Thursday, January 12, 2023

Flashcards in elearning

What are flashcards? Flashcards are used to help learners retrieve information completely from memory. This method is referred to as Active Recall and it creates a permanent connection to the content or the learning material. Every card has content on both sides, one side has the cue and the other has the answer. Learners look at the cue and try to recollect the answer on the other side in a short span of time from memory. The learners then look at the answer on the reverse side for confirmation.

How are flashcards used in e-learning?

Flashcards are used in e-learning in a couple of ways. In the first use case, the application is the same as physical flashcards. Every card has two sides and the learner can click on the card to flip it and view the content on the reverse side. In e-learning, flashcards are also used to help learners learn content in tiny bits of information. This is referred to as micro-learning. The idea of micro-learning is based on studies which indicate that learners taking up shorter lengths of content and revisiting them periodically have a higher retention of the subject. Flashcards are being repurposed for this.

Flashcards for micro-learning

Flashcards is a preferred choice to build micro-learning content owing to its structure. Since each card can hold only a limited amount of content (text and images), the content must be chunked and summarized well. Below are some important things you must remember when building flashcards for micro-learning.

  • Flashcards content

    While plain text and images (png, jpeg, gif) are popular content formats for flashcards, flashcards can contain other types of content that are viewable on the web and mobile as well, such as video (mp4) and audio (mp3). Flashcards can also have content from the public domain such as audio tracks from podcasts or videos from youtube. When building micro-learning content, one must always remember to check the file size of the content. Images and videos must be fast to load and play.
  • Flashcards size and duration

    In e-learning, a single flashcard has a learning time of less than a minute. When using flashcards, a topic is usually broken down into a set of 15 cards or less. So, the total learning time for that topic is about 10 minutes. Since a flashcard is a combination of different content formats, we must assess the total length of the card when building it. A card with a small diagram and two lines of text (about 30-40 words) would take about a minute to learn. In the case of video and audio, the length of the content would be the same as the length of the media. When including youtube videos and podcasts, you must ensure that the length of the content is not too long. You don’t want to include a 30 minute podcast on a single card, unless it is only an additional learning resource that the learner is free to skip.
  • Flashcards layout

    Physical flashcards have a portrait layout. It helps to maintain a portrait layout when building flashcards in elearning, since most users consume elearning content from their phones which are used in the portrait mode by default. Ideally, a flashcard must not have scrolling content as it defeats the purpose of being a flashcard. If the content is large, it must either be shortened to display only very important information on a single screen. Optionally, the content may be split into multiple cards with shorter content on each card.

Ineffective Flashcards

Flashcards can become ineffective through overuse, bad choice of content or length.

  • Overuse of flashcards

    How many flashcards should you create for a 60 minute course? When developing a course, you may see the opportunity to create 4 decks (or sets) of 10 cards each. You may feel compelled to create more cards owing to the volume of content, but flashcards may not be the right approach. While there is no strict ratio of number of flashcards to course duration, it is an overload for a learner to use over 20 new cards a day. So, you should be careful not to overuse it.
  • Content length and complexity in flashcards

    Flashcards become ineffective if the size of the content on a single card is lengthy. For instance, it does not make sense to include a 10 minute long video into a single card. Think of flashcards as something a learner would quickly flip through. Expect a learner attention span of about 10 minutes. If you try to teach a rather complex topic through a few slides, you would not be doing justice to the content. So, as much as possible keep the content simple and restrict the use of flashcards to a cue and answer type or for micro-learning.

Flashcard feature - Learner as the author

In e-learning, whether flashcards are used for micro-learning or active recall, we have almost always seen it as a tool that has pre-filled content. By providing pre-filled content to learners, we are actually limiting learner interaction. Think about this - How would learning be, if you as a learner would be allowed to create your own flashcards? If learners had the ability to create flashcards themselves on an e-learning platform, they would naturally be more involved with learning the topic. Not just that, learners are more likely to come back to view and revise from the flashcards they created themselves. That will in turn ensure reinforcement of knowledge. Here are some tips on building a flashcard utility that learners can control.

  • Create and View modes

    When allowing learners to create their own content, a flashcard must have two modes - Creation mode and Viewing mode. The Creation mode must allow a learner to create new cards or sets of cards and populate content on either side. It must contain basic tools to insert text or draw. The Viewing mode must allow a learner to view and flip the cards. This is the learning mode.
  • Save / Retrieve

    It goes without saying that learners must be able to save their work and retrieve it for edits or viewing later. The interface must allow basic organization of the content / cards such as ordering them or collecting them into sets of cards.
  • Flip / Hide and Randomize

    Since we are using the flashcards for active recall as well, the view mode must allow a learner to flip to and hide (flip back) the reverse of the card. A timer configuration should allow automatic flipping of a flashcard in a specific period of time. The learner can use this timer to practice recalling knowledge from memory. Learners should be able to view cards in sequence or randomize them.
  • Content size and space limit

    Limiting the content size and space available on a card will force learners to come up with creative ways to shorten the content to fit them on the flashcard. This will in turn make it easier for the learners to remember their notes.


Flashcards have been used in elearning both as a tool for active recall and for breaking down large content into small parts for ease of learning, which is also referred to as micro-learning. However, flashcards become truly powerful when the ability to create and configure the cards lies in the hands of the learner.

Featured Posts

Designing Competitions for Gamification

In learning, gamification is competition integrated into a learning system. The competition could be to gain leaderboard points, to ga...

Popular Posts