Tech Tools Can Provide Premade Flashcards For Students. That’s Not a Good Thing, Says New Research

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Using a tech tool that provides premade flashcards is not the best way for students to prepare for a test, according to new research. 

In five out of six experiments, researchers found that participants, who were undergraduate college students, learned more when they generated their own flashcards than when they used premade flashcards, and in some cases, a lot more. 

“A typical advantage was about 10% better test performance, which is roughly equivalent to a letter grade,” says Steven C. Pan, the lead author of this research on flashcard use published in December in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

In one experiment, participants who generated flashcards on their own performed 25% better than those who used premade flashcards. This research leaves no doubt in Pan’s mind that students are better off making their own. 

“If a student uses an existing flashcard set, then they are robbing themselves of the learning opportunities that can arise from making their own flashcard sets,” says Pan, who is the director of the Learning Sciences Laboratory at the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore. 

Why Are Student-Generated Flashcards More Effective? 

“Probably the biggest reason is that generating flashcards provides opportunities to engage in generative learning activities,” Pan says. “Generative learning activities require learners to curate, organize, or elaborate upon the information that is to be learned. Doing so can provide opportunities for extra cognitive processing of that information, which helps learning.” 

This didn’t happen for students in Pan’s experiment who studied premade flashcards. “There was no need to engage in any generative learning at all,” he says. “That resulted in a more passive approach to learning which was usually less effective.” 

What Does This Mean For Flashcard Generating Tools?  

Many digital tools offer premade flashcard sets, while AI tools can also make flashcards on demand. The thinking is that by eliminating the time spent generating flashcards, students will be able to focus on studying, but that logic might be flawed. 

"Avoiding the need to generate one's own flashcards is often touted as an advantage of online flashcard platforms. It now appears that advantage is greatly overstated,” Pan says. 

However, some digital platforms let users generate their own flashcards, which may be a better way for students to utilize these tools. “Our research suggests that an effective way to use tools like Quizlet is to generate one's own flashcards first, then practice with them,” Pan says. 

Additionally, premade digital flashcard sets can vary in quality. “In some cases, they are very well made, but in other cases, they contain inaccuracies or even outright misinformation,” Pan says. “That raises another potential advantage of generating one's own flashcards: quality control.” 

What About Paper vs. Digital Flashcards?

“There is an ongoing debate regarding whether reading on paper versus digitally is better for learning,” Pan says. “Although we did not specifically compare paper versus digital flashcards, the most important factor appears to be whether students generate the content on the cards or not.” 

However, by their nature, paper flashcards have to be self-generated by students. “In that sense, by using paper flashcards, one may be less susceptible to the temptation to use pre-generated flashcard sets,” Pan says. 

Any Tips for Creating Effective Flashcards? 

Part of what Pan’s research sought to untangle was which methods for creating flashcards were most effective, and looked at several different flashcard generation methods, including copying-and-pasting, paraphrasing, and example generation. 

"Paraphrasing, turned out to be the most effective, beating even example generation," he says. 

The least effective was copy-and-paste, in which students transcribed what was written in a textbook word for word. This was the only method studied in which generating flashcards didn’t provide a significant advantage. “That approach required devoting time and effort to the act of transcribing, which does not appear to be a very productive learning activity, plus did not involve learners coming up with their own content,” Pan says. 

Teachers can encourage their students to make the most of these findings by making their own flashcards and putting the information into their own words as they do. 

“Instead of transcribing information directly from a textbook or other source, students should study that information, try to understand it, and then, based on what they now know, generate original content, in their own words, for their flashcards,” he says. “Then, using those flashcards, they can engage in retrieval practice, self-testing, followed by checking the correct answers.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.