Review by Patricia Monticello Kievlan, Common Sense Education | Updated June 2016
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Flexible flash card app prompts students to reflect

Subjects & skills

  • Character & SEL
  • Critical Thinking
  • College & Career Prep
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (3 Reviews)

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Pros: Compelling visual metaphors encourage and monitor progress toward content mastery.

Cons: Too-frequent prompts to upgrade the built-in flash card decks and too-casual email text are a little off-putting.

Bottom Line: An exceptionally flexible tool with great potential for creating and sharing custom flash cards, but many of the features that make it unique will cost you.

Encourage students to try the built-in "crash course" decks for AP courses, standardized tests, and foreign languages. You might also browse Brainscape's free and paid decks to see if any are good fits for reviewing topics you already cover in your classroom. Once you've found something you like, assign free built-in decks for extra practice and ask students to share a screenshot of their mastery statistics. Using the free version of the app, teachers or students can create their own flash cards, but adding media will require a Pro account upgrade. With these paid features, you can upload images of maps and ask students to study them for a geography quiz, or upload audio of Spanish vocabulary words and test listening comprehension. From a web browser -- and once again with a Pro account -- create a set of cards from a CSV file from Microsoft Excel or a similar program. Create new cards from scratch by hitting Tab to enter text. Pro account flash cards can also be quickly reversed from question/answer format to appear in reverse as answer/question. Share a "Subject" and the "Decks" nested under it in two ways: via a direct URL link or via a private email invitation. Monitor student mastery through a home page for each deck that lists the users' names and their mastery percentages.

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Brainscape is a study and test-prep app that lets you create and share digital flash cards and study them yourself or share with others via email or a link. It's available as an iOS app for on the web and via mobile using a web browser. Brainscape's best feature is its super-simple color-coding system. As you proceed through each gray-bordered card, you're asked to reflect, "How well did you know this?" Five rainbow-colored buttons appear across the bottom of the screen. The one on the far left is labeled "1--Not at all" and appears in red; the last button is blue, and its label reads "5--Perfectly." On each card, you have to tap a colored button on this scale to indicate how well you think you knew the answer to the card's question. Once you've tapped a color for the card, that card's gray border changes to the color you chose, and a fraction of the progress bar at the top of the screen appears in the same color. As you proceed through more cards, the progress bar grows to symbolize your overall mastery of the content in the card deck. More red means you have more work to do, and more blue means you're confident that you know this content well.

This colored card metaphor is compelling on its own as a progress indicator, and it's also what makes this app especially effective. With real flash cards, it's good practice for a student to sort the cards he knows from the cards whose content is less familiar, and the student should then concentrate his study time on those latter flash cards. While that's a great strategy, it's one that not all students use effectively. Brainscape's color-coding system affects how often the user will see the cards. After a card is marked blue, you'll rarely see it again, while cards marked red and orange come up more than any others. The app is designed to make you see and re-see the less familiar cards over and over until they become as easy to recall as the cards already marked green and blue.

Brainscape's other big advantage is its customizability, but much of that comes at a price. Many of the better features -- such as adding images and audio to decks -- are packaged with Pro account upgrades. Since this version is $9.99/month, the $79.99 one-time fee can be compelling for teachers who plan to get a year or more out of the tool. Similarly, the built-in flash card decks are nice, but most are short and prompt you to buy an expansion pack for $9.99 or more for each subject.  

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Flash cards can be great for certain content, but their biggest weakness is that they are so simplistic. They don't demand critical thinking or synthesis, and they aren't the best preparation for tests that go beyond rote memorization. Brainscape offers a best-case scenario for students to use flash cards. It demands that students think critically about their learning. Every card flipped requires the student to tap a color that indicates how well he or she knew the information on the card. Of course, as with paper flash cards, it's still possible for students to flip mindlessly through these cards. However, the visual metaphor of that rainbow progress bar is compelling. It feels good to complete a deck and turn the progress bar blue, and it feels rewarding to see the numbers tick upward on the "Overall Mastery" pie chart on the app's Library home page.

The only really irritating thing about Brainscape is its creators' linguistic tics. When you share a deck of flash cards via email, the default text for the message states that “Your buddy has been studying 'smart flashcards' and thought you should join the party." That feels a little too casual for a teacher/student email exchange. Additionally, the email's signature quips that the app works via "proven brain science," a glib line that might undermine that claim rather than bolster it.

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Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

These flash cards offer instant feedback and clear progress tracking. As new cards appear, students rate how well they know each card's content on a color-coded scale. The less confident they are, the more frequently it appears.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

As with paper flash cards, this app is good for reviewing vocabulary and concepts in many subjects. It's empowering for students to see their knowledge of a subject improve as more and more cards turn from red to blue.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

The built-in color coding makes the student's progress clear throughout. Cards featuring text, images, and/or audio allow students to customize their multimedia experience.

Common Sense Reviewer
Patricia Monticello Kievlan Foundation/nonprofit member

Teacher Reviews

(See all 3 reviews) (3 reviews) Write a review
Featured review by
Jeremy H. , Classroom teacher
Classroom teacher
Fulton Middle School
Middleton, MI
A flashcard app that can be used on multiple platforms.
The product overall is a decent product. I am a huge advocate for free apps to use in the classroom and this is free. However, there are in-app purchases which can become costly. The design of the app is appealing and it is beneficial to the learner that they can access their flashcards among multiple platforms. Also, the mastery feature the tool includes can be helpful so students don't see the same flashcard over and over. Students had mixed opinions on ease of use. Using it myself with other colleagues we all agreed this would be a great tool for the high school and college level. As you get below high school, it can become more difficult for students to use, especially students who are not so familiar with technology. Students and I were shocked there weren't pre-made flashcards that dealt with grammar. We also saw SAT practice cards, but not ACT practice cards. Students and I felt there should be more options when it came to the free material offered by this app. Overall, the intent of the app is great, but I am not convinced it appeals to students below high school and it should have more options when it comes to how students study instead of just the flashcards themselves, especially if you are trying to appeal to elementary level students. Read full review