As a long-time user of flashcards to study vocabulary, I am always looking for easier and better flashcard techniques. Back in my high school days I created a huge stack of paper cards to study for the SAT, and I had an intricate system of sorting the cards into piles based on how familiar I was with each word and thus how frequently I needed to study it. I would carry piles of cards in my pocket whenever I went for a walk or was stuck riding in a car, so I could pull them out and practice a little at a time. Fortunately flashcards have come a long way since the paper days, and there are several excellent websites and smartphone apps that make it easy and fun for a language learner to learn and study vocabulary, both written and audio. A good flashcard app on a smartphone is a wonderful modern replacement for carrying piles of paper cards everywhere. As part of my vocabulary study during the Couch to Korean Challenge, I have been using three of the most popular flashcard programs, and today I will talk about my experience with Quizlet, Anki, and Memrise. Full details are below, but after extensive testing the overall scores I assigned to each of the three are:
My desiderata for a flashcard app for language learning:
- Simple app interface: I like simple flashcards, with the word to learn on one side and the English translation on the other; audio is also extremely nice, if not a must-have. Similarly, I like simple app interfaces, without a lot of extraneous buttons and icons and sounds. A good flashcard app should make it easy to plan your study sessions, to create and organize your card decks, and to track your progress. (Quizlet 9/10, Memrise 6/10, Anki 6/10)
- Variety of study modes: Flipping through a large deck of flashcards can get boring after a while. Luckily, good apps offer study modes like multiple choice, matching games, and other challenges to break up the monotony. (Quizlet 7/10, Memrise 6/10, Anki 3/10)
- Built-in spaced repetition: Back when I was manually sorting my paper cards into frequency and recency piles, I didn’t know about the research in spaced repetition, a learning technique that optimizes the interval of time between reviewing an item to be learned. But now algorithms for spaced repetition are built into many flashcard apps, which saves the learner the trouble of managing the mechanics of card decks. (Memrise 10/10, Anki 8/10, Quizlet 0/10)
- Synchronization with web interface: There are many things that are much easier to do in a web interface on a computer vs. on the tiny smartphone screen. Good flashcard apps have seamless integration of web and app versions so you can use both as needed and maintain a synchronized progress. (Quizlet 10/10, Memrise 9/10, Anki 2/10)
- Easy to create and edit new card decks: As I come across new words, I want to be able to add them to my “New words to study” deck. And as I master words, I want to easily remove them and still maintain the status of the other words. (Quizlet 11/10, Memrise 10/10, Anki 1/10)
- Easy to find and access card decks created by other people: Thousands of card decks have been created and made public by students and teachers. I want to be able to easily find the most useful ones and study them as if they were my own. (Quizlet 10/10, Anki 8/10, Memrise 5/10)
- Free: There are a lot of free flashcard apps to choose from, and I am not willing to pay for fancy bells and whistles that I don’t need nor want. (Anki 9/10, Quizlet 8/10, Memrise 7/10)
The Quizlet homepage advertises that Quizlet provides “Simple tools for learning anything. Search millions of study sets or create your own. Improve your grades by studying with flashcards, games and more. 194,597,000 Study Sets and Counting.” Which seems to meet most of our flashcard app desiderata. The Quizlet website has an impressive selection of flashcard search, creation, and study options. They offer free iOS and Android apps. I have been extensively testing the Quizlet website and the Android app.
I like Quizlet a lot. It is easy to use for everyone from elementary school kids through adult independent learners. It has a huge database of available card decks, and it has a nice variety of easy-to-use features. My detailed Quizlet review is below.
Overall score for Quizlet: 55/70
App interface: 9/10 The Quizlet Android App is well-designed and easy to use. Cards are easy to view, with intuitive icons for navigation, study modes, audio, and card organization.
Study modes: 7/10 The Quizlet App has basic study modes ranging from simple card review through matching games and various types of tests. My favorites are simple flashcard mode and auto-play mode of a card deck, in which the audio for the Korean word is spoken, then after a pause the English equivalent is spoken. This is perfect for studying vocabulary while walking or anytime I don’t have hands free to navigate the cards themselves. The only mode that I found not at all useful for my purposes was “Write” mode, where you need to type the exact characters on a card; I found this a waste of time (for example, if you type “region” and the answer is “area / region” then you can’t advance to the next card until you retype the exact answer with all spaces and punctuation exactly as on the card).
Spaced repetition: 0/10 Spaced repetition, or “long-term learning” as they call it, is only available in Quizlet if you pay for Quizlet Plus for $20/year. I did not pay for Quizlet Plus, so there is no spaced repetition in Quizlet, which is obviously a huge negative.
Web interface: 10/10 The Quizlet web interface is well-synchronized with the app. If you log into your account on each, you can edit in one place and it immediately shows up on the other. Search results on both web and app are identical. The web interface also has additional study modes that work well in a large browser window but not in a small app screen.
