Now his teacher, Madam Selvin, is the one groaning. “She jokes that she should be getting royalties,” Sutherland says.
Recently Sutherland, an 18-year-old freshman from Albany, California, created a software program that has become Quizlet. (“I shortened the name and Americanized it.”) It’s a web-based tool that is a lightning fast way to memorize vocabulary words. You enter the correct words and definitions and Quizlet automatically logs the correct answers and tests you on ones you miss. It’s a little like flash cards but is interactive and more fun. Since Sutherland launched the site two years ago, 400,000 registered users have taken 40 million quizzes.
It all began one night at age 15 when he was preparing for “la quizlette.” Sutherland was memorizing 111 French words for animals, including le nounours — the Teddy bear. His father, Howard, kept track with a pencil which definitions he knew and retested him on those he missed. After several hours, his father was still drilling him. Sutherland thought, there must be a better way to study.
“The next day, I started building a computer program that would systematically test me, just like my Dad had done, only precisely.” For the next quizlette — a list of obscure irregular verbs — he studied using only the new software and got an A. For the quiz after that, he asked seven classmates to study using his software, and they, too, got As. “I knew I had something really good.”
It took 420 days to develop the software that in January 2007 was publicly launched as Quizlet. He has since spent thousands of hours programming to upgrade and improve it. Recently he founded Brainflare, a company he launched to run the business. There are now five employees, including Sutherland’s father, who is CFO and secretary.
Quizlet is great for teachers who need vocabulary words and also great for self-learners. Some users say they use Quizlet to translate German to French, or Hebrew to Japanese, but it’s not just used for languages, he says. Some use it to study vocabulary words for the SAT, GRE, and MCAT tests. And even some bartenders have written to say they use it to memorize a list of drinks and what’s inside each one.
“Most exciting is that we get about 20 emails a day from people who say, ‘I was getting Cs and Ds, and now I’m getting As.’” Or, parents write that their child has attention deficit disorder and nothing kept them focused until they used Quizlet, and now they are excelling. What keeps me motivated is that it’s making such a difference in people’s lives,” he says.
Sutherland says the project has opened doors. A while back, a writer for PC World wrote a story about Sutherland, which wound up syndicated nationally. Soon after, he was invited to New York to appear on the national TV program, The Morning Show. His next project is to build voice recognition into Quizlet.
“Madam Selvin was the best teacher I ever had,” he says. “She changed my life.” Last year while visiting Paris, Sutherland took a side trip to visit his former teacher and her family at their summerhouse in southern France. And last year, she invited Sutherland to visit her French classes in California to present Quizlet, and to urge her current students to use it.
Sutherland, who plans to study electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, has big plans. He hopes to use his web skills to change the world in the way that Facebook and YouTube have made an impact. He says: “I’m successful now, but I could be so much more successful if I keep working hard.”