Using Flashcards for the Architect Registration Exam.

architecture registration exam flashcards

This post is part of a series on NCARB’s Architecture Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architecture Registration Exam Series.

Architecture Registration Exam Flashcards to Study? 

Are you using them? If not, I want to encourage you to maybe try using them.

When I took the Architect Registration Exam making, using and obsessing over my flashcards became fundamental to uploading the massive amount of information into my head. After around my 2nd test, I realized that flashcards were a very powerful tool and I relied on them a lot. Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some tools work a lot better for some than others. The real power is finding the learning systems, processes and techniques that are the most effective and using what works to get these exams behind you.  

How I Learn

From my experiences growing up, architectuure school and taking the exams. This is what I learned about my learning process…

Step 1. I need to care. If I don’t care, then I need to brainwash myself into genuinely caring about the material. Treat it as if it’s the most important exciting information in the world.  I used to constantly remind myself that taking these exams was making me a better architect, person and a contributor to the greater good.  Ask yourself: Why are you doing this? Why do you care?

Step 2. When reading material that is highly technical or dry (Ballast), I need to mark up, highlight, underline whatever it is I’m trying to extract from that information. Basically, strip away all the extra words.

Step 3. I need to rewrite the the information in my own words and make them my own. Kaplan sometimes has an awkward way of saying it with more words than necessary.

Step 4. This is the most important step, I need to genuinely think about it. I would try to think about it in a context outside of the book or its application in real life. Are you reading the material, but not stopping to actually thinking about it?

Step 5 Keep revisiting it and thinking about. Multiply the frequency I would think about that topic.

That is my formula for learning, when I feel I have better things to do.

Notebooks vs Flashcards

When I started studying I used to read Ballast and keep a notebook of all the important notes that I needed to memorize. As I refined my study method, I started to realize that the notebook was the worst place to keep this information. This was the problem I was having:

  • The 8.5 x 11 format of the notebook just felt too formal for the onslaught of data I was trying to digest. It also wasn’t very accessible.
  • I would frequently fill pages with a lots of information that wasn’t directly related to each other. 1 page with several big ideas on it, would confuse me. The chronology of how the information was captured on the page also didn’t help.
  • Your friend JennyPDX already created a beautiful set of notes for the exam. She already did the leg work of extracting all the key information. Why spend time recreating her masterpiece and not focus more on getting it into your head? (disclaimer… Jenny’s notes are awesome, but they aren’t a substitute for actually reading the books and learning the material)

The self-guided process of studying for the ARE is drastically different then what studying was like for lecture style classes in architect school. Very quickly, I abandoned using the notebook and started keeping everything on flashcards without ever looking back.

Ballast Architecture Registration Exam Manual   Ballast Architecture Registration Exam Manual

The Flashcards win.

I used to buy big stacks of blank 3 x 5 flashcards, used the office hole-puncher to put a hole in the top left corner and then keep them bound by a giant metal ring.

flashcards           metal ring

Anytime I saw something I didn’t already know, but needed to learn, it became a flashcard. That was how I decided what gets put on a card. All of the terms, concepts, ideas, definitions, formulas, etc.  I just put it on a flashcard and added it to the pile. Flashcards allowed me to extract the important stuff from everything else on the page and to think about it independently. Whereas, Ballast is soo concentrated it has too many big (hard to digest) ideas on a single page. To kickoff each new test I would first go after Ballast & Kaplan to extract all of the definitions, formulas and key information into flashcards, before actually reading the material. Definitions were always a good place for me to start. If I could get those nailed down sooner then later, it made the studying a lot easier as I dived into it. I also didn’t need to carry around that 4lb Ballast book, that really only contained 1/7th of the information applicable to what I was actually working on.

Flashcards everywhere! Hundreds of them!

I kept flashcards everywhere. I used to review them while I waited for and rode the bus to work, in the office, in my various coat pockets or book bags and maybe sometimes (dare I say it?)… I would look at them in the bathroom. I stuffed my books with blank flashcards, just in case I saw something that needed to be memorized later. About once a week or so, I would go through huge stacks of flashcards and find all of the cards I hadn’t fully digested, so I could work on them a bit more.

Please excuse my stressed out handwriting.
Never thought I would share this info with the public.

The Kaplan and Archiflash Flashcards 

When I started studying for my first exam (CDS), I checked out the Kaplan Flashcards that my AIA had available to ARE candidates. Those cards were for ARE 3.1 and I learned that the Kaplan Flashcards are nothing more than the glossary for each division, but on a glossy card. This is what inspired me to start making my own flashcards. I thought to myself, “Great, I could just make these myself in a language that I can understand.” I have never actually used the Archiflash cards. I became so obsessed with making my own cards, that I was in my own world. I never paid them any attention. Many people have spoken very highly of them. I’m sure they are worth checking out. If you have any experience with Archiflash, can you please comment below and share your thoughts?

Just do what works

Passing these exams is an enormous endeavor. Whether flashcards are for you or not, is basically irrelevant. Anyone who is struggling with these exams needs to examine what is and isn’t working with how they are studying. There are a million different ways you can learn this stuff, so try different ways of studying and put all of your resources into what actually works for you. The definition of insanity is: “Doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.” You don’t need to go insane. Good luck! Keep studying! You’re doing a great job!


Read the full series This post is part of a series on NCARB's Architect Registration Exam. Having recently completed this long process, the series examines my journey and the various things I learned along the way. Click here to see all the posts of my Architect Registration Exam Series.

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Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, Founder and Head Coach of the ARE Boot Camp Coaching Program & Online Study Group.

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