Ease of creating new decks: 11/10 The ease of deck creation in Quizlet far exceeded my expectations, and I give Quizlet extra credit in this category. To test deck creation in Quizlet, I created a set of 100 Korean-English word pairs in Google Translate and exported the resulting Phrasebook to Google Sheets. I then clicked “Create” on the Quizlet site, cut and pasted the two columns of words from the Google Sheet into the new card set, gave it a title, selected Korean for the appropriate column, and saved the new set. The new card deck appeared immediately in the Quizlet app. I clicked the set to view the new cards, and what I saw blew my mind: each card not only had the Korean-English word pairs that I had created, but it also had audio for both the Korean and English words! Quizlet had automatically added audio for each word without my having to do a thing. Poking around the Quizlet site, I found that Quizlet audio is automatically provided by text-to-speech for 18 supported languages, including Korean. It took a total of about 5 minutes, and I went from a word list in Google Translate to a brand new card deck in the Quizlet app, WITH AUDIO! That is pretty awesome.
Access to other decks: 10/10 If anything, there are too many card decks to choose from within Quizlet, and the quality obviously varies based on the set creator. I was looking for a particular set (the vocabulary from Unit 2 of the How To Study Korean site). I found it immediately on both the Quizlet website and in the app. In about 15 minutes of searching, I found a lot of other excellent Korean card decks and saved them all to my Korean folder in the Quizlet app.
Free: 8/10 Quizlet operates on a Freemium model: the basic features are provided for free and advanced features are available if you pay for them. Most of the features I am looking for are available in the free Quizlet version. Spaced repetition and the ability to add images and your own audio to flashcards are the main features that are only available with Quizlet Plus for $20/year. The free version has ads, but they are mostly not obnoxious. If spaced repetition were available, Quizlet would be almost perfect for my needs.
Anki is the oldest of the major Flashcard systems, advertising itself as “Friendly, intelligent flash cards. Remembering things just became much easier.” Anki is an open-source software project, and it is completely free to use. However, like most open-source software projects, it is built and maintained by a committee of software engineers, without much consideration for user-friendly design and ease of use. I like some features of Anki, but I find it extremely annoying to use. I still have not figured out how to do some basic and essential things like create my own card deck and synchronize a deck between the app and the computer-based program. I would definitely not recommend Anki for anyone who has not had experience wrestling with installing and using open-source software products.
My evaluation of the Anki features has been carried out using AnkiDroid, the Android Anki app.
Overall score for Anki: 37/70
App interface: 6/10 The Anki Android App is basic and uncluttered. It shows you a list of your card decks, and when you select a deck it presents the first card for study. Audio is nicely integrated with the cards, but there are no other features. I like the simplicity of the interface, but the menu options are not at all intuitive (“Create filtered deck” and “Empty cards” and “Manage note types”).
Study modes: 3/10 The Anki App has one study mode: old fashioned card flipping. You set a parameter for how many cards you want to study each day. The app presents words one at a time, and you click the “Show Answer” button to see the flip side of the card. You then select the interval of time you want to wait before reviewing this card again. That’s the entire Anki flashcard study system. You can’t even study extra cards without modifying the system parameter for cards per day. While card flipping is my favorite flashcard study mode, the Anki implementation is rigid to the extreme. You can’t just pick a deck and study the whole thing. You can’t flip through the cards one at a time without selecting the time interval for each card.
Spaced repetition: 8/10 Spaced repetition is the cornerstone of Anki, and it works very well. The Anki spaced repetition requires manual input from the learner: for each card that you study, you must select the interval until the next time you study that card. Anki keeps track of the timing for each card once you have specified this interval.
Web interface: 2/10 Anki has a website at ankiweb.net, but you can’t do anything on the site unless you separately install a standalone program on your computer. “AnkiWeb is intended to be used in conjunction with the computer version of Anki. While it is possible to create basic text-only cards and review them using only AnkiWeb, to download shared decks, take advantage of multimedia features and so on, you will need to use the free computer version as well.” This is an unnecessarily complicated process, especially in 2017 when the rest of the world is running as a browser-based web service.
Ease of creating new decks: 1/10 Creating a new deck in Anki and viewing it in the AnkiDroid app is next to impossible. I gave up. There is no simple cut and paste capability when creating a new card deck in the Anki program, so I could not repeat the 100 word experiment that worked so well with Quizlet. I tried pasting the 100 word pairs into a text document (UTF-8, tab delimited) and adding it to a new deck. But Anki does not recognize the text encoding and the Korean characters show up as “????”. Just for completeness I tried to get the new deck to show up in the AnkiDroid app, but the synchronization did not work. And importing a deck directly to the Anki app requires manually placing a file on the file system of the mobile device. Clearly a lot of people have successfully created large Anki card decks and shared them publicly, but I was not able to create and share a simple 100 card deck like I had in Quizlet and Memrise (each of which was so easy that it only took 5 minutes).
