if you are studying the reading in the underlying curriculum or using a study guide by one of the many providers out there, I would look out for answers to my LOS as I progressed through the reading. I would then pause and write the answer on the flip side, I would also note the book number, page number, reading number and LOS number for ease of reference when getting to the revision process.
  3. I would then look out for any key concepts, formulas and/or lists not covered by the LOS and create individual flashcards for these also with the name on the front and the definition, formula, list etc. on the back. I would also make sure to include the book number, page number and reading number on these cards and keep them in a separate pile from the LOS flashcards. Maybe if you can get cards in two different colors it will make the process of separation easier.
  4. Now as I went through my day I would always carry a stack of flashcards relevant to the current topic area of study, and I would use any spare moment to revise the cards. I particularly found this a productive use of my time during my daily commute and during lunch time (Yeah, you do not really have a life while studying for the CFA). As discussed at the beginning of this post the act of having to search your mental databank for an answer before flipping the flashcard trains your brain to be able to quickly retrieve the core concepts of the CFA program at will, when they would otherwise have been buried under 3000 pages worth of content. While revising the flashcards I would make a small mark on those cards that I personally found particularly challenging to answer. It shouldn’t be too difficult to see why this information would be priceless come revision time.
  5. If you have spent any time on this site you will know that I promote scheduling at least 4 weeks for revision before the exam after you have completed the curriculum. It is during the revision time that your flashcards are really going to pay their dividends. Granted you have gone through the process of creating flashcards for all LOS, key concepts, formulas and lists in the curriculum, you have now got a very powerful revision tool that will help refresh and focus your memory on the most important information out of the 3000 pages worth of content. At this stage of the process more than ever you need to train your ability to recall the most important information quickly. During my revision process I would split the stacks of flashcards into 3 piles covering 2 books each, and work my way through these 3 piles again during the first 3 weeks of my revision process. At this stage it is very helpful to have the challenging flashcards marked out (and with page numbers) so you can focus your attention spending a bit of extra time revising the information that you personally find most challenging.

Cardboard or smartphone?

Now if you decide to do so also, you are still left with the choice if you are going to create the flashcards in the traditional way on individual pieces of cardboard, or if you are going to use one of the literally 100s of smartphone apps that offer you the ability to do the same on your phone.

Call me “old-school” but I created all of my flashcards on individual pieces of cardboard. My biggest hang-up with the smartphone apps, is that I have yet to find a flashcard app on my phone that supports formulas with ease. If you are aware of one, you would be doing everyone a favor listing it in the comments below! The benefit of having the flashcards on your phone is that your phone is always with you, and you can revise your flashcards at any moment (standing in the supermarket queue, on your commute or whenever you have got a spare moment) without looking like a total geek :-).

I hope I have convinced you why you should use flashcards as a vital part of your study plan for the CFA level 1. If you have any questions please let me know in the comments below.