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FlashcardDb Review

FlashcardDb is one of the growing number of online flashcard review sites that allow you to review online and share flashcards with others. The site offers full data portability and support for both a static time-to-forget “Leitner” form of interval study as well as an interval study approach similar to that provided by Supermemo, Anki, and Mnemosyne. The developer posts some interesting comments on interval study (spaced repetition) on the site blog and also has a twitter feed one can follow.
Design – The overall design of the site is relatively straightforward and easy to navigate. The interface feels a little too busy with far too many and poorly chosen colors (several shades of blue, green, red, and yellow for various messages, mix of shades of red and blue and orange on the card editing interface) and inconsistent use of borders around elements, which I think could be improved significantly, but a user will feel more comfortable using the site than, say, Flashcard Exchange.1 The site doesn’t seem to have any kind of general help page or even a site map, which really ought to be created. Creating a user and logging in is a breeze, however, and there is no email verification required. There is no division between free or premium accounts like Flashcard Exchange, or even requests for donations such as those displayed by Quizlet and Anki.2

Search – Searching for flashcards on the website is easy and conveniently provides separate lists of sets containing the search term in the name of the set or tagged as such. However, this list also includes lists private sets that one cannot access (sympathetically the developer writes, “I wonder what’s on those cards? I bet it’s something cool :( ” However, other than to show off a high number of sets returned, it seems pointless to list such private card sets, especially when no user name of the creator is hidden so one cannot plead with them to open up their card set. The developer might consider adding an “advanced search” option which allows one to, for example search for “verbs” in the title, but tagged “german.” Also, the search seems to handle tag searches in a strange way. For example, searching for “germ” gives you all sets with “German” in the title, but none tagged “german.” Instead it return only two sets tagged “germ” However, if one searches for “germ cells” one gets all sets with “germ” or “cells.” There doesn’t seem to be a way to search for sets with both the tag “german” and the tag “verbs” (that search will return all sets tagged verbs).

Set Ratings? There doesn’t seem to be any kind of rating system or other way to make use of the growing community of users at Flashcard to help differentiate the level of quality between the various sets one can view on the site. This is a feature present on most other online flashcard review sites and I hope the developer will consider adding it.

Creating Sets and Adding Cards

Creating sets is pleasant but limited. Only two fields are permitted so students of Japanese and Chinese, for example, should look elsewhere. I hope support for three sided cards will be added in the future. Like most sites with the notable exception of Anki’s online study website, this is a card and not a fact based approach (see my posting on facts vs. cards). It looks like the cards can support multiple lines but does not have any controls (or even support for a meta-language like Textile used by Cramberry) for rich editing of the cards with bold and italics, for example. The cards and the import features support unicode without any problems.

One can easily import cards with various delimiters (commas, tabs, etc.) and also export both your own and other user sets with an even larger selection of delimiters. However, the developer does not handle CVS comma delimited files correctly. Normally comma delimited files will enclose fields with quotation marks if there commas within the field, to prevent those commas from being interpreted as delimiters.3

There doesn’t appear to be any easy keyboard short cut for easily adding new cards and one must click on the button each time to proceed to the next blank card. I recommend recognizing a key like an “enter” (as opposed to “return”) or “tab” or some other special key from the final field as indicating the user wishes to save and create a new card. There is also a bug in the interface for creating new cards. If you press “Add this Card” and get impatient while you wait and click the button again, the site will create two identical cards. Also, I would recommend adding a warning to users who have added text to a new blank card but who click on “I am done adding cards” to warn them they have not saved the currently edited card. Currently the field gets hidden without any warning and the silly user will have lost the card they entered without saving. Since this field appears to be simply hidden with Javascript, however, “Add a new card” will actually show the field again with the unsaved text still in there. I would still add a warning though.

It is nice that you can conveniently view previously added cards above when you add them, and easily delete or edit them with a click on a series of buttons visible only when you mouse over the earlier cards. I could recommend that it also allowed the user to double click directly on fields of cards to edit the field in question without having to mouse over to the left and press the “edit.” There is a cost to this pleasant display though. If one has imported 3,000 Korean words, as I did during my test of the site, you will have to patiently wait while a huge list of 3,000 Korean words is generated for you each time you open the set. I would recommend having a separate browse overview of a set’s contents or at least limit the displayed cards to a few hundred.

