Theory and Tips
See spaced repetition and the spacing effect on Wikipedia.
Spaced repetition is a popular technique based on research by the German
Ebbinghaus in the late 19th century.
Ebbinghaus discovered the
curve” and the
(See Weibell, C. J.: Memory and Forgetting (Hermann Ebbinghaus - 1885 Principles of Learning, no date.)
Ebbinghaus' findings would later lead to the development of techniques to improve learning. A well-known example is the Leitner system that Sebastian Leitner developed in the 1970s. After computers became mainstream, others came up with electronic versions of this type of flash card system, for example SuperMemo. Spaced repetition programs or spaced repetition systems (SRS) schedule when a flash card needs to be presented again and thereby take some of the hard work required by paper-based systems off your hands.
Many people use flash cards only for vocabulary, although they can be used for any subject that can be broken down into simple question-and-answer format. This includes grammar, geography, history, etcetera. Some people mistakenly think that spaced repetition is a language learning method; it is actually a technique that should never be more than a part of the learning process, and most of the learning time should be spent on other activities.
How can you use spaced repetition to improve your grammar?
The simplest method is using
you take a short sentence that illustrates a grammar pattern that you want to learn
and turn that sentence into a prompt by removing the critical word or words.
For example, if you want to learn the simple past of the English verb “go”,
you create a flashcard with the following prompt:
Yesterday, I [go] to the cinema.
You can find example sentences in grammar books, textbooks and other reading materials. Make sure that those other reading materials were written by native speakers of the target language you are learning. It is advisable to keep the example sentences short, since the goal of grammar flash cards is not to provide more reading practice; the goal is rather to get repeated exposure to grammar patterns so that you acquire the grammar rules subconsciously. (You can optionally describe the relevant grammar rule on the answer side of the flash card.) If you actually do grammar exercises from a book, you only need to create flash cards for those sentences that you got wrong or where you simply guessed.
- Should I create monolingual flashcards?, I Will Teach You a Language, 19.09.2017.
- Lampariello, Luca: How to learn vocabulary efficiently without flashcards, The Polyglot Dream, 05.10.2015. This article lists several arguments against using flashcard for learning vocabulary. First, paper flashcards are cumbersome. Second, single-word flaschards take vocabulary out of context, whereas context, especially sentences, is essential. Third, paper flahscards contain no images or audio, but learning that involves our senses if more effective. In addition, it takes a lot of time and effort to create flashcards. Finally, the main reason why Luca Lampariello doesn't use flashcards is that he finds them boring. He uses a different method (based on notebooks) to learn vocabulary, but if you want to find out how this works, you need to subscribe to his website.
- Czekala, Bartosz: Why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work and how to fix it, Universe of Memory, 18.11.2019, updated on 20.01.2020.
Spaced Repetition Software
Anki is a popular free and open source
spaced repetition program by Damien Elmes that is available for Microsoft Windows,
Mac OS X, GNU/Linux, BSD, Android and iPhone.
The program is based
an older version of the SuperMemo algorithm called SM2.
is available on the website.
The program allows you to created flash card decks and share them with other Anki users on ankiweb.net. Even though you can use decks created by other people, it is highly recommended that you create your own.
When revising decks, you can customise the settings, for example, how many flash cards should be presented per day, how many new ones should be shown, etcetera.
Other useful links:
- Gabriel Wyner, who is a great fan of Anki, has created Anki tutorials on YouTube:
- Olle Linge: Anki, the best of spaced repetition software, Hacking Chinese, 8 January 2011.
- Jonathan Hall: Where Anki falls short, Verbally Flimzy, 24.08.2015.
- Robb Seaton: Anki Tips: What I Learned Making 10,000 Flashcards (no date).
- Pau: Languages hack! Anki + Assimil (YouTube, 13 minutes, 19.05.2017).
- Martin Boehme: Stress-Free Memorization with Anki, Powlyglot, 25.03.2013.
Eight Different Anki Cards: a Peek Inside my SRS,
To Be Fluent, 18.10.2014.
One of the examples mentioned in this blog post is using cloze deletion tests for learning grammar.
