Digital or Paper Flashcards: How to pick what’s best
Conflicted about whether to use digital or paper flashcards? It all depends on what your goal is. Let’s look at the pros and cons and decide!
People have varying opinions about what kind of flashcards you should use for language learning. So, are digital or physical flashcards more effective? My answer is YES. Both electronic and paper flashcards have their place and utility.
Your job is to decide what is best for you given your individual circumstances. That’s what I’m here to help you with. In this post, I’ll walk you through the pros and cons of digital vs. paper cards, and then I’ll offer some advice on how to choose.
I’ve been a flashcard addict for the last 15 years, ever since I started learning Polish when I was 11. So I’ve used all kinds of cards during my language learning career. Handwritten flashcards and Anki are my favorites, but I also have experience with Quizlet and StudyBlue.
Now let’s get started! Should you use digital or paper flashcards?
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Digital or Paper Flashcards: Opening Thoughts
Before we look at pros and cons, I want to get one misconception out of the way. Aren’t handwritten flashcards more effective, simply because you write them out by hand? I hear this argument a lot. It is based on a truth: writing something can help you to remember it better.
But here’s the thing. You make your paper flashcard once, and you’re done. In order to get any real benefit from muscle memory, you need to be writing the same word over and over. If you are learning a language with a new writing system, I highly recommend that you do, in fact, practice writing words multiple times. But this isn’t the function of a flashcard.
Flashcards are meant as a memory aid, not as writing practice. So the brief act of creating your flashcard (whether by hand or on an electronic device) has very little bearing on the success of your studies.
The most important thing is that you make the kind of flashcards that you will use.
I can’t stress this enough. It doesn’t matter if you have heaps of paper cards if you never look at them. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you have dozens of Anki flashcard decks if you never open the app.
That said, I will now point out some practical things to take into consideration when deciding on digital or paper flashcards.
Paper Flashcards: Pros & Cons
1. You control exactly when you review each card. You can study the same card ten times in a row if you would like, and you can make impromptu piles of cards to focus on.
2. You can put a lot of detailed information on one card (such as a noun declension or a verb conjugation). When you review the card, you can cover the parts you don’t want to see yet with your hand and gradually recite all the information.
3. You avoid using your computer or phone. This is a bonus if you get easily distracted or want to cut back on screen time.
4. You write out the cards, so you get a bit of muscle memory in there. Although see what I noted above about the function of flashcards and the limited value of this advantage.
1. As your flashcards increase in number, they become more and more unwieldy. Trust me. I’m the girl who carried around shoeboxes (yes, literal shoeboxes) of Polish flashcards in my early teens. (Yeah, I was a weird kid – and proud of it!) Anyway, my point is that it is hard to manage your flashcards and figure out which ones to review next when you have hundreds (or thousands).
2. You can’t travel easily with piles of paper flashcards. Since language learning often involves traveling and studying in the country of your target language, this deserves its own bullet point.
(PRO TIP: If you are just bringing a few hundred cards, then I love these handy flashcard holders, especially for larger cards. Smaller cards fit well into business card holders.)
3. If you have a lot of cards, it is hard to find a card to update or correct it. And, on a related note, you may end up with flashcard doubles since you can’t remember what cards you have made.
4. Making physical flashcards consumes a lot of paper. If you are worried about the environment, think twice about producing hundreds of handwritten flashcards.
5. The biggest disadvantage, in my opinion, is the lack of SRS (spaced repetition software). If you have no idea what this means, don’t worry. I address it in more detail below.
Digital Flashcards: Pros & Cons
1. Number is not a problem. My largest Anki deck (my Spanish one) contains 6161 cards, and I can easily access any and all of them whenever I want. You can take digital flashcards anywhere, from the grocery store to another continent. I’ve stood in many a line flipping through my flashcards.
2. You can locate any card easily via the search function in order to make corrections or updates. This is especially relevant if you are a beginner and you haven’t quite figured out what to include on your cards yet. Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about accidentally making doubles; you can easily check to see if a word is already in your deck.
3. You can download and customize other people’s flashcard decks. But always make sure you can trust the information if you are using cards that someone else has created.
4. You can add images AND audio. (Anki is especially flexible in this regard!)
5. No paper is wasted. And as long as you back your cards up, you won’t ever lose them. My cousin once lost all of her paper flashcards while traveling – what a nightmare. (I literally have nightmares about losing my cards. But we’ve already established that I’m weird.)