Interval Study and Flashcard Study

FlashcardDb supports two separate forms of interval study and you can switch between methods globally in the “Settings” of the user. One is the Leitner system, or what I have been usually referring to as a static time-to-forget (TTF) schedule.4 A description of the system used can be found here. The TTF schedule used essentially only has four stages with the intervals being one day, three days, one week, and one month. Although I haven’t used the service enough to know, I’m guessing (correct me if I’m wrong in the comments) the cards continue to repeat at intervals of one month when they reach the final TTF stage (otherwise, of course, it would be guilty of the cookie monster flaw). A static TTF schedule is fine and easy for users to understand and use. I used it in my own Flashcard Wizard a decade ago, and versions of it can be found used on the previously reviewed Flashcard Exchange website and such OS X applications such as iFlash and Mental Case. However, I feel that the number of stages are far too few and should, like iFlash, Mental Case, and my old Flaschard Wizard allow the user to tweak the intervals between stages according to their needs.

The “Graded Spaced Repetition” method uses an approach familiar to users of Anki, Mnemosyne, or the powerful SuperMemo application which developed the method. Users can grade their response which propels the card into the future accordingly. The cards are still, however, displayed with the same break down, making it somewhat difficult to distinguish off hand which system one is using when looking at an overview of one’s cards. In fact, regardless of which system one is using, clicking on one’s flashcards will send you to the page with a description of the Leitner method.

It would be nice if, on the “My flashcards” page, there was a more obvious way to study all cards that are due (across sets). The only way to begin interval study, that I can tell, is to click on an individual set and click “Study” but this studies only the cards for that given set. This would not be unusual if it weren’t for the fact that the “My Flashcard” statistics lump all statistics together for all sets, yet only allows you, as far as I can tell, to study the sets individually.

There is the capability of tagging one’s sets and then conducting interval study across sets on that tag or viewing the interval study statistics for that tag alone. However, I was not able to determine how to tag flashcard sets that I had found on the site. Again, my study statistics for those saved flashcard sets created by other users are included in the aggregate total of cards due, but I cannot seem to tag those sets or study them without explicitly going to the set itself. To allow this to happen though, the developer will have to devise some way to allow people to tag other people’s sets, while it may be wise to keep these tags visible only to the user who tagged them unless that user is the creator of the set. Either way, the tagging system has some more work. Future improvements might include the ability to tag at the sub-set level, marking collections of words by their part of speech for example if one wants to review simply the verbs across multiple sets. Adding this feature will need some work though, as it is only useful if tagging is extremely fast and simple.

FlashcardDB has a somewhat confusing system of dividing cards up which, if I understand it correctly, works like this when displayed in graphical presentation: yellow expired cards are cards that are due at a particular session or which have not yet been studied, there are green correct cards which are not currently due but the display of which gives you an indication of how many words are at a given interval, and red incorrect cards which have had their time-to-forget stage reset to zero. At the top of the table one is given totals of how many words are expired, incorrect, or green but this is not the most obviously useful indicator that could have been displayed since these aggregate numbers don’t by themselves tell you very much. Instead, statistics indicating certain trends or indicators of future study might be alternatives to consider. To be honest, while the colors dazzle, I don’t think they serve any truly useful purpose when presented the way they are. When looking at graphs of this kind, the primary things a student wants to know are: how many cards do I have at various intervals? How many cards are scheduled or are likely to be scheduled (at the current pace of daily added new cards and average performance up to now) for the coming days and weeks? It is easy to look at the chart provided and think one is looking at latter instead of the former.

It would be nice if, like Anki, the application provided a way to limit the number of cards offered for study on a particular day, regardless of how many cards are due. Anki, for examples, allows you to indicate a fixed number of “new” cards each day, maximum number of repetitions overall, and a maximum time per session (each of which can be overriden when the limit is reached during any given session). A blog entry written by the developer suggests that he is already thinking along these lines when he mentions, “a sort of Recovery Mode…through which a daily maximum of cards to study could be set. That way just logging on and seeing the number of scheduled repetitions doesn’t lead to a sinking feeling and maybe even further procrastination.” I hope that such a feature is added and that other developers of similar websites recognize some of the fantastic advantages of such a system. My ancient Mac OS classic application Flashcard Wizard provided a similar feature, as does iFlash but in both of our cases, it was merely a cap on total cards, rather than the optional caps on new cards, total repetitions, and study time provided by Anki.

