Spaced Repetition Apps Are the New 3×5: Futuristic Flashcards and Microlearning

Written by Lenny DeFranco

Get ready to experience the magic of flashcards in a whole new way. That’s right, folks: the least sexy learning method in the world is getting a makeover. As the Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger reported in April, the age-old method of drilling on facts is being reimagined in a number of e-learning apps that have exploded in popularity among adult learners. One leading product, Anki, has been downloaded “2.5 million times since it was launched in 2006, including 850,000 installations in the past 12 months,” at $24.99 a pop.



If you’re like me, you remember flashcards as a mechanical approach to memorization that you deemed uncool in a very early grade. And you weren’t wrong: flashcard studying is boring when you’re young. Elementary school is a rich learning environment where multiple learning approaches are delivered by an in-person instructor. The day revolves around recess. Flashcards, meanwhile, combine the intellectual adventure of pure predictability with the youthful fun of advance planning.

If you’ve ever had to cram for a test, though, you know how effective a study method it is. To adult learners decades removed from the playground, flashcard software is an ideal way to squeeze a little bit of learning into the day’s spare crevices. Users of today’s spaced repetition smartphone apps enjoy smooth, modern functionality and design—no more notecard boxes. Moreover, the apps allow users to both train on pre-loaded topics (they’re great for learning languages) and design their own cards. One Anki user studies “photos of important business contacts, with prompts to recall the person’s name and some personal information,” Shellenbarger wrote. “The program helps her remember concepts and strengthen ties with business partners.”

A good deal of the pedagogy that powers Anki, Cerego, Memrise, and the rest of these memorization apps is also built into Grovo. Here are three principles that we’ve built into our organizational training, and which are giving the humble flashcard a modern second act.

They use microlearning. Flashcards have always been a type of microlearning. They’re strategically created, bite-size chunks of information that learners consume at their own pace. Many benefits of microlearning exist in flashcards: the light cognitive load, the greater retention of visual material than auditory material, the custom training content. Just think about how much more efficient it would be to convey a topic to someone by making them flashcards than to write a paper and ask them to read it. Since flashcards are a kind of proto-microlearning, digitizing the method, as these apps do, makes it that much more responsive and potent.

The Leitner system, one type of spacing technique

The Leitner system, one spacing technique

They use spacing. “Spaced repetition” is a classic principle of microlearning. The term refers to the practice of frequently reviewing information you don’t grasp well and infrequently reviewing what you already do. In these flashcard apps, the cards that learners see are the ones that the software estimates they are closest to forgetting. This increases long-term retention. It’s easier to space repetition with microlearning than with any other learning method. Not only are topics focused, making it easier to identify what the learner does and does not remember, but the topics’ relative independence from one another makes them easier to separate.

They use push and pull content. Grovo takes the spacing concept a step further by mixing “push” and “pull” learning. This is the difference between the system presenting you content to consume and you requesting to see the content. If one of the flashcard apps has a sophisticated enough algorithm, it could estimate when you’re about to forget a bit of content based on when you last saw it, and then push you a notification to look at that card. Grovo’s system operates on user assessment, so our system recognizes when learners understand concepts well enough to pass and when they need a refresher.

It’s no surprise that the trusty old flashcard method translates seamlessly to digital use. Flashcard apps work well with modern devices and busy schedules because microlearning works well with modern devices and busy schedules. A real microlearning solution is like an industrial-grade version of a spaced repetition app: it does for teams what Anki does for a commuter’s knowledge of art history.

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Photo credit: “Japanese Flashcards” by Konrad Lawson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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