Down With Quizlet, Up With Brain Maps

Confession time.  When I first learned about Quizlet, I thought it was a good idea.  Online flashcards that can be created and shared incredibly easily, and the students can learn those terms in more ways than just flipping through the definitions.  What’s not to like? It turns out, a fair amount.  Unfortunately, students have become quite attached to their Quizlet, and I’m having a fairly hard time convincing them to abandon it altogether or at the very least broaden their horizons with other study methods.*

I don’t actually believe Quizlet must be abandoned in total.  Used well, I think it can serve a purpose. Students who use it as a first step on the road to real learning have my blessing to make as many Quizlets as they wish.  Go forth and conquer, I say.  After all, I had shoeboxes filled with flashcards when I was in high school.**  Too many of my students, however, are relying on Quizlet for the bulk of their studying, and it’s this that I find increasingly frustrating.

The problems with Quizlet are the same as with good old-fashioned notecards or reading and memorizing one’s notes verbatim. Students can convince themselves that they know the material, but they really just know those words in that particular order.  They don’t necessarily know or understand connections between the words or how concepts fit together.  When confronted with the same material in a different way, they can’t think their way through it because they’ve relied too much on the most basic of memorization. When the resulting test grade is lower than a student would have liked, I often hear, “But I knew every term when I studied my Quizlet!”  To which I would like to reply, “Who cares?”

I don’t do this, of course.  I spend time explaining how one can both know every term and yet not understand any of them.  We then talk about moving from memorization (a key step that I am not denying) to critical thinking and analysis.  It just seems like since Quizlet and similar applications have been created I am having these kinds of conversations with students more and more.  I am spending more and more time teaching them how to study effectively.  Yet, for all my explaining and for all the low test scores, many students remain unconvinced.

While they remain unconvinced, I am convinced.  I am convinced that using brain maps*** is a more effective method for studying, at least in the case of history.  (For a digital version, you can use something like Coggle, but we usually just use good old paper and pen.)  All school year, at the end of each unit, we have mapped our brains.  We start with any concept from the unit, and then we let our brains wander.  If we are studying the western frontier, we may start with Wounded Knee even though that’s near the end of our unit of study.  “What happened there, and what else do you know that connects with that event?  Oh, that makes you think of other conflicts like Little Bighorn and Sand Creek.  Great.  Why are these conflicts happening in the late 19th century?  Westward movement by American settlers is increasing.  Oh, okay.  Well, why is that happening now as opposed to earlier? Easier access due to things like the transcontinental railroad and government support via the Homestead Act.”  And we just keep going and going and making connections and filling in blanks.  Pretty soon, we’ve mapped our brains.

This method does two things that flashcards don’t do.  First, it requires students to know the material rather than see it on a flash card and just recognize it.  There’s nothing on the paper when we start; they either have something in their brains or they don’t.  Second, it requires them to make connections between material.  It’s not enough to know what happened at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee.  You must see the connection between these events and be able to answer questions about why those conflicts occurred.  If a student is facing a blank page after 10 minutes, he or she knows they need to go back and do some rereading because nothing has truly stuck. If a student can’t connect things together, he or she knows they need to think more deeply, asking why and how rather than just what or who.

Not all my students are convinced.  I still hear students say this method doesn’t work for them, Quizlet is king, blah, blah, blah.  Unlike my students who are wedded till death do them part with Quizlet, I am not wedded to the idea that brain maps are the only effective study method or the best method for every student.  Do I think it’s more effective than Quizlet?  Without a doubt.  Is it the only effective method?  No.  So I encourage them to try something else, anything else that will help them to really digest the material rather than simply regurgitate it.  But I also have said to them that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of either insanity or stupidity.  It’s their pick and it’s their grade.

*In addition, I’ve noticed students actually using Quizlet as a kind of research tool.  They don’t know a term, and someone out in the great beyond has created a Quizlet with that term in it.  Instead of going to a reputable source, they take what they find on Quizlet as the absolute truth.  Aggravating and slightly frightening.

**The advantage of real flashcards is the ability to move them around and make connections by placing them next to each other and the like.  If you really want to rely on flashcards, I tell my students, use real ones that can be manipulated more.

*** I am running up against one issue with brain maps.  Since we began by doing them together, some students can get a bit worried if, when working independently on a brain map, their map doesn’t look like someone else’s map.  We’re working on it.



  1. You are totally on target! You are actually teaching them a thinking process that I learned at What am I asked to do? What do I know or remember? What questions can I ask? What do I need to figure out? What is my idea / argument / opinion? I have posted these and the following “Productive Talk” steps: recall, restate, add on, defend. These steps have helped me say less guiding questions and the students say more!! Love your blog!!

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