Do Flashcards Really Work?

Ah, the humble flashcard. You may have memories of carrying a small stack of dog-eared flashcards in your hooded sweatshirt, cramming for that exam in a few spare minutes between classes.  You probably also remember feeling a little pride after doing rather well on the exam.   Let’s face it, flashcards work.  But why?  Are they really a good way to learn, or are they just for brute-force memorization that will be soon forgotten after the test?

The answer depends on what you are trying to learn. Flashcards are tremendously effective at a certain type of learning.  When you need to fill your head with bite-sized pieces of factual information like historical events or vocabulary words, nothing comes close to flashcards.  Why?  Here are a few reasons:

  1. Access: Flashcards are cheap, portable, and easy to use. No other educational tool provides the same value for the money, or the same level of accessibility. Not textbooks, software programs, classes, or audio books.
  2. Repetition: For memorization, repetition is essential. Flashcards also enable distributed practice, spreading out the study sessions to refresh the information at appropriate intervals to make sure it sticks. Cramming at the last minute before a test may get you through with a decent mark, however you will quickly lose what you learned. Periodic repetition is the only way to get the material to stick, and the better you know the material, the longer you can go between sessions.
  3. Practice testing: When you guess an answer and check whether it was correct, you are utilizing “metacognition”. You are assessing and reflecting upon how well you know the information. Research shows this kind of self-evaluation can promote long term retention.
  4. Active recall: When you look at a flashcard and try to remember the answer, you are engaging in active recall. Attempting to recall information greatly increases how well you will remember it again in the future, without any assistance from contextual clues. Repetition enhances this effect.
  5. Absence of context: The information is completely isolated, so you won’t be encumbered by context. For foreign language learning, you need not know anything about a language before using flashcards to build a foundation of useful words and proper pronunciation. Randomizing the order of the flashcards further helps to remove any contextual dependencies, such as remembering one vocabulary word because it always comes after another. When you hear these words spoken later, they will essentially be in random order, so it’s important to practice in random order as well since this is similar to the actual skill.
  6. Selective study: Flashcards can usually be sorted or pruned based on how well you know the information, allowing you to focus on the information you don’t know so well, and not wasting time and energy on information you already know. This ability to customize the study sessions can help optimize learning. Focusing on the more challenging flashcards helps to keep the learner engaged and in a state of active learning.
  7. Right Brain Learning: The absence of context allows flashcards to quickly imprint information using the right side of the brain which doesn’t scrutinize or resist new information the way the left brain does. The left brain is very good at making sense of what you already know, but it can get in the way of learning unfamiliar material like a new language. It tries to match the new patterns to ones your brain already knows, which can slow absorption and lead to poor results, like incorrect pronunciation. The right brain is amazing at learning fragments of information. Absorption and long-term retention are enhanced by utilizing images, sounds, or emotions which appeal to the right brain. Dragonfly Language Video Flashcards utilizes pictures, audio, and text for optimal learning.

Flashcards seem to be ideally suited for learning foreign language vocabulary. And by engaging the right-brain, the information will stay in your long term memory, and it won’t even seem like work.  So what’s the downside?  Well, you won’t learn a language.  You will learn words, lots and lots of words, but you can’t use them without getting your left brain into the game.  But much of learning a language is simply remembering all the words, and you simply can’t do this with left-brain techniques like reading a textbook.  The flashcards are fast-tracking your arsenal of words, so when you do know how to construct a sentence, you already have some words to call upon.  And with Dragonfly Language, it’s not just a few words, it’s over 1400 words.  That’s enough to read over 76% of an average written text!

In our Video Flashcards, we tried to preserve most of the advantages of traditional flashcards. The lessons review the words four times in three different orders. The quiz section allows you to test your memory (active recall), and the included booklet allows you to check your answers (metacognition). However there are some tradeoffs.  One disadvantage is you will need a mobile device to review them on-the-go, which will be harder than pulling a stack of cards out of a pocket.  Also you can’t sort the cards into stacks based on how well you know the words.  But the advantage is that you can leverage right-brain learning with the crisp stunning pictures and professional voice talents.  Another bonus is that you will think you are just watching TV, you won’t even realize you are learning.  This makes it easy to turn on for younger learners and homeschoolers.

Flashcards may seem antiquated and mundane, but sometimes a simple approach works best. They can be an incredibly powerful tool, and nothing beats Dragonfly Language Video Flashcards for teaching foreign language vocabulary.