In the relentless pace of EdTech and learning technologies, it can be refreshing to see old-school tools stand the test of time. Bright minds take every stab to revolutionize them, only to realize how dependable some simple tools can be.
Among them, flashcards deserve a special place. From being dismissed as part of a former era, today they enjoy a second coming thanks —mainly— to smartphones and LMS. They have also gained validation both from empirical research and the market, as they are arguably the technological basis for companies such as Cram.com and Quizlet. Furthermore, open source technologies and new algorithms have embraced and enhanced them, in ways that are increasingly accessible to teachers and learners everywhere.
One tool, countless approaches
There is not much to add to the description of a flashcard. It’s a set of cards with information on each side. We tend to think of the cards as having two sides, but on the digital realm we no longer have that limitation. One side of the card has a familiar term or a cue, expected to elicit a memory recall from the learner. The other side validates their recollection. Its primary use is to consolidate memorization, but research points out at two key insights:
- Memory is a fundamental component of pretty much every learning intervention.
- Activities aimed at increasing memory greatly benefit from practical and context-relevant activities.
When it comes to using them, the educator’s mind is the limit. Flashcards appear on recorded history as back as early as mid-XIX century. Its use would begin to spread throughout the 1930s with the idea of “Spaced Repetition.” A concept that remains relevant well into the XXI century. For most of the XX, the main implementation was the Leitner System:
- Sort the cards into numbered groups or “boxes.” The sorting could be random, by importance, popularity, difficulty, etc.
- Start practicing with box #1. If you guess the card right, put it on the next box.
- You can either move on to the next box after studying all the cards in the boxes, or after guessing every card in the current box before moving on.
- Completing the exercise depends on the “demotion” of the wrong guesses. You can either put them on box #1 or demote them one box.
The computer era brought a new wealth of arranging algorithms. Illustrative ones come from the SuperMemo app available since the late 1980s.
Continuously validated by scientific research…
The flashcards tool is often synonymous with the concept of “Spaced repetition,” itself tied to the origins of “evidence-based learning.” Ever since, flashcards have been close to academic research on memory and learning psychology.
One of the earliest insights of spaced repetition is the brain’s increased ability to recall a memory after subsequent attempts. Those attempts can be spread over time, the next gap bigger than the next. Spreading flashcard-based activities over time has a higher rate of success in terms of long-term retention than a single session of an equivalent length.
In short, flashcards are the night before cramming session’s best antidote.
Up until now, flashcard-related topics continue to be fertile ground for research. One of the brightest spots is neuroscience, probably because they are simple to implement on laboratory settings. Flashcards keep showing up in empirical research on topics:
- Starting with the building blocks of Memory: Encoding, Storage and Retrieval
- Encoding variability
- Processing, Distributed processing (including “Shuffling”) in particular
- Inductive learning
- The “Testing effect“
- Naturally, “Spaced repetition optimization“
…as well as the EdTech market, AI and all
A majority of the EdTech companies tackling issues such as memory and retention seem willing to “disrupt” every aspect of the common learning experience. Except, apparently, for the flashcards. You can see them across activities and games. The original company, SuperMemo, is still around, rebranded but with spaced repetition high atop its value proposition. Duolingo, another commonly regarded innovator, has even produced research that stands on the shoulders of spaced repetition with the catchy name of “Half-Life Regression.”
But the challenge remains: Will you get (them) to focus?
As a technology, no matter how AI-enhanced, flashcards will only be as effective as the implementation to which they are part. This means they can play a role, and while they can increase a given impact, they cannot be expected to “fix” a flawed approach or curricula. The converse is true: No matter how well executed flashcards are for your learning, their success is only statistically guaranteed. After all, the learning mind is still full of unknowns.
Which is not saying there are not clear practices that increased the odds of success:
- Promote the use of flashcards as a learning method, particularly as an antidote for cramming and last-minute. Even if your LMS does not support it, suggest apps or even physical flashcards
- Promote contextual repetition or examples in the cards, and combinations of concepts for higher levels of difficulty
- As a teacher, you can provide a set of cards, but outcomes increase if learners have an opportunity to add their own terms and understanding. They might still need your guidance, as in the case of the previous point
- If your course, program or curriculum includes a component on Study skills (and there’s little reason why you should not), take advantage of it to introduce flashcards and some practical use examples and apps. As the ones listed next.
Best flashcard app today? Look Open Source
For virtually every LMS: H5P
It is hard to find an easier and gorgeous implementation of flashcards than the H5P Flashcard content type. It might not offer some of the cool new features from other apps —not yet anyway— but chances are your LMS has H5P already set up, meaning your students have it already.
Creating a flashcard from your LMS could not be easier. Just add a new H5P Activity anywhere in your course, and select Flashcards from the list. If you have an H5P Flashcard package on your computer (You can download the example above by clicking on “Reuse”), just click the “Upload” option on top.
For brand new flashcards, the creation dialog is fairly simple and intuitive. You can embed any kind of multimedia on the sides of the card.
Looking beyond the LMS, Open Source wins the day again. Not only it is a free, multiplatform application in a lightweight database format and implementing SuperMemo’s SM2 algorithm; the great advantage of Anki is its wealthy library, which you can get from the app. A search item will give you
Anki cards support a variety of multimedia formats, including equations formatted in LaTeX. It is unicode compatible, which means it supports character sets from a large array of languages. It allows for more than 2 sides for the card.
It is most famous because of the role it played in Roger Craig’s run in the TV game show Jeopardy! where he earned upwards of $230,000 USD and set a series of records.
This simple but effective tool has the convenience to use PowerPoint files as the flashcards. It implements “intelligent,” but undisclosed algorithms. Besides being open source, it provides multiple media compatibility and easy export to a variety of formats, including Markdown.
References • Resources • ‘Ripples’
- H5P Interactive Content Type — Flashcards tutorial
- Interested in customizing the functionality of H5P Flashcards? Check out its GitHub page at github.com/h5p/h5p-flashcards
- Check out a list of flashcards apps, open and proprietary, at Wikipedia
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