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  • Writer's pictureAllison Sheardy

Flashcard Flashbacks

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

As the day my fate is decided looms ever nearer (the most dramatic way possible of saying, I'm desperate for my WSET exam results!), I find myself reflecting on the months (ahem, years) leading up to this point. As the May exams grew closer, my attention shifted from cramming wine knowledge into my brain that was already at full capacity to a focus on test prep and strategy. I spent time chatting with my study group at length about different study methods and what worked well for them. When it comes down to it, there are a lot of approaches one can take and there isn't a 'one size fits all' answer. If something is working for you, go with it!

I started my WSET journey with flashcards -- back in 2015, studying for Level 2 (little did I know what I was getting myself into) -- and continued to use them to the bitter end. Flashcards are ideal for WSET Level 2 and most of Level 3, which focus on memorization of facts more than anything. When you're talking about Diploma, things get a little dicey. The reality is: WSET wants you to be able to write an in-depth essay that connects theory to resulting style, quality, and price, and that is going to take a lot deeper approach than simple surface level memorization. That said, the more facts you can throw in to support your answers, the better -- each could gain an extra much-needed point -- and that is where flashcards shine. I will forever promote flashcards, even if its not the most sophisticated method, because they worked for me.

For each level, and then for each unit within Diploma, I would read the text provided by the WSET and hand write on index cards as I went. Sometimes there would simply be a heading and then some background info, sometimes I wrote it as a question, but the format was relatively the same across the board. I never got as fancy as color coding or anything beyond this very simple format.

I would review the cards daily, usually separating out the ones I felt confident on from the ones that needed work. It was great if I have friends or family visiting to practice with; I always feel that speaking the answer out loud is more effective than going over it in your head.

This method worked great and got me through Levels 2 and 3, and all of the Diploma units with the exception of D3: Still Wines of the World, aka The Beast. This is where my WSET journey got a bit sidetracked. Up until last spring, I had gone immediately from Level 2 to 3 to Diploma, and all of the units, one right after another. I guess I thrive on the momentum. I was scheduled for my final Diploma exam, D3, in May of 2020 and had been working fairly diligently on preparing. Then a little pandemic happened, and the May exams got cancelled. Alright, now I had a few extra months to study up for the October exams. It just so happened that I started a new job last summer and was closing on my house right when the exams were scheduled, so I had to delay again. The WSET decided to offer January D3 exams due to all of the cancellations, so I planned on that...and then mere weeks before, it was also cancelled (COVID was back in full force at that point). I was now scheduled for May 2021, exactly a year after my original exam date.

All of this was frustrating (I am SO ready for it all to be over), but there are a few silver linings. First, I found the study group that I ended up working with until exam time, and that was game changing. We zoomed weekly and covered material as well as strategy ideas. I also got to partake in a tasting series, which helped me feel confident for that section of the exam. The school I went through also offered some strategy seminars in the weeks leading up to the exams. All of this was extremely helpful, and resources I didn't have available before this -- and I truly feel they made a huge difference. Regardless of outcome, I could not have felt more prepared walking into that exam room in May, and that was a huge confidence booster.

Okay great, but what does this have to do with flashcards? We've gotten completely off track...kind of. So, leading up to my original exam date, I followed my usual prep and created flashcards for D3. I'm not exaggerating when I say there are thousands of these things floating around my office now. One of the downsides of flashcards is how precious they are -- you have one copy of a bunch of pieces of paper and it has taken months to create. A spill (likely, knowing me) could easily set you back months. I started thinking about alternatives and settled on Quizlet, a website and app that allows you to create cards and well as utilize cards that others have created. The delays gave me time to transcribe all of my cards. I organized them into 'sets' based on country and/or sub-region and kept them in a folder. I created a second folder and as I mastered a set, I moved it over so I could easily focus on my weakest areas. I also added sets that others had created if applicable. Now my cards were with me at all times via my phone, and I could practice during work breaks, on the couch, standing in a long line at the store...

They say that adult learners learn best when presented with the information multiple times and in different formats. This ended up doing exactly that for me -- I read the material, wrote it, typed it, and re-read it. Quizlet also has games and different ways of presenting the cards for deeper memorization. Do I know the max yield of every DOC in Italy? No. But even now, a couple months later, I am surprised by the information I've retained so far. I will continue to utilize cards for any future exams (I already am, in fact, for the French Wine Scholar, which is truly about factual memorization).

My Quizlet folder can be found here for anyone that is interested. I haven't gone back and created sets and folders for previous levels and exams; however, I still have all of my original cards and definitely could if there is demand for that. My disclaimer: there are some incomplete cards, cards from others that I haven't fact-checked, and more than a fair share of typos. The core of the information is very solid though, and it may be helpful for some.

More posts to come on WSET, my journey, and test strategy -- you know, if I don't have a heart attack waiting for results in the meantime.

The flashcard bin: I am not exaggerating at all when I say thousands of cards!

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