Flashcards Get Smarter So You Can, Too
New digital versions make it easier to memorize material in spare minutes; learning Mandarin, first aid, art history
By Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal
The old-fashioned flashcard is taking on new, digital life with a promise to make you smarter and more productive.
New flashcard programs on your phone or computer make it possible to memorize facts and concepts in what were wasted minutes waiting in line at the store or commuting to work. Users say they put a world of knowledge tantalizingly within reach, including Mandarin to programming, math, nutrition, bird calls and the bar exam.
The programs are based on research showing that spaced repetition, or repeated exposure to information at planned intervals, is the most powerful way to fix knowledge in one’s memory. Each digital flashcard is repeated at intervals, based on the degree of difficulty for the user. The hardest quiz items come up for review within a few hours or days, and easier ones are repeated every few weeks or months—when the user may be about to forget the answer.
Eden Full uses a program called Anki to create about 200 flashcards that she reviews several times a week on her smartphone while waiting in line or riding the subway. She studies memorable quotes, new ideas, helpful writing techniques or photos of important business contacts, with prompts to recall the person’s name and some personal information. Ms. Full, New York, founder of SunSaluter, New York, a nonprofit provider of solar panel technology, says the program helps her remember concepts and strengthen ties with business partners.
“When you’re having a friendly conversation with someone who is genuinely important to you, maybe you want to remember the person has a dog named Sparky,” Ms. Full says. Once she has information firmly in mind, she discards the card.
Catherine Rankine, a structural engineer based in London, is using a spaced-repetition program called Skritter to learn Mandarin, in hopes of doing more work in China. She can study as many as 243 words or characters in 16 minutes on her smartphone during her commute, Ms. Rankine says. Her studies recently helped her complete a project in Shanghai, designing and installing a Fashion Week exhibit in front of a restaurant. “It would have been impossible to get the same results without communicating in Chinese,” she says.
Spaced-repetition programs started catching on several years ago among people studying languages and programming, and spread rapidly via blogs and word-of-mouth to people in many walks of life. Many basic flashcard programs are free and allow users to create their own sets of quiz items, using video, audio or graphics if they wish, or to use decks created by others.
Anki has been downloaded 2.5 million times since it was launched in 2006, including 850,000 installations in the past 12 months, says Damien Elmes of Sydney, Australia, the program’s creator. Nicolas Raoul, a Tokyo software engineer who developed AnkiDroid, a version of Anki for Android devices, in 2009, says the Android program has 1.5 million users. A program called the Janki Method, also based on Anki and developed by Jack Kinsella of Berlin, is for people learning to code. Anki is free for computers and on the Web, or $24.99 for the iPhone and iPad mobile app when purchased through the Apple store.
Other, more elaborate programs use spaced repetition in combination with other learning tools. London-based Memrise uses spaced repetition along with frequent testing, competitions among users, and memory-boosting tricks, such as showing users how to link facts they’re trying to learn with memorable images or things they already know. A user might connect the Spanish word “aburrido,” which means “boring,” for example, with a made-up sentence such as, “It’s boring to eat a burrito with every meal.”
Most programs rely on users to rate the difficulty of each quiz item by clicking on one of several buttons beneath each answer. Cerego, San Francisco, a program designed for use both in classrooms and by consumers, tracks the user’s performance item by item, measuring how long each answer takes and analyzing patterns of correct and incorrect responses, says Andrew Smith Lewis, co-founder and executive chairman. The program selects the items the user most needs to review, creates lessons based on them and graphs the user’s progress in each course.
The effectiveness of spaced-repetition programs has been documented in hundreds of studies dating back more than a century, says a 2012 study in Educational Psychology Review. Researchers and students began using spaced repetition with paper flashcards as early as the 1970s, employing a method called the Leitner system.
A memory is a pattern of connections between neurons that is formed by a person’s experience. One neuron can be part of many memory networks, and new memories are fragile. Taking in a lot of new information at once, whether via lectures, reading or cramming, can distort or erase recent memories. Recalling memories periodically, at increasing intervals, helps the brain encode them in lasting form.
Most conventional courses shower students with new material, test them and move on, and few textbooks include frequent reviews. Several spaced-repetition programs were founded by people frustrated by traditional teaching methods. Nick Winter of San Francisco co-founded Skritter in 2009 because studying Chinese in college was so difficult. “You spend eight hours a day in the classroom trying to learn facts, and after the semester is over you forget 98% of it—and all those years of your life are gone,” he says.
Researchers at Excelsior College are studying whether using Cerego can help students learn more in online math and biology classes, says Jason Bryer, a senior researcher at Excelsior College, Albany, N.Y. Preliminary results from a 2014 study of 1,000 students found those who used the program got better grades, compared with controls, Dr. Bryer says.
Use of spaced-repetition programs in the workplace is growing as professionals and managers try to keep pace with mounting demands to learn new information, technology and techniques. People use Memrise to improve their technical vocabulary in fields ranging from oil drilling to medicine, says Ed Cooke, chief executive officer of Memrise, whose memory skills and coaching were described in the book, “Moonwalking with Einstein.”
AnkiDroid’s Mr. Raoul says people use the program to pass licensing exams in such fields as nutrition or first aid. Some doctors create sets of quiz items on Cerego to recall the names and faces of all their residents, Mr. Smith Lewis says.
Others use flashcard programs for self-improvement. Spencer Greenberg of New York, founder of ClearerThinking.org, a website offering tools to help people improve their decision-making, uses a spaced-repetition system he created to remember tips on interviewing software engineers and making successful presentations.
Mr. Winter, co-founder of CodeCombat, a videogame that teaches programming, has created flashcards to remind him which vegetables he should buy only in organic form, such as kale, and the date his passport will expire.