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Researchers study efficacy of digital flashcards among college students

(Isabella Lee/Daily Bruin)

By Leila Okahata

May 9, 2022 5:31 p.m.

UCLA-affiliated researchers conducted the first-ever large-scale survey that investigated the use of digital flashcards among college students.

According to the study published April 7, digital flashcards have become increasingly popular over the past two decades, with one of the most well-known digital flashcard platforms, Quizlet, hosting more than 50 million active users per month.

However, despite their widespread popularity, there is little research on how and why digital flashcards are used, said Steven Pan, the senior author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow alumnus in psychology. Because digital flashcards are still relatively new learning tools, they have been underinvestigated, he said.

The researchers conducted an online survey of 901 UCLA undergraduates from September 2020 through January 2021. The survey asked a series of questions regarding how often the student used digital flashcards, whether they used self-made or pre-made sets, and how they study with the cards.

According to the study, 77.8% of respondents reported they have used digital flashcards. Among those who have also used paper flashcards, 60.1% preferred digital over paper flashcards. Respondents tended to prefer digital flashcards because of their convenience and ease of access, said Inez Zung, the lead author of the study and an alumnus who studied cognitive science.

“As long as you have internet – or even if you don’t have internet, you can download ahead of time usually – you can access these flashcards. There’s unlimited storage, they’re really easy to manage,” she said.

Moreover, the large online library of freely available, pre-made flashcard sets was another common reason why students preferred digital flashcards, Pan said, adding that over half of the respondents said they downloaded pre-made sets.

However, students who rely on pre-made flashcards may be deprived of the potential learning benefits that come from producing their own flashcards, Pan said. In a currently unpublished study by the same researchers, experiments showed that students who generated their own flashcards learned better than those who used pre-made flashcards, he said.

Maggie Ching, a fourth-year cognitive science student who often creates her own flashcards, said rather than solely relying on pre-made flashcard sets, she recommends using them as a way to cross-reference and fact check self-made flashcard sets.

“I’ve made my own flashcards, but that’s just me – my sphere of information,” she said. “If I have something wrong then sometimes I wouldn’t even know, so I’ll casually peruse and see, ‘Oh, how are other people making their flashcards?’”

The survey also found that respondents tend to cram their flashcard studies right before an exam. However, spacing out study sessions over the course of a few days or weeks can enhance retention, said Megan Imundo, a co-author of the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology.

“I know on the quarter system that is hard to do because it feels like a sprint all the time,” she said. “But even if you could practice 15 minutes on the bus on the way to campus and 15 minutes on the bus on the way back to campus, that’s a way of doing what we call between-session spacing.”

[Related: Study finds that zooming through recorded videos does not reduce comprehension]

The survey also found that only 52.8% of respondents reported they always check the back of their digital flashcards for the correct answers. According to the study, without consistent correct answer feedback, students may not be able to remember the correct answer or adjust any errors.

“If you’re overconfident enough that you’re not even bothering to check the back of the flashcard and that happens to be an error, that error is almost surely going to transfer with you to an exam, and it’s going to be a bummer,” Imundo said. “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

Christabelle Junaidi, a third-year psychobiology student who has been studying for the MCAT with flashcards, said she also recommends actively studying the flashcards rather than passively scrolling through them to ensure the material is remembered.

“It’s tempting to just be like, ‘Oh, I know this,’ and then press (check) the answer without actually verbalizing the answer to yourself first,” she said.

On the flashcard companies’ end, Pan said he recommends they expand their options to encourage students to make their own flashcards and allow them to space out their studying. These platforms could also include more information about learning strategies to help students not only learn the content they are studying but also teach them how to learn better in the long run, Imundo said.

With this survey being the first of its kind, the researchers are excited to expand on its findings with future studies, including the effects of digital flashcards in group learning environments, Imundo said.

“This literature barely scratched the surface of what is possible with digital flashcards, and so there’s a lot more to be uncovered,” Pan said.

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Leila Okahata
Okahata is a science and health news contributor. She is a third-year student at UCLA majoring in microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics and minoring in professional writing.
Okahata is a science and health news contributor. She is a third-year student at UCLA majoring in microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics and minoring in professional writing.
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