Access to other decks: 8/10 Anki has a large database of card decks created by users and shared publicly. The search results show user ratings, number of cards, and whether the cards contain audio and images. These features are very useful. I was not able to find a card deck for How To Study Korean Unit 2, which I had found in both Quizlet and Memrise. But I did find some large decks with very useful grammar and vocabulary cards. One of my favorite Anki decks is Korean Grammar Sentences by Evita, which has over 2000 sentences in both Korean and English, with Korean audio and detailed grammar notes.
Free: 9/10 Anki is free, both the computer version and the Android AnkiDroid app. However, the iOS AnkiMobile app costs $25.
We have already written up two detailed reviews of the Memrise website and app, and the pros and cons we earlier presented still hold for the most part. The Memrise app is mostly very good, but after many months of using the app, I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love some of the features, and I have found it very useful for learning a lot of new vocabulary fast. At the same time, the Memrise app drives me absolutely crazy with its annoying gamification, as well as its inflexibility, inconsistencies, bugs, and limitations that prioritize the gamification over the actual learning. For example, one study option presents a written word and three audio clips of words, and you need to select the correct audio; however, often all three audio clips are exactly the same. You are guaranteed to get the answer correct, but that doesn’t mean you actually know the answer. Another study option presents an English word and a set of Korean syllables, and you need to spell the correct Korean word using the correct syllables from within the given set; but the Korean syllables are often not even scrambled, and the correct syllables are just the last ones in the list. These are minor complaints given the range of study options, which are excellent for the most part. My detailed ratings of the Memrise app for the flashcard app desiderata are below.
Overall score for Memrise: 53/70
App interface: 6/10 The Memrise Android App is slick and flashy, but it is not necessarily always easy to use. Cards can’t be viewed (or studied) as simple cards, with Korean words on one side of the card and English words on the flip side. There are a lot of unnecessary and distracting icons, buttons, and noises. Even after using the app for a few months, I’m not sure what all the bells and whistles mean.
Study modes: 6/10 The (free version of the) Memrise App has three study “games”: Learn New Words, Classic Review, and Speed Review. Each provides a nice variety of study options using the text and audio on the cards. However, there is no simple study mode, where you can flip through the cards in a deck. You just can’t do it. You can only study using one of the games. Additional study games are available with Memrise Pro for $59/year. I use the Learn New Words mode for the first pass through a new card deck, then Classic Review for further study. I don’t find Speed Review extremely helpful because I can’t stop and study the words I need to when they come up.
Spaced repetition: 10/10 Spaced repetition is very well done in Memrise, and it is standard in the free version of the app. The app tracks your answers to all words studied, and missed words are thrown back into the mix more frequently. Spaced repetition is invisible to the user, so you do not need to worry about putting the flashcards into the correct pile for later study. Memrise also nicely breaks down large sets of cards so that you can work your way through the deck incrementally.
Web interface: 9/10 The Memrise web interface is well-synchronized with the app. Study progress is sync’ed so that if you study a deck in one place it is updated in the other. Search results on both web and app are not identical, which is a problem (see “Access to other decks” below). The web interface has a study mode with full Korean character typing, vs. syllable tapping in the app, so the website is better for practicing typing.
Ease of creating new decks: 10/10 Creating a new deck in Memrise is just as easy as in Quizlet. To test deck creation in Memrise, I repeated the experiment with the 100 Korean-English word pairs that I had created in Google Translate for the Quizlet experiment. I clicked the “Create a course” button on the Memrise site, filled in the required descriptor fields, cut and pasted the two columns of words from the Google Sheet into the new card set, and saved the new set. The new card deck appeared immediately in the Memrise app, and I was able to start studying the words. As with Quizlet, it took a total of about 5 minutes to go from a word list in Google Translate to a brand new card deck (“Course”) in the Memrise app. Memrise did not automatically add audio like Quizlet did, but that was an unexpected bonus of the Quizlet deck creation.
Access to other decks: 5/10 There are a lot of card decks (“courses” as they call them) in Memrise, but the search function is downright terrible. The most relevant “course” often shows up several pages into the search results. I was looking for the vocabulary from Unit 2 of the How To Study Korean site, and it is was nearly impossible to find. I searched (both in the app and on the website) for “howtostudykorean.com Unit 2” and “How to Study Korean Unit 2” and several other combinations. All the other units for howtostudykorean.com showed up at one point or another, mixed in with other courses that did not contain the actual search terms I entered. Even when I clicked on the creator of Unit 1, I got the spurious message “howtostudykorean.com hasn’t created any courses yet.” After over 15 minutes of searching, I stumbled upon HowtoStudyKorean.com Unit 2 in one of the search result lists. When I added this Course to my list of courses on the website, it immediately showed up in the app as well, and I was able to start studying the words.
Free: 7/10 Like Quizlet, Memrise operates on a Freemium model. The free version of the app has been fine for all my vocabulary study needs. I won’t be paying the $59/year for Memrise Pro, which adds a few Study Modes like “Difficult Words” and “Listening Skills.” The free app constantly nags you to upgrade to Memrise Pro, often routing you toward one of the Pro study modes (like “Difficult Words”), forcing you to manually back out and select one of the free modes. This is unnecessary and obnoxious.