6. SRS! This is really the number 1 reason that I love Anki. You don’t have to decide which cards you should review on which day; the app tells you. I explain more about SRS below.
1. Digital flashcards involve lots of screen time. But if you manage your cards well, you can get away with as little as 15 minutes a day, even with mammoth thousand-card decks. And come on, aren’t you spending at least that much time on social media?
2. If you use Anki or another program with SRS (spaced repetition software), you can’t simply repeat the same few cards over and over. This isn’t a problem if you have been studying your vocabulary consistently over a period of time, but if you are trying to cram for an exam, SRS is not your friend. (There are ways to work around this, but they are clunky.)
3. It can be hard to type certain things. For instance, I have never really done Ancient Greek flashcards on Anki because it is such a pain to type all the accents and breathings. (They aren’t part of the Modern Greek keyboard.) But don’t underestimate the amazingness of technology. I happily do my Mandarin, Akkadian, and Sumerian flashcards in Anki.
SRS: WHAT IT IS AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
I have now referenced SRS – which stands for “spaced repetition software” – several times. If you are a flashcard newbie, you may be thinking, “What the heck is SRS and why should I care?” You should care because studies have shown that we retain information better if we space it out wisely. Cramming = bad.
The basic idea of the spaced repetition technique is that you need to review new and/or difficult flashcards more frequently than familiar and/or easier ones. Logical, right? Anki and similar programs use software to integrate the principles of spaced repetition. For example, in the Anki app, after reviewing each card you choose an option: Again, Hard, Good, or Easy. Anki decides when to show you that particular card again based on your choice.
This way you don’t spend too much time going over easy cards, and you can focus on more challenging ones. Every day, you open up Anki and see that a certain number of cards are “due”. You know that those are the cards you most need to study.
You can simulate SRS when using paper cards by dividing words into stacks based on their ease (see, for instance, the Leitner system). But this is a much greater hassle. Note also that not all online flashcard programs employ SRS. Quizlet no longer does, and if StudyBlue does, I haven’t seen any evidence of it. This is the main reason why Anki is my favorite flashcard program.
Digital or Paper Flashcards: Scenarios
Now that we have seen the pros and cons of both digital and physical flashcards, let’s think about your specific situation. And remember: there is no “right” answer. Your choice depends entirely on what you are trying to do.
If your goal is to learn new words in large quantities, digital is the best way to go in the long run. For example, my main focus at the moment is increasing my Russian vocabulary. My Russian Anki deck is at 3780 cards and counting.
Can you imagine trying to deal with 3000+ pieces of paper? But Anki shows me about 200 to 300 cards a day, and thanks to the spaced repetition software I feel confident that I am reviewing the most necessary cards.
If your goal is to memorize grammatical declensions or conjugations, I recommend paper flashcards. Physical cards work well for things like irregular verb conjugations. You can recite forms to yourself and check your answers while carefully covering the information you haven’t recited yet. For such information-heavy cards, it’s easier for me to stay focused and not peek at the answers if I have paper in my hands.
I use these flashcard holders to organize my detailed, grammar-focused cards.
If you frequently cram for exams, you want to choose a flashcard option that does not have SRS. The thing about SRS is that it focuses on long-term gains, and you need to review your cards frequently to see benefits. Programs like Anki show you cards every day according to how well you know them. The goal is to improve and solidify your knowledge over time. But if you need to learn a specific set of words fast for a test, you should use paper cards or apps like Quizlet and StudyBlue that do not use SRS.
Of course, if you get in the habit of using Anki or another SRS program, you won’t need to cram because you will feel confident in your vocabulary skills. If you are serious about vocabulary building and language study, Anki is a valuable investment. I really cannot recommend it enough.
Digital or Paper Flashcards: Conclusions
I hope that this post has helped to clarify some of the issues surrounding electronic vs. paper flashcards. I myself still use both paper and digital cards, although I’m definitely more Team Digital at this point. But that is because I am dealing with thousands of cards.
In closing, I want to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post. Choose whatever format will motivate you to actually review your flashcards. Or use BOTH digital AND paper flashcards. What is most important is that you get started. There is an amazing world of languages out there to be studied!
And it’s equally important to review your flashcards effectively. Are you doing it right? Read my 7 tips for studying flashcards to make sure you are making the best use of your time.
Seriously, don’t waste time studying flashcards ineffectively. Be a smart language learner!
And if this post was helpful to you, make sure you SHARE it so your friends can have a successful language journey, too.
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