Premade vs User-gen flashcards (Part I)
Premade vs User-gen flashcards (Part I)

Premade vs User-gen flashcards (Part I)

It is a practical question. Use premade flashcards or design your own? What at first appears to be a relatively straightforward question, is far from from it.

Pan et al. (2022) offer a ‘General Audience Summary’ and that is a very helpful place to start.

Currently, using premade flashcards (rather than user-generated flashcards) is the “more popular option.” The reason: they are “more convenient, saves time, and takes advantage of the millions of premade flashcards sets that are freely available online.”

However, there is a drawback, “users miss out on learning experiences that might occur when making one’s own flashcards.” A point substantiated by the papers findings:

In five out of six experiments, using user-generated flashcards improved learning relative to using premade flashcards.

Pan et al. (2022: 1)

Moreover, these benefits were “especially pronounced for flashcards made via paraphrasing or copying-and-pasting materials.”

Why make your own flashcards? It is presented that user-generated flashcards “trigger productive learning processes.” The paper adds that:

…given a fixed amount of time adding content to digital flashcards prior to using them is potentially more beneficial for learning than using flashcards made by someone else.

Pan et al. (2022: 1)

Indeed a range of papers cited have reported immediate test performance in favour of premade flashcards, only for test results after several weeks to present a more inconsistent picture.

Productive Learning Processes

What Pan et al. (2022) were essentially asking was “does generating flashcard content elicit productive learning processes?” whilst taking into consideration the time-cost of generating the flashcards.

Pan et al. (2022) extend their explanation to two important and related principles from the science of learning. First, the added convenience that some learning technologies offer may make things easier, but are not necessarily helpful in the long run. Second and more broadly, some learning techniques that require more effort — and may seem onerous because they increase the chance of making mistakes, are more time consuming, and can be frustrating — are actually more effective than other, less-onerous methods (also known as “desirable difficulties” what I often refer to as “easy learning is easy forgetting” borrowed from Dr Agarwal’s SXSW Edu talk.

Following a review of the ‘General Audience Summary’ and abstract, it would be fair to say I looked forward to understanding the paper more fully and finding answers to a growing list of questions.

  • What type of knowledge was transferred to the flashcards?
  • What weight of information was expected to be learnt? Both Biology GCSE decks (16 year olds, two year examination decks) on are both 500+ and Macbeth 469 flashcards.
  • Who were the learners? What was their level of expertise – in order to be able to design and use flashcards effectively?
  • When were the flashcards used? Presumably used terminally? A much maligned test-enhanced learning frustration.
  • How were flashcards used for study? Proscribed in the lab? Out in the study-wild? The focus of another recent paper from lead researcher Dr Steven Pan, (Zung, Imundo & Pan, 2022).

Let’s get to the nub of the issue

User-generated flashcards are less popular. 56% of U.S. undergraduate students prefer premade over user-generated flashcards, (convenience and saving time, Zung et al., 2022). I will add that 60.1% preferred digital over paper flashcards.

The 44% that favoured user-generated flashcards highlighted content control, greater accuracy, higher quality, and intriguingly, the belief that creating flashcards benefits learning. We know that some researchers have speculated that user-generated flashcards confer learning benefits – yet the results are inconsistent.

Interestingly, there was a chalkface case study shared on Impact Magazine. What problems were identified?

  1. Students struggle to select the crucial content that needs to go on flashcards.
  2. Students crowd the flashcards (adding too much information to a single flashcard), leading to cognitive load and ineffective use. 
  3. Students did not know “how to use the flashcards.”

Point 1 makes for an interesting addition to the ‘against user-generated’ column. Points 2 and 3 worth consideration.

On point 3, “only 52.8% of respondents reported they always check the back of their digital flashcards for the correct answers,” (Zung, Imundo & Pan, 2022).

In Part II we will take a closer look at the study itself, knowing that inconsistent findings to date (potential benefits and costs of generating flashcard content) lead Pan et al. (2022) to call for “more robust experimental controls.” Regrettably a step further away from classroom opportunities and constraints.

Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671–684.
Pan, S. C., Zung, I., Imundo, M. N., Zhang, X., & Qiu, Y. (2022). User-generated digital flashcards yield better learning than premade flashcards. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. Advance online publication.
Sage, K., Krebs, B., & Grove, R. (2019). Flip, slide, or swipe? Learning outcomes from paper, computer, and tablet flashcards. Technology. Knowledge and Learning, 24(3), 461–482.
Zung, I., Imundo, M. N., & Pan, S. C. (2022). How do college students use digital flashcards during self-regulated learning?. Memory (Hove, England)30(8), 923–941.

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