I have used both handwritten and digital flashcards over the years and I can tell you there is a clear winner. I have created a list of the pros and cons of both handwritten and digital flashcards, to sum up, which option is best for you.
Based on a comparative analysis of the pros and cons of both physical and digital flashcards, it’s safe to conclude that learning using digital flashcards is simply better and more efficient overall. They automatically integrate spaced repetition, and organization, and don’t take up any extra space. These are all benefits that far outweigh what handwritten flashcards bring to the table.
It’s also worth noting that there are a few popular options as far as digital flashcard programs go. Anki and Quizlet are two very popular options. This is why I have an entire article that compares Anki and Quizlet in depth that explains what most students prefer and what I use.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the pros of handwritten flashcards.
Pros of Handwritten Flashcards
You can be creative with your questions and answers
I think the main benefit that handwritten cards have is that they are overall more customizable than their digital counterparts. More specifically, you can include detailed imagery for your answers. Using small drawings you can integrate quite a lof information into a very small and highly memorable format.
While you can use images from the internet on digital cards, there is a significant benefit to actually coming up with your own images. Research indicates that drawing images yourself compared to just viewing them significantly improves memory. This is because drawing images helps significantly with encoding memories.
Just make sure that when drawing these images you can’t see the drawings on the other side through the card!
However, it is also worth noting that you can also draw images by hand on your computer using a stylus and then copy-paste these images into flashcard programs like Anki. This is a great approach but it’s just a bit more clunky in my experience compared to drawing them by hand.
You can easily separate some cards to review on their own
One pro is that you can set aside cards as you review to focus more on. You can effectively create mini subdecks for super-focused revision like this.
You can do this kind of thing using digital card systems too. But it’s just easier and more straightforward when using physical cards.
Avoid digital distractions
A slightly smaller benefit of using handwritten cards is that you can avoid digital distractions this way. With digital flashcards, many apps are just a few clicks or taps away, this can make resisting distractions very challenging.
However, when it comes to staying off distracting programs and apps there are still options here if you use digital flashcards. You can easily use tools that restrict screen time and block programs on both computers and phones. I use Cold Turkey blocker for my computer to block websites and programs. In addition, I use parental controls on my iPhone that restrict screen time and require a password (that I don’t know but have stored in an inconvenient place).
While lessening distractions on handwritten cards is a pro, it’s one that with a bit of work can be applied to your digital cards as well.
Cons of Handwritten Flashcards
No easy-spaced repetition solution
This is actually the main reason I don’t like physical flashcard systems. Innovative flashcard programs like Anki have a special algorithm that spaces out and optimizes exactly which card you should see next for maximum effectiveness.
You can create systems with many boxes of cards. A common variation of this is called the Leitner system. But why would you go to the trouble of creating a physical system for spacing your flashcards out when this is all done for you automatically (and just better) by flashcard apps like Anki?
Hard to organize
Physical card systems can be hard to manage.
First, there is only really one order that physical cards can be viewed in. Smart digital card systems like Anki will show you all your cards in a different order each time you view them based on its algorithm. This makes doing flashcards feel more like a real test because you don’t know what material you will have to recall next.
Second, rearranging a deck of physical flashcards can be quite time-consuming and inconvenient. Your time would be better spent just actually doing the cards because working on maintaining a system of cards doesn’t actually help you understand the material.
Finally, digital flashcard programs allow you to search the database to find a particular card. This is infinitely more convenient than sifting through a physical deck and trying to find a particular card.
Take up lots of space
Physical cards take up space. You can’t feasibly carry many decks around with you easily for different things you are trying to memorize. If you want some level of convenience, you are restricted to carrying a single deck of cards around with you at any given time (unless you are willing to lug many decks around with you, I know I’m not).
If you use Anki you can have infinite cards that always don’t take up any more space than your phone does.
Pros of Digital Flashcards
This is the main benefit of using smart digital flashcard systems like Anki. When you complete the card you are asked to rate how difficult it was for you to get the answer. The harder to rank a card’s difficulty, the more often you will see that card.
This means that when you are reviewing cards you spend most of your time reviewing things that are actually challenging and need your focus. It cuts out a lot of unnecessary reviews. While this can be done with more work using physical flashcards, digital solutions achieve this automatically.
Once again the theme here is automaticity. You could organize your physical cards yourself and have them be just as organized as a digital solution. But by using a digital solution the cards are organized automatically from the start with no extra work on your end.
Don’t take any extra space
Finally, digital cards don’t take up any extra space. You can have literally thousands of these cards on your phone if you choose to.
However, It’s important that you don’t use their lack of space as an excuse to not make too many cards. Relying too much on flashcards is a very common trend among students. Many use flashcards as their sole revision tactic.
It’s important to remember that flashcards are inherently limited in many ways. I have an entire article on the limitations of Anki and how it should be used in your revision system and another article on other proven active recall techniques that you can integrate alongside Anki. By using different types of active recall you can balance out the various pros and cons associated with each technique.
Cons of Digital Flashcards
Less formatting options
Digital flashcards are often less customizable in terms of their format. It takes a lot more work to have a similar level of customizability. However, it’s also worth noting that using vivid imagery for remembering information could probably be done much more effectively by using a mind map or another technique. After all, using imagery, while useful for flashcards, is not really the best way to integrate images into your studying routine.
Less flexibility in what cards you chose to repeat
Something I have found with smart digital flashcard systems like Anki is that sometimes you want to repeat a specific card multiple times (at least at the start of revising it) in a row just to really get it down. The best you can really do is just to rank the card as highly difficult and you will see it frequently. But you can’t just isolate a card in Anki (to my knowledge at least) and repeat that card on its own.
- Wammes, J. D., Meade, M. E., & Fernandes, M. A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 69(9), 1752–1776. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494
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