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What are Flashcards and why they are a good tool for mobile learning?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What are Flashcards after all — just another learning medium or much more?

Put simply, a flashcard is a piece of card that has a cue or hint on the front side, and a corresponding answer on the back side. The cue can be a question, an image, or just one word that prompts or triggers an anticipated response. Anything that can be studied in a “question and answer” format can be literally turned into flashcards — from definitions, foreign language vocabularies, scientific symbols, historical dates and traffic signs, to countries and their respective capitals or currencies.

If you have, for example, a flashcard saying: “What is the capital of France?”

You would write “Paris” on the back side.

In this era of reduced human attention spans, flashcards work great for memory retention. You learn a piece of information and then read the question — trying to recall the answer — and then check if your answer was correct by flipping the card. So it’s not just the children who are enchanted with flashcards when they play their games, millennials find it incredibly engaging.

But the days of paper are over! Are Flashcards relevant in electronic & mobile age?

By the 1930s, the Oxford English Dictionary had made the word “flashcard” official and the learning tool started gaining so much educational and cultural traction that during the post-World War II years, companies like Milton Bradley started selling flashcards.

Soon flashcards became a key part of everyone’s education. The ability to flip back and forth between the card with self-quizzing made learning more fun than the times when students struggled to memorize long, printed text.

But then came the dot com boom in late 90’s and early 2000’s. And suddenly everything offline started migrating to online.

For better, of course. But there is no denying that in the beginning, it was tricky to ascertain what to do with flashcards. As a learning medium, it was far too engaging to let go and get sacrificed for the larger cause that came to make lives better with the letters www.

As it turned out, things evolved as a win-win situation on both ends. The flashcards eventually went on to take electronic avatar.

It took some time for parents and teachers to understand that computers and smartphones, that were earlier considered a distraction in education, could actually be leveraged for enhanced learning and studying. Technology hasn’t eliminated the resourcefulness of flashcards, it has upgraded new functionalities to the age-old method.

Today, online flashcards are a fad. You can use your mobile phone or tab to study a range of subjects in a more enchanting style using flashcard apps. You can now make your own presentations and decks in a way that is both appealing as well as informative. The high-tech algorithms embedded on these flashcard apps optimize your learning like never before.

Types of digital flashcards

Classic (the traditional flashcards) : Tap and flip

This is the digital version of the conventional flashcard we have always known since ages — what you see is a question which flips into answer soon as you tap it. Such classic flashcards have been known to aid in memory recollection.

Image and text: One hero image and a text or a paragraph

If I show you the image of Eiffel Tower, what’s the first thing that will come to your mind after seeing the photo? Of course, the name Eiffel Tower, right? And well, you could also go on to extrapolate and say how the monument is the pride of France, and that it was named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. This kind of image and text flashcard works great for visual learners.

Text and Video: Some text with a key message and a video

It’s not just the image that can be paired with the text (as shown above), digital flashcards could also come blended as text and video. So if you are reading text content on how Rutherford tried to find out the structure of an atom, and then you see a supportive video depicting his famous gold foil experiment, your mind is consuming the text and video format digital flashcard. And it works great!

Interactive: Click and reveal or drag and drop type

Probably the favorite pick among the four to many, such type of digital flashcards are a fad. Most of the websites have such click and reveal flashcard feature ingrained even on their product pages (for the simple reason that they look visually interactive, gamified and engaging). Here’s how such an interactive digital flashcard typically looks like:

Typical use-cases of Flashcards

There is no age limit to use flashcards — they can work as an engaging learning medium across ages 9 to 90:

  • they can be used to teach pre-school kids to count numbers and read alphabets
  • they can help adults learn foreign languages
  • they enable students memorize exam works (and for quick revisions specially)
  • one of the most important purpose for which flashcards can be used effectively is teaching children with disabilities, such as those with Down syndrome, to speak and read.
  • And now, they can also be used as a micro-learning tool for the distributed frontline learner (learn more about frontline employees here)

Flashcards and the psychology of “Active Recall”

Do you remember every single fact you’ve read in a text book? Most probably not! That is because when we read through something passively, our brains are not forced to think. Whereas, when we have to answer questions, our brains have no choice but to take one or other action. In using flashcards, our brains are kept constantly stimulated to actively recall information. This way the information is stored in our memories for a longer time.

Learning experts say active recall is one of the most powerful study strategy ever discovered.

According to Wikipedia:

“Active recall is a principle of efficient learning, which claims the need to actively stimulate memory during the learning process. It contrasts with passive review, in which the learning material is processed passively (e.g. by reading, watching, etc.).

For example, reading a text about George Washington, with no further action, is a passive review. Answering the question Who was the first US President? is active recall.”

Active recall is very efficient in consolidating long-term memory.”

Because you are attempting to remember the concept from scratch, active recall has been proven to create stronger neuron connections for a particular memory topic. And our brain can more easily retain that topic.

Scholars agree unanimously that when it comes to long-term memory retention, the process of repeated testing or active recall works far better than repeated studying or passive review. So keep quizzing yourself if you want to achieve your academic goals! This is also the reason why popular gamified learning platforms like Disprz frequently use quizzes and polls during and after the learning sessions.

Flashcards trigger “Metacognition” in your brain

Just like active recall, metacognitive processes have been proven to enhance long-term learning in human beings. Flashcards facilitate metacognitive faculties in our brain. But what does it mean?

When you try to unveil the answer side of a flashcard, you are mainly telling yourself “let me see how did my answer compare with this correct answer.” On that particular spur of the moment, you are curiously thinking “How well did I know (or not know) this answer?” This apparent act of self-reflection is known as metacognition. Studies all around the world have shown that metacognition helps ingrain memories deeper into the human brain.

Remember when your high school physics teacher used to suggest you to teach the same concept of buoyancy to one of your colleagues to test and see whether you have understood yourselves? The best way to learn a concept, they said, was to teach what you have gathered and known so far to somebody else. When you make flashcards, you are testing your own learning, by taking control of what to put on each card and how often to use them, followed by an assessment to check how well you know the information on each card. This is a scientifically optimized way to improve memory performance.

Just to Summarize

Flashcard is a classic study tool — one among the better practices through which our brains learn most effectively. Not only they help learners memorize facts quickly, they also enable long-term retention of information in human brain. Especially when it comes to reviewing concepts, nothing comes close to the effectiveness of flashcards.

While a lot has been said on how flashcards help students in the classic school education world, they are still an under exploited medium of learning when it comes to enterprise learning and training. A flashcard could keep employees engaged to an extent far more than traditional learning forms, being both informative as well as playful at the same time. Not to forget the fact that market attrition continues to be a harsh reality, and the average attention span of human beings is increasingly getting scarce. In this scenario, flashcards as a learning medium could keep employees significantly engaged longer, resulting in tangible business impact in the large picture.

The question is, are people going to stop using traditional flashcards any time soon? Well, technological advancements in the digital world could only make flashcards much more optimized and resourceful coming days. The relevance of flashcards is far from over. Start using the flashcard authoring feature of mobile learning platforms like Disprz to keep you engaged while learning new concepts using colourful, captivating, and interactive flashcards.

Subbu V

Co-founder and CEO of Disprz, the mobile learning company of 2017 and #3 small start-up to work for in 2017.

A serial entrepreneur, Subbu loves translating ideas to products and products to companies. His earlier two ventures were in the enterprise and ed-tech space. Subbu is an alum of IIT-Madras, ISB-Hyderabad and McKinsey.