When in doubt, space it out. Spaced repetition is a simple habit that has turbo charged my language learning. Now I am using it to shake other things in my life. Spaced repetition is something that is an offshoot of the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th century German psychologist who the discovered the “spacing effect” on review. Ebbinghaus, who made up for the fact that he had a nerdy first and last name by trying hard :), made his life even nerdier by trying to memorize nonsense syllables and seeing what his retention rates were.
According to the The Cognitive Scientist, Ebbinghaus learned that he could memorize a list if he rehearsed it 68 times and was tested the next day. However, if he spaced out the reviews over three days, he only needed to practice 38 times. In other words, “spacing out” your reviews is actually more efficient than “cramming.”
Online flashcard systems such as Anki, make this more efficient by allowing you to create flashcards and creating spaced reviews for your review. Let’s take a look at one of my decks. The first card that appears today is, “この度はどうも,” which means “I am sorry for the bad news.” This is a fairly new card for me and the Anki website asks whether I want to review again soon because I forgot, or 1 day, 4 days, or 8 days later.
Now, let’s say I have an older card like 日本、which means “Japan.” Anki might give me the option of failing the card or a review schedule of 1.2, 3.2, 5.1, or 10 years! Most likely, I will never forget 日本, but I like keeping cards with 10+ years because it reminds me of how far I’ve come. (Deleting cards is an important part of the process, too, because you want to keep your decks fun.)
An SRS is excellent for things beyond language study. I have a few other, non-language decks on Anki. One is a “personal development” deck, where I put everything from notes from the college classes that I took last spring to notes from “What Color is Your Parachute. I also include inspirational quotes, ideas about book proposals, and nifty self-help ideas.
For example, the first card today is an exercise suggested by Cheryl Richardson in “Take Time for Your Life.” It’s a suggestion to get a blank piece of paper and draw your ideal life, including what your house looks like, who’s with you, etc. This isn’t really a fact to remember but if I feel I would like to be doing more of this, I will “fail” the card. Otherwise, it will come up in 2.6 months, 3.1 months, etc.
The next card is about the Balfour Declaration from the Middle East History class. I’m not quite interested in it right now but I still want to be reminded about so I schedule it for a review a year from now. Insta-presto! Forget about remembering!
I also have a “guitar” deck. Here I have names of songs I have played and links and information from Jamplay.com, where I have been a member for two years. Okay, confession time. Ever since the fall, I have barely touched my guitar. I haven’t followed my own samurai advice: devote at least five minutes every day, don’t lose momentum, have fun. But the deck is there to remind me of things that I have studied, whether it is “What are harp harmonics” or how do you play the opening riff of “Ain’t Talking About Love.”
As you can see, spaced repetition systems aren’t the end all. You still have to pick up your instrument, your language, your life. However, spaced repetition systems help organize complicated thought and skill streams. When in doubt, space it out.
- Samurai Notebooks of the Mind–Apply the principle of spaced repetition to a plain old notebook
- How To Japan’s fun little article about how to use Anki, an online and offline Spaced Repetition System