Flashcards: Are online or hard copy better?

Travis Dixon Revision and Exam Preparation

Let's review the research on flashcards and see which format is better.

Flashcards are the best method for studying lots of content. But which is better – using digital (like Quizlet) or hard copy (like our IB Psych flashcards)? In this post we’ll review the research and see. 

Numerous studies have found benefits to using apps like Quizlet to improve memory, particularly for second language learners studying vocab. These studies do pre and post-tests and show that those who use flashcard apps show improvements in their vocabulary scores. However, these studies just compared the pre-test scores to post-test scores without having a control group. The aim of Sanosi’s (2018) experiment was to address this gap in the literature:

The effectiveness of Quizlet on learning (Sanosi, 2018): The aim of this experiment was to see if Quizlet was more effective than regular studying techniques when learning English vocabulary. The participants were 42 “low-level” male EFL learners at a Saudi Arabian college. After four weeks of studying an English EFL course, they were given a pre-test of English vocabulary, involving multiple-choice, matching, and gap-filling tests. They were then randomly allocated into one of two conditions. The experimental condition was encouraged to use Quizlet to study four assigned units both inside and outside of the classroom. The control group continued to study the course units in the regular teaching method using paraphrasing, pictures, and Arabic annotations of new words to learn the English vocabulary. The results showed that the Quizlet group showed better memory for the new vocabulary, going from 6.8/15 to 10.2/15. This is a 23% improvement. The control group improved from 6.9 to 7/15, a marginal (1%) improvement.

This experiment demonstrates a noticeable benefit for using Quizlet to study vocabulary. However, there are some obvious limitations. Would these findings apply to other types of learning? It might be valuable for learning basic key terms and definitions for vocabulary tests, but what about understanding abstract ideas and concepts? If you were just to revise key terms and definitions for your IB Psychology exam, you’d find it difficult to achieve top marks.

Quizlet is a very popular flashcard app.

Another issue is there was no real control group. We don’t know if it’s digital flashcards that improve memory or just any flashcards. One study on a group of Psychology students showed that those who used flashcards scored significantly higher on their exam scores than those that did not (18). In this study, 65% used written flashcards and only 4% used digital flashcards, but “so few students used computer flashcards that analyses could not be conducted comparing the two types of flashcards.” Research suggests that “…using paper flashcards is one of the most efficient means of deliberate vocabulary study techniques available” (19), so it’s worthwhile knowing which is better – print or digital.

Comparison of digital and print flashcards on the reliability of memory (Ashcroft et al., 2018): The aim of this study was to compare the effectiveness of digital flashcards (DF) using Quizlet with traditional paper flashcards (PF). Participants were 139 native Japanese college students (aged 18 to 24) learning English as a second language. Based on their TOEIC scores, the participants were placed in either the basic, intermediate, or advanced group.  In a repeated measures design, students were given 120 words to learn. In the DF condition, they were given 60 words in a Quizlet study set which they studied over three 90-minute classes. The did the same in the PF condition. Counterbalancing was used to randomize the order. All students did a pre-test of the terms, a post-test for immediate recall (directly after the treatment), and a delayed test three weeks later. The results showed that using Quizlet caused a significant improvement in vocabulary scores for the basic and intermediate groups in immediate recall. However, there was no significant difference for the advanced group in immediate recall. On the contrary, the advanced group showed significant improvements in delayed recall using print flashcards compared to digital.

The above results suggest that digital flashcards can be more effective than print flashcards, but it might depend on the proficiency level of the user and the type of test administered.

There are a number of explanations for why digital flashcards might be better for revision, especially in a subject you’re not confident with. The major advantage of the Quizlet app is that it has numerous games and activities that can be played while you study. This gamification of flashcard use can increase enjoyment and motivation to use the flashcards. Because they have more features, students find them easier to use and will use them more often.

Tip: This material can be used for the effects of technology on the reliability of cognitive processes, as reliability is “…the quality of being trustworthy or dependable” (Oxford Dictionary of Psychology). Therefore, studies on memory scores show how reliable one’s memory is.

Regularly using flashcards is an example of spaced learning – regularly practicing something over a long period of time. This is a much better revision method than massed practice – trying to cram all of the information in a short period of time. Perhaps then it’s not the type of flashcard that’s important, but rather just the act of using them and using them properly. This is shown in another study on Japanese students that found when students were taught how to use print flashcards properly, there was no difference in scores between print and digital flashcards (20).

Are print or digital better? The answer probably depends on whichever one gets you ACTUALLY using them.

That also means that perhaps it’s not the modality of flashcards that’s important but rather personal preference. So, which do students typically prefer? Dizon and Tang (2017) found that ESL learners “prefer the ubiquity and convenience of mobile learning with DFs to paper materials.” However, another study on Psychology students found that when given paper and digital flashcards to study for exams, 91% used the paper flashcards and 0% used the digital ones (21). This raises yet another question: is it better to have them provided for you or for you to create them yourself? This has not been studied but based on what we’ve learned already about revision strategies and technology, it’s safe to say that whichever strategy increases the engagement with the review materials will be more effective.