- mark_q: 9 Tips For Using Anki To Learn Vocabulary And Grammar Quickly, italki, 18.12.2017. (Mark is a native English speaker from Colchester, UK, who teaches English in Japan.)
- Chen, Alice:
The Ultimate Guide to Using Anki Flashcards to Learn a Language,
Wherever I Want, January 2017.
(In spite of the promising title, this is definitely not the “ultimate guide” to using Anki. Its advice does not go beyond learning vocabulary, and the example shown uses translation cards. The article mentions that you can also use pictures and sound in flash cards but does not provide recommendations on doing this. It also complains that it is hard to find good pre-made decks.)
Using “Anki” to learn English
(Julian Northbrook on YouTube, 5 minutes, 22.04.2019).
Julian Northbrook no longer recommends Anki, not because it is bad but because too many people use it as a method instead of as a tool to help memorisation. If you add nonsense to it, you will be learning nonsense.
- Anki source code repository on GitHub. Anki is writteni in Python and is available under the terms of the GNU Affero General Public License, version 3 or later with some portions under the BSD-3 licence.
Mnemosyne is a free and open source flash card program that works on Microsoft Windows, GNU Linux, Mac OS X and Android. After registering for a free account on the website, you can also share your card sets with other learners. In addition, you can also download scripts and plugins.
SuperMemo is a commercial spaced repetition software for Microsoft Windows. (There are also other versions for Pocket PC and Palm OS, and an online version.) A manual is available on the SuperMemo wiki. The SuperMemo website also contains many useful articles about memory and learning in general. SuperMemo also has a YouTube channel; most of the videos there are in Polish.
Other relevant links:
- Gary Wolf: Want to Remember Everything You'll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm, Wired Magazine, 21 April 2008. A portrait of Piotr Wozniak, the developer of SuperMemo.
Gradint is a program written by
Silas S. Brown
that can be used to make your own self-study audio tapes for learning foreign-language vocabulary.
It uses a variant of
(which gave the program its name).
See Paul Pimsleur's article
A Memory Schedule,
published in the Modern Language Journal in 1967.
The program is available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Windows Mobile (version 6.0 or earlier), Android, and Risc OS.
Other Flashcard Programs
- MiniPauker: a free and open-source flashcard program for mobile devices (written in J2ME).
- kMemorize: a free and open-source flashcard program for mobile devices (written in J2ME).
- Cabra Flashcards: a free and open-source flashcard program for Android. The source code is available on SourceForge.
- Memrise: Language Courses: Memrise is not so much a flashcard program but an online platform based on the principles of spaced repetition and other research in learning. See the webpage About Memrise: Science for details. The company was co-founded by Ed Cooke, who became Grand Master of Memory at the age of 23.
- alternativeTo: Alternatives to Memrise (for all platforms): a crowd-sourced list of alternatives.
Articles and Blog Posts about Spaced Repetition
Gwern.net, 11 March 2009 (with later updates).
This is a long article about spaced repetition that reviews some of the research literature on it and the testing effect, looks at available software and use patterns, provides miscellaneious ideas and observations, and ends with a list of external links.
- Simon Ager (?): Spaced repetition learning systems (SRS), Omniglot, 2016 (?).
- Khatzumoto: When You Just Don’t Feel Like Doing Sentence Reps Any More …, All Japanese All The Time, January 2010.
- John Pasden:
Reset (sometimes it’s necessary), Sinosplice, 23 June 2010.
Discusses some mistakes that people when using Anki, which sometimes leads them to delete decks.
Note: One of Olle Linge's articles below discusses alternatives to a reset.
- John Pasden: Misgivings about SRS, Sinosplice, 23 June 2010.
- Olle Linge: Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning, Hacking Chinese, 14 June 2011.
- Olle Linge:
Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches,
Hacking Chinese, 17 July 2011.
In the context of spaced repetition, a leech is a flash card that reappears numerous times because you cannot recall the correct answer. The article explains how you can identify leeches (Anki does this for you) and how you deal with them (it depends on the kind of leech).
- Olle Linge:
Is your flashcard deck too big for your own good?,
Hacking Chinese, 26 March 2013.
