Ah, the ol’ flashcard debate.

Wherever you go, it seems there’s always a progressive educator who thinks flashcards were created by the devil. My latest flashcard debate this afternoon was with an old grad school buddy from my education technology program.

The topic: whether studying with flashcards means learning “in a vacuum” or whether it's another kind of context dependent learning.

Flashcards used in context-dependent learning

Critics' main argument is that flashcards are so separate from real-life problem-solving situations that any knowledge acquired from them will either (1) not stick or (2) not be transferable to the scenario in which the knowledge will actually have to be applied. This argument seems to be based on some world in which flashcards are the only way that educators are imparting knowledge onto students.

Yet, if teachers apply flashcards the right way, I have argued, then students using flashcards will have a critical component not found in Shawn’s straw man world: an anchor.

Having an anchor behind a learner’s flashcard experience helps tie every flashcard concept back to the real-world context in which it was first learned, resulting in context dependent learning. These anchors can exist in any number of forms. Here are a few examples:

  • A classroom discussion and collaboratively created outline about World War II
  • A Spanish class skit in which students must use their new fruit vocabulary words
  • A concept map drawn to help diagram the complex processes of photosynthesis

If a learner creates (or is given) flashcards to help reinforce any of those concepts, then she will naturally be making the real-world mental associations back to the more complex, big-picture setting in which the knowledge was acquired. Even if there is a flashcard about a WWII concept, fruit vocabulary word, or photosynthesis step that was not initially seen in the classroom activity, the flashcards can still help fill in the gap while the student imagines how it could have fit into the bigger picture. Our brains create linkages between the material we learn regardless of the medium.

[Discover our complete guide on how to make and study with flashcards]

Flashcards should be part of a holistic program

Great instructors will use flashcards as a key component of a more holistic curriculum, rather than depend on them as stand-alone learning tools. Topics in the classrooms can be introduced through a variety of methods (e.g. student research activities, projects, debates, etc.) but the concepts within these topics can be reviewed using flashcards, where the secret sauce is spaced repetition, which helps students study more effectively by making concepts stick.

When students study flashcards for topics they have initially learned more holistically elsewhere, they'll have an anchor where they remember WHY the concept was important rather than just memorizing a fact for the sake of the fact using the drill and practice method.

Hopefully, teachers will continue to realize the proper interaction between constructivist activities and supplementary drills, so that they don’t discount what is the most effective way to study. Especially now that there are such great web and mobile flashcard tools like Brainscape to make the flashcard experience so much more efficient and collaborative.