September 13, 2018

Brainscape: The World's Smartest Flashcards

Brainscape is a Manhattan-based company that offers what they call, "The World's Smartest Flashcards." Founded in 2011 by Andrew Cohen (also CEO), the company uses cognitive science to help its customers learn twice as fast and remember what they learned longer. I spoke with the Founder and CEO to learn more about how Brainscape's cards can make you a better student.

Alex Culafi (AC): What's your background?

Andrew Cohen (ACo): I am a former economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the World Bank, with bachelor's degrees in economics and finance from the University of Georgia. I changed careers into Education Technology when I stumbled across the potential for scientifically optimizing the way people learn, beginning with a Masters degree in Instructional Technology from Columbia University.

AC: How did Brainscape come to be?

ACo: While living abroad and working on controversial projects with the World Bank, I was forced to get really good at both Spanish and French. However, my traditional schooling, combined with Rosetta Stone and other available tools, did not help me study as efficiently as I needed to.

So I created a program in Microsoft Excel that would quiz me on each vocab word and verb conjugation in exactly the pattern I needed. After seeing each answer, I would rate my confidence in how well I knew it, and the program would determine how frequently to ask me the corresponding question until I upgraded or downgraded my confidence.

This program was extremely effective for my own learning, and people in both Panama and Martinique began to ask me how I was improving my Spanish and French so quickly.

Andrew Cohen Brainscape
Brainscape Founder and CEO Andrew Cohen.

AC: What was the aha moment (or moments)?

ACo: The first aha moment was when some friends abroad started asking me if I could share my Excel Macro with them so that they could input their own Questions & Answers and quiz themselves in the same way. A few weeks after I'd shared the file, I'd learned that they'd shared it with other classmates, who had, in turn, shared it with others.

An Excel file had "gone viral" among college & grad students in three different countries—over email!

This was so motivating that it convinced me to change careers from Economist to Education Entrepreneur. I applied for a Master's in Instructional Technology at Columbia and vowed to make my concept of "Confidence-Based Repetition" the focus of my cognitive science research while in grad school.

The second Aha moment was when—toward the end of grad school—I ran an experiment with a prototype version of Brainscape, which proved that students who study with Brainscape performed more than twice as well on a post-test, after 30 minutes of studying a new topic, than a control group of students who studied the material using traditional flashcards.

If that was the benefit after just 30 minutes of studying, then how much more would the benefits accrue if we were talking about hundreds or thousands of hours of studying, spread out over months and years?

This motivated me to get on the path of raising investor financing and meeting my founding team, including my partner Andy Lutz (former VP of Product from The Princeton Review).

AC: What’s wrong with traditional study methods?

ACo: The biggest problem with traditional study methods is that they are too "linear." We may re-watch a lecture, re-read a textbook chapter, review our written notes, or even review just the highlighted portions of our notes, but we are primarily just reviewing everything from end-to-end in one big chunk.

This results in a big waste of study time. We spend too much time reviewing the content we already know well, and not enough time reviewing the content we don't know well.

Even when we use tactics that help us make studying less linear—e.g. having a friend quiz us randomly on the hardest parts, or making paper flashcards that we can sort according to mastery—this requires a lot of cumbersome manual work and planning.

When studying feels like a pain in the ass, we tend to postpone it as much as possible, and when we finally do study, we don't engage as deeply as we should.

AC: What makes Brainscape unique?

ACo: Brainscape automates the process of making learning adaptive and cumulative, rather than linear and static. We do this by helping you break down content into its bite-sized building blocks so it can be delivered to you in a repetition pattern that adjusts to your pace of learning.

You can use our website or mobile apps to study adaptive flashcards for any of the thousands of subjects we have available, or for any content you'd prefer to create yourself. The experience is fun, painless, and portable, and it takes the thinking out of having to plan your studies. You just push a button, and Brainscape knows the optimal next card to deliver to you.

AC: How do you improve your product over time?

ACo: As millions of people around the world study nearly every subject known to man, we naturally collect a lot of anonymized data about users' study habits. We know which questions are the hardest, we know how quickly users acquire knowledge, and we know how different types of users learn at different paces.

Our engineers and cognitive scientists are constantly improving our systems to both (i) automatically analyze that data and adjust the way we filter and organize content on our marketplace, and (ii) improve on our study algorithm to deliver even more optimal patterns of content.

We also collect a lot of qualitative data from our existing users and from focus groups of new users. Sometimes the data might show one thing, while users feel a different thing. Improving upon our product is a constant combination of art and science.

AC: Tell me about Brainscape as it exists today.

ACo: Brainscape now has several million registered users and is a profitable, growing business. While other web & mobile study platforms may be focused on things like sharing course notes, or creating fun vocab games, Brainscape is intensely focused on providing an efficient utility for creating and organizing large bodies of knowledge into bite-sized building blocks for maximum memory retention.

For that reason, we experience our greatest successes among medical students, nursing students, law students, foreign language learners, professional exam-takers, pharmaceutical salespeople, and similar users who have a massive amount of content to study.

But we are also increasingly popular among top K-12 and university students too! As a content-agnostic study platform, we've found that people in almost every educational setting have a desire to learn faster and remember for longer.

AC: And how about tomorrow?

ACo: We are very well aware that flashcards are not the only way to learn a topic. In fact, anyone who plans to use flashcards in a vacuum will probably experience sub-optimal learning results.

While Brainscape has succeeded based on the assumption that our users already have other external learning materials like readings and videos, we are very intrigued by the opportunity to integrate our flashcards into those experiences—both on and off of our website.

In the long run, we think Brainscape can evolve into the underlying bite-sized data fabric of the education ecosystem, which can plug into almost any other learning environment.

Stay tuned for many more developments in the years to come!

Alexander Culafi is a Staff Writer at VentureFizz. He also edits and produces The VentureFizz Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @culafia.