Are Flashcards an Effective Learning Tool? [INFOGRAPHIC]

You probably remember that kid from high school who was always shuffling through his scribbled-upon notecards before a big test. Perhaps you were (or are) that kid. Flashcards – both the traditional and digital types – have become the subject of much debate among educators. So are they actually an effective learning tool?

The infographic below was inspired by the recent launch of our new iPhone app featuring photo flashcards. In it, we take a look at several of the benefits that go hand-in-hand with this form of study, as well as some of the criticisms raised by the ELT community.

Where do you stand? Are you a flashcard friend or foe? Ready, set, debate!

(Click Image To Enlarge)

Creative Commons License

About The Research Behind This Infographic

In addition to using the sources listed on the infographic, we anonymously polled 175 language teachers and students about their views on the effectiveness of flashcards. To explore the feedback we received, download the flashcard poll summary [PDF].

Use This Infographic In Your Class

We think that infographics are an awesome learning and teaching tool, so our creations will always be available for you to print out, use with your students and embed on your blog!

[embedbox http://voxy.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/voxy-infographic-are-flashcards-effective-565x3531.jpg]

Warm-Up Discussion

Before handing out the infographic, discuss the following questions with your students:

Flashcard Preferences

  • Do you ever use flashcards?
  • Do you think that flashcards are an effective learning tool? Why or why not?

Learning Styles

  • Do you believe in learner types – e.g. that some people learn better by seeing, others by listening and still others by doing?
  • How do you learn best?

Listening Activity

Have your students watch and listen to Kirsten Winkler’s interview of Greg Detre from Memrise on the neuroscience of flashcards. Ask them to jot down all of the reasons why Detre thinks that “flashcards are great.” Once students have finished viewing the video and putting their thoughts on paper, compile a complete list of reasons on the board. Ask your students whether they agree or disagree with what they have heard in the video.

Speaking & Critical Thinking Practice

  • Why is studying with flashcards such a popular technique?
  • What goes on in our brains when we use flashcards?
  • Explain why it’s important to always space your studying.
  • Interpret the following quote as it relates to learning a language with flashcards:
    “Vocabulary knowledge is largely a question of accumulating individual items.” -Scott Thornbury
  • Summarize the arguments against the use of flashcards. What points, if any, would you add to this list?

Writing Challenge

Ask your students to write an essay or blog post in which they comment on the debate surrounding the effectiveness of flashcards as a learning and teaching tool. In addition to discussing their personal experiences, they should reference the infographic and the feedback from our anonymous ELT poll about the effectiveness of flashcards.

For more ideas on how to use infographics in your classroom, take a look at the New York Times’ Data Visualized: More on Teaching With Infographics.

Related Blog Posts, Articles and Links from the field of ELT

12 thoughts on “Are Flashcards an Effective Learning Tool? [INFOGRAPHIC]

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic infographic! This is so useful for the ESL-Library team. I’ll share this with our subscribers via FB and twitter. The Flashcard app looks really great. Thanks Voxy team! 

  2. Tom Carlson says:

    really useful stuff.
    All of the weaknesses of flashcards mentioned in the criticisms above can be corrected for or at least mitigated by proper card design and implementing an appropriate spacing regimen, e.g. spiraling. Here are some card-design DOs and DON’Ts:
    * Don’t use single words; use whole sentences with a blank for the word or expression you’re trying to learn.
    * Don’t use abstractions or dictionary-style definitions; use example sentences that are based on actual events in the learner’s life. This helps to involve episodic memory as well.
    * Learners should produce their own cards. No teacher or publisher can guess for them what words they really are going to need or which they find most difficult – nor should we try to take the responsibility for directing their learning away from the learner. (I am speaking about adult learners here.)
    * Ideally, cards should be made so that the blank on one side can only have one possible answer. Otherwise the card is too confusing or limiting. For example, if on the back of the card I have “How are you?”, I can’t use just “Hi. __________” on the front, as there are a million other things I might say after “Hi”. I could improve the card by having speaker A and B on the front and with a little portion of the the phrase to be learned:
    A: “Hi, Dave. _______ _______ you?”
    B: “Fine, thanks. And you?”
    * There is almost never a reason to use a translation card. Use a picture, a phrase you already know, some person or place you associate with the word to be learned. Be creative. And avoid translating one-word-for-one-word.
    * spiraling – (This is a procedure point, not a design point) on the poster above it mentions the benefits of spacing out repetitions. Spiraling harnesses the workings of your neurons, specifically the decreasing rate of stimulation decay after successive repetitions, to give optimal spacing. Computers can definitely keep track of this sort of thing better than people, but I don’t know of any programs that do this well. (Do any of you know any?) Using spiraling, a learner would repeat a new word, say, a few hours after first exposure, then a day later, then maybe two days later, then four, then eight, then 14, etc. You get the idea – ever-increasing intervals of time. This catches the stimulation level within the neural network that holds the memory of the bit of language just as it’s decaying too low to be easily recalled. The repetition brings the level of stimulation back up to near the firing threshold, making it easy to recall again. The spacing stretches the length of time you can hold the word in your active vocabulary holster a little bit further each time, giving you an optimal recall effect over time.

    Hope these comments were useful. I’d love to read your reactions.

  3. Erik Andersen says:

    I’ve been learning German for over 2 years now and while I don’t think flashcards are a fantastic way of learning all vocabulary, I think they are a necessary part of any language learning mix. You need to find some way to actually list and remind yourself of words that you are learning as part of your other learning techniques… reading, audio, video, etc…. and then study them to reinforce them. I use flashcards on my iPad and iPhone to have them readily to hand and study them when I travel, when I’m waiting and in many other ‘down time’ situations.

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