For as long as people have had to memorize stuff, there’ve been flashcards.
Maybe you’ve used them to help you memorize mathematical formulas, dates of historical events, vocabulary words, or molecular structures. Whatever purpose they served, you probably made cards because they work — they’re a great way to help you retain facts and prepare for tests.
But writing and carrying around a deck of homemade cards (not to mention drawing or pasting, if you’re working with more complex subjects) can be a drag. And shuffling through a large deck can be an inefficient use of time, too, since most students don’t do much beyond pulling a card and trying to remember what’s on the other side.
That’s where innovations in ed tech come in.
Imagine good, old-fashioned flashcards, but optimized with the latest in “cognitive science, a little gamification, social learning," and more. That’s how Brainscape’s chief product officer, Andy Lutz, describes the project he’s been working on for the past six years.
What started as an Excel spreadsheet designed to help founder and CEO Andrew Cohen nail down French vocabulary soon grew into app. And the origin story is decidedly 21st-century: Cohen had initially used Excel to arrange and order his vocabulary words until they’d stick in his memory — he’d reinforce words he was comfortable with less frequently, and allow difficult phrases to crop up with greater regularity. In that way, the most challenging material quickly became the most familiar.
Realizing he might be on to something (especially after several friends reached out to him for prototypes in biology and geography), he went back to school and earned his master’s in education technology from Columbia University. His studies focused on the neuroscientific underpinning of the method of timing and reinforcement that he’d developed intuitively with his Excel programs — the phenomenon of confidence-based repetition.
The company claims that its deliberately and strategically ordered digital flashcards help students learn information much more quickly than their hard-copy counterparts, ordered as they must be — by the luck of the draw — ever could.
Brainscape is an iOS app and website (users of Android or Windows devices can use Brainscape’s robust mobile site) that enables users either to download prewritten flashcards or to create their own.
Though you’ll have to pay to access some content — generally more obscure card sets like Keyboard Shortcuts — with a free account, you can still access cards from millions of decks: French, Spanish, GRE Vocabulary, Sports Trivia, Driver’s Ed, Physics 101, and many more.
As you can probably tell, much of Brainscape’s content aligns with standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP exams, but a lot of the other subject matter is more general and informal; decks include Git Commands, Gourmet Food, The Brain, Bartending, and Tarot Cards.
When you open the app, it asks you whether you’re interested in creating cards or using existing ones. And once you select a deck — they range from the single digits to more than 100 — you’re free to get studying.
Any users have the ability to try out subjects, sync their cards and results across mobile devices and browsers, and share cards with other users. Only those who pay, however, will be able to access premium content without a card limit, add images and sounds to their cards, use the app while not connected to the Web, see other users’ stats, and reverse cards (in other words, study by seeing the answer side before the question side).
Paid accounts that last a month cost $9.99. Users can get 6 months of access for $4.99 per month, a year for $2.99 per month, or permanent access for life — $79.99.
Testimonials on Brainscape’s site come from a wide range of users, from kids learning to read to dental students preparing for their board exams. One useful feature that has attracted many teachers is the ability to create content that they can then pass on to their students, allowing them to tailor flashcards directly to a class or a test. This makes studying super-convenient for kids, who have many of the materials they need to study right in their pockets at all times.
Even people who aren’t students in the traditional sense (trivia enthusiasts, bartenders-in-training, and people trying to teach themselves coding, to name a few) would enjoy the app.
It’s a well-designed app and has loads of content, but the thing that sets Brainscape apart from your standard deck of flashcards is its use of confidence-based repetition. Once you choose to flip a card over and reveal its answer, the app prompts you with a question: “How well did you know this?" You’ll then have the opportunity to rate your confidence level on a scale from one to five. If you assign a card a one, you’ll probably see it again very soon; a five, on the other hand, suggests you know that card well enough to let it slip to the bottom of the deck for a while.
It’s also gratifying to watch as the percentage of cards you’ve mastered (by assigning them fives) grows — this proportion is visible on the circular chart that accompanies each deck. You also see a real-time breakdown of the numbers of cards ranked with each numerical value — and you can watch in real time as the color-coded system slides from red to blue as you retain more and more information.
While researchers in the field of psychology have documented the efficacy of confidence-based repetition since the early 1930s, it has not yet seen widespread acceptance in educational practice.
James Bruno, an education professor at UCLA, has championed the approach for K–12 students since the 1990s. He argues that knowledge leads to great outcomes only when it is coupled with student confidence, and that traditional multiple-choice tests do a poor job of establishing confidence (they don’t rule out the possibility that someone is a good guesser — or even just lucky).
The creators of Brainscape are counting on this added step of metacognition — students’ thinking about their own knowledge — as being deeply useful to learners. After all, there’s no shortage of basic flashcard apps out there. But, setting its incredible wealth of content aside for a moment, Brainscape is one of the only ones that combines this old-school approach with cutting-edge technology and educational and psychological research.
Check out the Noodle App of the Month for December 2016, Gojimo, which stocks your phone, tablet, or computer with thousands of expert-authored test-prep questions.
If you’re interested in Brainscape as a way to help you on standardized tests, you might be looking for a college that fits your needs. Check out the Noodle college search, which lets you filter results by location, available majors, and more, to find the best match for you. If you’re not quite there yet, and you’d like to find a tutor, the Noodle tutor search is here to help.
While Noodle has no current affiliation with Brainscape, John Katzman (the founder of Noodle) and Andy Lutz (the CPO of Brainscape) previously worked together at The Princeton Review. This relationship had no bearing on the editorial team’s decision to spotlight Brainscape as our App of the Month.