The Future of Studying

The process of studying is broken, but technology alone isn’t the fix.

GUEST COLUMN | by Andrew Cohen

CREDIT BrainscapeCharlotte Davis couldn’t figure it out. Her Biology lesson plans were fun and engaging. She ran such great lab activities where her students enthusiastically collaborated to solve real-world problems. And she assigned all the great online homework activities that the publishing company had provided her school. Why were so many of her students still bombing her midterm and final exam?

The problem, as many learning scientists could tell you, is that the very process of studying is fundamentally broken in today’s education system. While classrooms have tremendously evolved in terms of technology, access to information, and management systems — the way people study has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Even the majority of today’s

While classrooms have tremendously evolved in terms of technology, access to information, and management systems — the way people study has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. 

technology-based study activities tend to simply replicate the same linear “review” exercises that students have traditionally done on paper. Billions of collective student hours are wasted due to knowledge “leakage” that could have been otherwise prevented by using better, more adaptive study methods.

This is a minor tragedy. Considering the rapidly increasing amount of knowledge that students need to succeed in today’s complex society, we educators should be doing everything we can to help students acquire and understand more information in ever shorter amounts of time. No search engine or reference app is a substitute for having readily accessible information in our brains. We desperately need to help students develop better means of internalizing the knowledge that they acquire in school.

Stated differently, optimizing the way students study – i.e. the way that they review previously introduced concepts– is arguably the most promising opportunity in education today. Slashing the time students spend on the tedious but necessary “surface learning” can free valuable class time for the types of critical “deep learning” activities that we so often neglect.

Technologies to Improve Studying

In the past decade, new web and mobile technologies have helped studying evolve more than it had in the previous 200 years. The ability to collaboratively create, find, and share great study resources at scale – and to access them from anywhere (without always remembering to bring your materials with you) creates a more convenient study process that can be much easier to integrate into students’ busy modern lives.

One could roughly divide study enhancement technology into five categories: (1) Concept mapping software (e.g. Inspiration); (2) Mnemonic imagery enhancement software (e.g. Picmonic); (3) Games (e.g. Quizlet); (4) Note sharing/collaboration tools (e.g. CourseHero); and (5) Spaced repetition systems (e.g. Brainscape).

All of these technologies make studying significantly more convenient than the traditional paper & pencil variety. Yet only Spaced Repetition Systems — aka “adaptive flashcards” — fundamentally advance the implementation of cognitive science in education.

Why Adaptive Flashcards Work

Think back to a time when you met a new person and tried to remember their name. As memory experts have long suggested, you’ve probably had the best luck when you immediately repeat the person’s name aloud, then review it in your head after 15 seconds, 1 minute, 3 minutes, etc. What you are essentially using is a system of spaced repetition, which is indispensable for remembering names and other bite-sized concepts.

We all intuitively understand this about memory but often need a bit of prodding to remember to use the tactic in the real world. Research shows that using the right pattern of spaced repetition is, in fact, the single most important contributor to our ability to remember something. You are essentially optimizing your learning.

To build upon on this proven phenomenon, startups like Cerego, Anki, and Brainscape have created web and mobile study ecosystems whose foundation is based on the concept of spaced repetition. These study platforms allow both students and educators to break concepts down into their bite-sized building blocks, in the form of “smart flashcards,” which can be accessed on any web or mobile device. And because digital flashcards can contain any type of media, they can allow almost any subject to be studied in an adaptive pattern that is dynamically determined by the student’s pace of learning.

Brainscape already had millions of students of all ages using a mobile spaced repetition software to study topics as diverse as Spelling, Chemistry, Spanish, Medicine, Music, Astrology, Law, Bartending, Geography, and Sports Trivia. And the market is only just beginning. Educators can get ahead of this trend by encouraging students to incorporate spaced repetition software into their study habits as early as possible.

The Future of Studying

As Robert Fan wrote earlier this year, the advent of the mobile “card” is slowly transforming nearly every consumer web and mobile industry on the planet. There’s simply something so damn consumable about the combination of text, images, video, audio, meta tags, likes, shares, and comments into a single unit of meaning.

We’ve recently seen card-based products like Tinder (dating), SlideShare (corporate white papers), Twitter (microblogging), Instagram (photos), Pinterest (pinboards), and Google Now (real-time personalized information) enrich millions of lives while creating billions of dollars of investor wealth. But Education is only just beginning to be transformed by cards. I predict that flashcards will be among the most important disruptors of Education for the next millennium.

The next several years will likely see a continued proliferation of adaptive mobile flashcard tools with various waves of consolidation. Constructivist educators will also begin to realize that flashcards do not have to mean “drill and kill”, but rather that digital flashcards are powerful tools that can support any media and that can be closely tied to broader educational resources. Going forward, the word “flashcard” does not have to mean “trivial fact”, but rather, it can mean “the smallest unit of knowledge that can be efficiently studied, shared, or tied across various curricula.”

Study tool solution providers and software developers must continue to apply the latest cognitive science research into the timing, format, flexibility, and delivery of study experiences in order to create the education future that we all deserve. We’ve made great strides in recent years, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Andrew Cohen is the founder of Brainscape, a web and mobile education platform that helps people study more efficiently. Brainscape has raised over $2.5m in venture capital from top Silicon Valley angel investors. Write to:

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