During flashcard study itself, FlashcardDb has a number of good standard features, such as the ability to edit a card, and easily move back to earlier cards with the left arrow even after they have been graded. The right arrow key or the “f” key will flip the card. In graded space repetition, the number keys will grade the card. Ending the session will show you a nice pie chart of one’s performance, but rather than merely showing you performance on cards you actually studied, it includes words due or “expired” which were not studied (while understandable, it might be better to merely show cards actually studied in the pie chart)

From an interface standpoint however, frequent readers of this weblog know I generally dislike applications that try too hard to emulate the physical experience of turning over a paper flashcard, especially if this comes at the sacrifice of performance or efficient use of space. In fact, while in this case this is a relatively minor point, I am hereby going to call this general problem the “Flip Fixation Flaw” and will elaborate on this point in a separate posting. In this specific case FlashcardDb sacrifices precious browser space to create two separate spaces for displaying card information: one for each side of the card next to each other horizontally on the page. More text can fit easily on the card (which it probably shouldn’t since cards should generally be kept simple) or more importantly a larger font can be displayed by maximizing this browser real estate and putting all card information in a single large canvas. I recommend that FlashcardDb and other flashcard sites forego the physical representation of a physical flashcard and focus on the maximum efficiency, speed, and clarity (for example, by distinguishing the front and back by means of colors, shading, or some other means). In the case of FlashcardDB, I think the horizontal approach is not the best for flashcards. Generally the content of flashcards will be wider than they are tall. A vertical format is therefore, I believe, better than a horizontal approach and putting the text of each side in the same general space rather than creating a visual image of a separate card is not necessary.

Wrapping Up

FlashcardDb offers interval study and data portability for free so it deserves serious consideration for those who need only two sided cards. While the design needs better discipline, the overall experience is pleasant. However, my feeling is that it has a lot of rough edges and areas needing improvement both in terms of interface, interval study implementation and a few minor surface design issues. Although it may be my current location (South Korea) I also felt the site was sometime on the slow side to load but again, this may not be a problem in North America. At any rate, FlashcardDb needs some lovin’ attention by its users and developer to address some of the quirks throughout the website. It has good potential but I’m concerned that, given the powerful competitors out there, it will be hard for FlashcardDb to stand out clearly on either the design or features front. On the one hand, there are very professional looking sites like Quizlet and Wordchamp that, whatever problems one might feel they have, at least feel like they have a disciplined team of web monkeys at work on the interface while there is also the sexy minimalistic and colorful approach taken by Cramberry all of which offer FlashcardDb a serious challenge on the design front. Sites like Flashcard Exchange, with its pedigree, user base, one of the highest card counts and iPhone/iPod deployment via Mental Case will attract many who can overlook the clunky feel of the site. Finally, the ability for Anki application users on OS X, Windows, and Linux to easily synch and review their cards online as well as via a browser based tool on the iPhone/iPod gives adopters of that solution and its web equivalent access to the full power of interval study. FlashcardDb does, in fact, do a fair job on all fronts, but doesn’t really feel like it has its own niche where it truly shines. The best thing I can recommend to the FlashcardDb developer is to find that niche and really go all the way with it.

  1. In Firefox the home page did display the “Featured Card Set” and “Failed” in a strange position, not sure what is going on there. []
  2. Actually, the developer might consider adding such a donation button, surely every dollar counts to help with hosting costs and there is no shame in providing an easy way for loyal users to contribute. []
  3. This is, incidentally, the biggest reason why I think CVS is a really stupid format for flashcard sets that will very often contain commas and I wish all flashcard developers would support it only for import, exporting by default with other delimiters such as the simple tab. []
  4. There is some confusion in the field of interval study and spaced repetition applications. Sometimes the Leitner method is a general term for any kind of spaced repetition algorithm, but other times it specifically refers to a system which is roughly based on the idea of decks of cards spaced at increasing but static intervals. []

3 Comments

  1. Jeff wrote:

    Thank you for the thorough review K.M. A lot of it reads like my to-do list. :) I am happy you pointed out the emphasis on data portability and interval study.

    By the way, you can jump between fields during card creation by clicking tab. Rich formatting elements are allowed via basic HTML (including img). I’ve tried a few rich text editors but the results were ugly (so far). When the site launched it supported textile. But it was a support headache and confusing to users.

    “Recovery Mode” is in the works: http://flashcarddb.com/blog/10-dealing-with-a-neglected-srs-deck. I agree completely with your reasoning.

    Thanks again. I’ve come back to your site several times over the years. Glad to see FlashcardDB made it!!!

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Derek wrote:

    I am a big fan of FlashCardDB and like the depth of this review. Thanks!! I highly recommend FlashCardDB, but with its growing popularity, it’s started to have increased downtime. Similarly Jeff has been too busy to make significant changes. I love the web format though (which is my big gripe with Anki)

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  3. batya wrote:

    I did not find how to make a card set private on flashcarddb. I am in a Nursing program and we’d like our material to be private until our exam after which we’ll make it available to the public. can you please tell me how to reach this feature?
    thank you

    Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink