Can online flashcards help students ‘Crush That Test’?

CrushThatTest has attracted more than 2,000 members since 2007.
CrushThatTest has attracted more than 2,000 members since 2007.

Sundar Nathan was a college student prepping for an exam, cramming hundreds of pieces of information into his overfilled memory bank when he resorted to flashcards—a strategy he’s evangelized for ever since.

Nathan and a group of University of Texas graduates created the site CrushThatTest in 2007, giving college students more than 1,000 free digital flashcards as a supplement to their course textbooks in nine subjects, ranging from U.S. history to psychology.

Students can access CrushThatTest on their desktops and laptops, or pay $1.99 to use the web-based flashcards on their iPhone. Students can use their iPhones to scroll through chapters and see how many flashcards are available in each chapter.

The web site lets members scroll through flashcards and answer questions about a specific part of a topic, such as chemistry or biology. It then generates a pie chart showing how the student fared on the practice exam. The flashcard testing function has a clock that shows students how long they’ve spent covering a certain part of the curriculum.

“The aspect of time is important in any academic endeavor,” Nathan said. “It helps [students] measure their return on investment, if you look at it in a business sense.”

The site also has flashcards for Spanish and French—with more languages coming this fall—and standardized tests such as the GMAT and GRE.

CrushThatTest has a growing student customer base that now numbers more than 2,000. The site will unwrap new subject areas and more flashcards during the coming academic year.

Breaking classroom lesson into pieces—a strategy known to researchers as “chunking”—helped Nathan sleep better as a college student. When he’d study entire sections of a book and try to review key facts in his head before he fell asleep, he’d come up blank on some questions and worried that his cramming was all for naught.

So he resorted to flashcards, and flipped through the study aids on the bus rides to and from class.

“Somehow my brain seemed to absorb 20 [facts] at a time rather than taking on 100 at a time,” he said. “I think the brain does an interesting job of memorizing so much better that way.”

CrushThatTest’s service, Nathan said, could be a time saver for students who depend on flashcards to solidify complex topics discussed in lectures or discussion sections. It usually took Nathan 40 hours to make a pile of flashcards for an introductory college course—not a time investment many students are willing to make.

“We’ve wanted to bridge the divide between the students who can create that material really fast and those who might struggle with that,” said Nathan, who worked in the software industry before launching CrushThatTest. “And we’ve seen too often that if you test someone on five chapters at a time, it fries their brain.”

Using flashcards to break down massive amounts of information is well founded in research on “chunking” dating back to the 1950s. Princeton psychology professor George Miller found that people memorize facts better in “chunks” of five to seven items at a time.

Research conducted by Nobel Prize winner and Carnegie Mellon University professor Herbert Simon showed that flashcards could be ideal for students studying for a test weeks or months away, because the “fixation of information in long-term memory has been shown to take about 5 or 10 seconds per chunk.”

More study aids from the CrushThatTest founders will be available on the internet soon as officials prepare to launch Menteon, an adaptive learning platform that lets college students organize notes digitally in subsections of highlighted notes from digital textbooks and educational videos from sites like YouTube, among other resources.

Nathan said Menteon’s web site will be live sometime in September.

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