Flash cards for the 21st century

Remember what it was like as a kid memorizing your spelling words or math facts and using flash cards to help them make it to your brain? Well, these days, there are high tech versions of the old-school flash cards to help make you smarter.

Ellen Jovin is a polyglot. That means she speaks more than one language.

“Over the past six years I’ve studied 19 different languages,” she said.

Jovin adds to her vocabulary each day using an app that shows her new words, then quizzes her on the meanings. It works like paper flash cards, only smarter.

“It very intelligently remembers how you did with certain cards the day before so it will keep feeding you things based on how it thinks you need to be reminded in order to store things in long term memory,” she explained.

“There are a number of different systems that have digital flashcards,” Jill Duffy of pcmag.com said. “One is called Cerego, another one is called Memrise. There’s some language learning specific ones called Byki, for example.”

Digital flashcards are not all about languages. You can use them for anything you want to learn, from anatomy to zoology. There are flashcards for flag fans and even options for bird calls.

“You can be fed the sound of the bird and then you have to figure out which bird it was,” said Jovin.

You can use your computer or smart phone to study. Some are free and most use something called spaced repetition to help make sure what you see sticks.

“There’s an optimal amount of time between the first time you’re exposed to a new word and the second time and again, the third time, if you have that optimal time space in between, you’re more likely to remember the vocabulary the next time around,” said Duffy.

“We can actually look using functional MRI and we can see that at 24 hours when you recall memories that have been spaced, there’s evidence that those memories have been more distributed across your brain, and that correlates with the strength of those memories,” said Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at New York University, Lila Davichi, PhD.

That is in contrast to what happens when you cram information all at once.

“College students will typically study all night the night before an exam and that’s not a bad strategy for remembering that info for only let’s say 8 hours, but if you really want that information to stick around in the long term, spaced repetition is what actually enhances the availability and durability of those memories in your brain over days and weeks and even months,” said Davichi.

And Davichi said having it on your phone makes it possible to learn anytime, anywhere.

“Having something that’s portable, easily portable would be great advantage,” she said.

The flashcard systems differ in how they work. Some come prepopulated with the information you are going to learn and memorize. Other systems allow you to upload all the information you want to study yourself.

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