These days, the most popular way to study vocab is Quizlet, which is a repository of digital flashcards.
Quizlet is popular because it’s easy. Usually, someone else has already made the flashcards for you – either your teacher, a classmate, or some random person on the internet (whom you hope is reliable).
Why I Don’t Like Quizlet
Unfortunately, studying the “easy” way is not a good recipe for learning. By using someone else’s flashcards, you’re missing out on a critical step in learning vocabulary – the step where you write it down yourself. Thus, you’re failing to tap into the power of written product.
Furthermore, the act of using Quizlet’s flashcards is often very passive. It involves a lot of looking at your phone and swiping the screen. The trouble with that version of “studying” is that it’s way too similar to all the other looking and swiping students do with their phones. It doesn’t stand out, so it doesn’t convince the brain to care.
On the other hand, you could take out a piece of paper or a stack of blank notecards and spend 20 minutes writing out the vocab yourself. That would stand out to your brain, and that would put you on the path to rapid memory formation.
It’s not that Quizlet doesn’t work; it’s just that it’s low-grade studying that requires far more time than other methods of studying vocab. It’s akin to lifting very light weights. Eventually, you’ll get strong, but you’d gain strength a lot faster lifting heavier weights.
Here are two excellent, time-tested methods for studying vocab that will get you more memory in less time.
Quizlet is actually modeled after traditional paper flashcards. Once made, these are a nice way to get in little doses of studying here and there. You can shuffle them to mix up the order. You can reverse them all to switch from word –> definition to definition –> word.
But as mentioned above, the real power comes from the writing of them. Making them yourself is hard work, and it’s precisely that hard work that tells your brain this vocab is worth holding onto.
Additionally, the physical experience of flipping through paper cards is rare, as compared to swiping on your phone, so it should stand out to your brain as more significant than using Quizlet’s flashcards.
This is my preferred method for studying vocab.
The method is simple: You take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side of the line, you’ll write the vocab. On the other, you’ll write the definitions. For example, if you’re studying Spanish, you might receive a vocab list for the unit. On one side of the chart, you write the words in Spanish, and on the other side, you write the words in English.
In the first round of effort, you’re just using the provided resource (which might even be a Quizlet your teacher made) to write out the two lists. As with the making of paper flashcards, this lays the groundwork for initial memory formation. (Note: Don’t write out all the Spanish words and then all the English words. Write them in corresponding pairs. Hablar | to speak, comer | to eat, and so on. You’re trying to establish a link in your brain between the vocab and its definition, so write them together.)
Then, when you’re ready to study with your two-column chart, grab a blank sheet of paper and cover up the English side of the chart. You then go down the list, writing the English words next to their equivalent Spanish words on your blank sheet of paper. When you finish, check your answers and write your wrongs. Later, you can do it in reverse order, by covering the Spanish side and using the English side for prompts.
The two-column chart creates a powerful two-way practice test that works for any foreign language, but also for biology, language arts, history, statistics, or any other situation where you need to memorize a bunch of vocabulary.
The only drawback is that you cannot randomize the word order, as you can with flashcards. But the fact that you’ve got a ready-made, reusable, written practice test more than makes up for that. And if need be, you can always rewrite it in a different order.
Remember to Verbalize
No matter what method you choose, you’ll enhance your retention if you also verbalize as you study. This incorporates more senses, and it’s slightly more work, and both of those things improve memory formation.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.