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 one with an old grad school buddy from my education technology program. The topic: Arguing whether studying with flashcards means learning “in a vacuum.”
Shawn’s main argument was 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. His 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 in their curriculum the right way, I have argued, then students using flashcards will have a critical component not found in Shawn’s dystopia: an anchor.
Having an anchor behind a learner’s flashcard experience helps tie every flashcard-ized concept back to the real-world context in which it was first learned. 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.
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/mobile flashcard tools to make the flashcard experience so much more efficient and collaborative.