In December last year, I posted a wish list for vocabulary (flashcard) apps. At the time, I hadn’t read a couple of key research texts on the subject. It’s time for an update.
First off, there’s an article called ‘Intentional Vocabulary Learning Using Digital Flashcards’ by Hsiu-Ting Hung. It’s available online here. Given the lack of empirical research into the use of digital flashcards, it’s an important article and well worth a read. Its basic conclusion is that digital flashcards are more effective as a learning tool than printed word lists. No great surprises there, but of more interest, perhaps, are the recommendations that (1) ‘students should be educated about the effective use of flashcards (e.g. the amount and timing of practice), and this can be implemented through explicit strategy instruction in regular language courses or additional study skills workshops ‘ (Hung, 2015: 111), and (2) that digital flashcards can be usefully ‘repurposed for collaborative learning tasks’ (Hung, ibid.).
However, what really grabbed my attention was an article by Tatsuya Nakata. Nakata’s research is of particular interest to anyone interested in vocabulary learning, but especially so to those with an interest in digital possibilities. A number of his research articles can be freely accessed via his page at ResearchGate, but the one I am interested in is called ‘Computer-assisted second language vocabulary learning in a paired-associate paradigm: a critical investigation of flashcard software’. Don’t let the title put you off. It’s a review of a pile of web-based flashcard programs: since the article is already five years old, many of the programs have either changed or disappeared, but the critical approach he takes is more or less as valid now as it was then (whether we’re talking about web-based stuff or apps).
Nakata divides his evaluation for criteria into two broad groups.
Flashcard creation and editing
(1) Flashcard creation: Can learners create their own ﬂashcards?
(2) Multilingual support: Can the target words and their translations be created in any language?
(3) Multi-word units: Can ﬂashcards be created for multi-word units as well as single words?
(4) Types of information: Can various kinds of information be added to ﬂashcards besides the word meanings (e.g. parts of speech, contexts, or audios)?
(5) Support for data entry: Does the software support data entry by automatically supplying information about lexical items such as meaning, parts of speech, contexts, or frequency information from an internal database or external resources?
(6) Flashcard set: Does the software allow learners to create their own sets of ﬂashcards?
(1) Presentation mode: Does the software have a presentation mode, where new items are introduced and learners familiarise themselves with them?
(2) Retrieval mode: Does the software have a retrieval mode, which asks learners to recall or choose the L2 word form or its meaning?
(3) Receptive recall: Does the software ask learners to produce the meanings of target words?
(4) Receptive recognition: Does the software ask learners to choose the meanings of target words?
(5) Productive recall: Does the software ask learners to produce the target word forms corresponding to the meanings provided?
(6) Productive recognition: Does the software ask learners to choose the target word forms corresponding to the meanings provided?
(7) Increasing retrieval eﬀort: For a given item, does the software arrange exercises in the order of increasing diﬃculty?
(8) Generative use: Does the software encourage generative use of words, where learners encounter or use previously met words in novel contexts?
(9) Block size: Can the number of words studied in one learning session be controlled and altered?
(10) Adaptive sequencing: Does the software change the sequencing of items based on learners’ previous performance on individual items?
(11) Expanded rehearsal: Does the software help implement expanded rehearsal, where the intervals between study trials are gradually increased as learning proceeds? (Nakata, T. (2011): ‘Computer-assisted second language vocabulary learning in a paired-associate paradigm: a critical investigation of flashcard software’ Computer Assisted Language Learning, 24:1, 17-38)
It’s a rather different list from my own (there’s nothing I would disagree with here), because mine is more general and his is exclusively oriented towards learning principles. Nakata makes the point towards the end of the article that it would ‘be useful to investigate learners’ reactions to computer-based ﬂashcards to examine whether they accept ﬂashcard programs developed according to learning principles’ (p. 34). It’s far from clear, he points out, that conformity to learning principles are at the top of learners’ agendas. More than just users’ feelings about computer-based flashcards in general, a key concern will be the fact that there are ‘large individual differences in learners’ perceptions of [any flashcard] program’ (Nakata, N. 2008. ‘English vocabulary learning with word lists, word cards and computers: implications from cognitive psychology research for optimal spaced learning’ ReCALL 20(1), p. 18).
I was trying to make a similar point in another post about motivation and vocabulary apps. In the end, as with any language learning material, research-driven language learning principles can only take us so far. User experience is a far more difficult creature to pin down or to make generalisations about. A user’s reaction to graphics, gamification, uploading time and so on are so powerful and so subjective that learning principles will inevitably play second fiddle. That’s not to say, of course, that Nakata’s questions are not important: it’s merely to wonder whether the bigger question is truly answerable.
Nakata’s research identifies plenty of room for improvement in digital flashcards, and although the article is now quite old, not a lot had changed. Key areas to work on are (1) the provision of generative use of target words, (2) the need to increase retrieval effort, (3) the automatic provision of information about meaning, parts of speech, or contexts (in order to facilitate flashcard creation), and (4) the automatic generation of multiple-choice distractors.
In the conclusion of his study, he identifies one flashcard program which is better than all the others. Unsurprisingly, five years down the line, the software he identifies is no longer free, others have changed more rapidly in the intervening period, and who knows will be out in front next week?