5 Questions for Andrew Cohen, founder of Brainscape

Do you consider yourself a dedicated flashcard user? If so, just how dedicated are you? Some people are satisfied simply using flashcards, knowing that they are an efficient study tool for a variety of learning. Others may try to get their friends hooked. Then there is Andrew Cohen, who went the extra step towards spreading the word about flashcards. Several years ago, the idea for Brainscape was born out of necessity: He needed a smart study tool that did not exist, so he created it. His intelligent flashcard software took off; six years after it was born Brainscape offers hundreds of decks on a wide variety of subjects that are being studied by over a million users across the globe on both web and mobile.

Andrew took the time to answer five questions about his company and their work with flashcards, so read on to learn more about the story behind Brainscape.

You founded an educational company focused on flashcards. Were you always a flashcard user? Why the dedication to flashcards?
I have used flashcards ever since practicing my multiplication tables in 2nd grade.  Throughout my school and college years, I probably made flashcards for over 100 quizzes or tests – sometimes because my teachers forced me to make them, but often because I wanted to make them myself.  They were simply the most efficient way for me to study for tests because they allowed me to categorize each item based on how well I knew it.  I built Brainscape because I wanted a way to automate that Confidence-Based Repetition experience and make it even better.

How did you come up with the idea for Brainscape? Did you ever consider taking a different approach to helping people ‘Learn Faster’, using another study tool?
The first version of Brainscape was sort of created by accident.  It all began when I was trying to teach myself French using Rosetta Stone.  Because Rosetta Stone unfortunately didn’t have a single repository for all words & concepts, I had begun keeping a list of every new word and phrase I learned in a giant Excel spreadsheet, with one column for English and the second column for French. I used this Excel spreadsheet to study my words by covering the French column with one hand and quizzing myself on each item, in the same way I would have done with regular flashcards.

Then one day, I randomly decided to create a third column where I would rate my confidence in each item on a scale of 1-5 so that I could “sort” by how frequently I needed to study the cards.  “This would be much easier”, I thought, “if the repetition frequency could be determined automatically based on my confidence input.”  So I wrote a Visual Basic macro that automated the repetition process for me.  Brainscape v0.1 was born (although I had originally called it “Study A.I.D. – which stood for “Assessment Interval Determination”).

Can you describe the process of developing the perfect study algorithm for Brainscape? How much was already a natural part of your study experience with flashcards, how much occurred to you in the refining process?
Most people already use Confidence-Based Repetition when studying with flashcards.  We do this by putting flashcards into “piles.”  One pile for flashcards that we already know perfectly, another pile for flashcards that we suck at, etc.  So in that sense, Brainscape is already a natural part of most people’s study experiences.  The difference with Brainscape is that we have made hundreds of refinements to the repetition algorithm so that it is much more efficient than any individual studier could be.  When we ran a 30-minute experiment dividing people into flashcard groups and Brainscape groups, the people studying using Brainscape performed over twice as well on the post-test as people who studied using traditional flashcards.

There are still a number of people criticizing the ‘drill’-type memorization flashcards stand for. When you first talk to people about Brainscape, are the reactions positive, or do you often find yourself having to try and convince sceptics?
Most learners are able to see the benefits of Brainscape right away.  But there is indeed a growing movement in education against any “drill & practice” and in favor of collaborative, project-based learning.  What is important to understand is that these two learning strategies can indeed work hand-in-hand.  I personally believe that most concepts should be introduced in constructivist settings.  For example, you should ideally first learn a new vocabulary word by needing it in a conversation with a native speaker, forcing you to “look it up”.  But once you’ve learned something constructively, this does not guarantee that you will remember it forever!  You still need a way to study it later to keep it fresh and truly deepen the knowledge.  Brainscape’s goal is to make this study & review process as efficient as humanly possible.

If there was one study tip you could give to learners, what would it be?
Learn deliberately!  People are often looking for a magic bullet that just makes them “absorb” information by playing a game or something.  True learning requires concentration and an active commitment to understanding.  No matter how you choose to study, the important thing to remember is to learn deliberately.

Brainscape affiliation


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