How to use Spaced Repetition effectively

Flashcards | [Day 31/365]

Flashcards | [Day 31/365] (Photo credit: rocknroll_guitar)

One of the hardest things that most language learners have is keeping up with the vocabulary.  You’ll hear a word and think, “That sounds familiar, but I don’t know what it means.” or you may “know” a word you want to say, but can’t seem to remember what to say.  This happens to everyone.  There are words that, though useful, may not come up often enough to stick in your brain, especially when learning in a non-immersive environment.

This is where Anki or other similar spaced repetition systems can come in handy.  They are Flash cards on Steroids.  They not just let you have a “deck” of cards, these cards can have audio and pictures as well.  But most of all these cards have a logical review schedule created as you study with them.  The easier the card, the less often it comes up for review.  It’s like having a personal tutor create a personal set of cards to review everyday.

I do not believe that one can “learn” a word by any flash card system alone.  I’m not a memory expert, but my experience is that flash cards, by themselves, don’t effectively get things into the long-term memory.   What they are good at doing is keeping it in your short-term memory until your mind is able to create a long-term map to it, which normally happens in regular every day uses of it.  It is kind of like putting your food on simmer, until you are ready to add more ingredients.

When SRS becomes ineffective

I am a proponent of using them, but if they are used wrong, they become a waste of time.  There are two major ways, from my experience, that they are used ineffectively.  The first is not setting the new card quantity correctly.  If you do too little you might as well have not even done it and if you do too much, then you have too many cards to juggle.

The second one is when you spend heaps of time going over the words you got wrong.  Every system is different, but many will keep putting the cards you got wrong that day back in the review list for that day till you get it right.  Don’t think that sounds bad?  At first it isn’t, but then the more of these you have, the more they back up and delay you seeing or reviewing the cards you do know.  The idea is to simmer as many words as possible and not to burn one side of the pot before heating the other.

How to fix that

For the quantity of new cards, I follow the double/half rule.  If you have too few cards, than double it.  If you now have too many cards, go half way back.  Do the opposite if you have set your cards too high.  Half it and if it’s too few, go half way back again. It’s going to be trial an error, but you will eventually get to a comfortable amount.

As for the other problem, just go on.  Each system is different, but I will tell you what I do with Anki.  If I don’t know a card, than I look at the options.  If ‘1 day’ is an option, I choose that one.  If not, I choose ‘soon’ which does two things, it puts it back in the pile and the next time it comes up, ‘1 day’ will now be an option.  What I am doing is not worrying about the words I don’t know.  I am trying to keep the words I do know ‘warm’  until they can become more ingrained in my brain.

If you haven’t already, go ahead and download an SRS system and start using it.  By starting it out on the right foot, you will do a better job of learning the words you want to know.  If anyone else has some suggestions on how to use SRS based systems effectively, please share in the comments below.



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Filed under How to learn, spanish, Thai

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