This article discusses reasons for reducing the size of you flash card decks and how to deal with this.
- Olle Linge:
you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong,
Hacking Chinese, 29 May 2013.
This article warns against using spaced repetition as a learning method.
- Olle Linge:
Flashcard overflow: About card models and review directions,
Hacking Chinese, 5 March 2014.
Tips for using flash cards, with focus on Chinese.
- J. E. Theriot: What Sentences Do I Add To My SRS?, The Language Dojo, January 2010.
- Robert A. Bjork:
desirable difficulties: slowing down learning (6 minutes, YouTube):
this video discusses some unintuitive aspects of learning, some of which were discussed in his article
“Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning” (2011).
Using Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning
is another 4-minute YouTube video on the concept of “desirable difficulties”.
spacing improves long-term retention (5 minutes, YouTube): on the spacing effect that underpins spaced repetition systems (though Bjork does not mention this type of tool).
storage strength vs. retrieval strength (5 minutes, YouTube): points out that storage strength does not guarantee retrieval after a long time of disuse (but recognition may still work).
See also Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab: Research, the publications by Robert A. Bjork and the publications by Elizabeth Ligon Bjork.
- Robert A. Bjork: Forgetting as a friend of learning: Implications for teaching and self-regulated learning (30 minutes, YouTube): a lecture delivered at Harvard University, 11 October 2013.
- In his talk at Google, Michael Erard, author of Babel No More, mentioned that he looked at some of the flashcards used by the 19th-century hyperpolyglot Mezzofanti.
- Spaced Repetition and Recall, Memory Techniques Wiki.
- Philip Seifi: Want to recall 92% of everything you learn? This algorithm makes forgetting difficult, Lingualift, 11.07.2015.
- Zane Claes: 3 Flashcard Mistakes Most Students Make, Skill Cookbook, 15.04.2015. This article identifies three mistakes: not making your own flashcards, studying in massive cram sessions, and practising mindlessly.
- Use Spaced Repetition If You Don’t Want to Study for Finals, Joe the Tutor, 24.01.2013.
- Grigg, Hugh: What is SRS learning? Spaced Repetition System, East Asia Student, 05.10.2011.
- Erfolgreich und effizient lernen mit Karteikarten, lerntechniken.info, 02.01.2018.
- Gaszewski, Daniel: Spaced repetition algorithm (lightning talk) (Dev Day on YouTube, 10 minutes, 03.10.2016). Video of a short presentation at DevDay 2016 in Kraków, Poland, 15—16 September 2016. The speaker gives some basic insight into the SuperMemo algorithm and demoes Anki and briefly introduces SuperMemo and a few alternatives such as Polyglot, Memrise and Duolingo.
5 MOST COMMON MISTAKES in Creating Flashcards! (applicable to Anki/Quizlet/MCAT/USMLE/etc)
(Prerak Juthani on YouTube, 12 minutes, 29.11.2019).
The context of this video is spaced repetition for studying medicine. Some of these mistakes are not relevant to language learning. For example, the advice against using pictures in flashcards, which is highly recommended for learning vocabulary.
How to Memorize Words in a Language: DON'T
( The Independent Language Learner on YouTube, 18 minutes, 04.06.2020).
The maker of this video used to rely on spaced repetition for learning vocabulary but now advises against it. She distinguish three types of spaced repetition users: the “lazy ones”, who download premade decks (like she used to do), the “crafters”, who create their own flash cards (possibly encouraged by Wyner's book Fluent Forever) and the “textbook lovers”, who get their vocabulary from frequency lists or textbooks and copy the words with their translations into the flashcards.
They then start to drilling the vocabulary into their brain. This is fine if you have only a few hundred words but takes up too much time after you have been using them for a longer period of time.
She presents several arguments against flashcards.
- First, making flashcards is time consuming and most people don't have enpough time to dedicate to creating flashcards.
- Second, flashcards aren't designed the way language works because they present one word with exactly one translation. (She does not mention that this approach goes against Wyner's advice.)
- Third, words on flashcards lack context but learning words requires that you experience themm in various contexts.
- Fourth, memorising words does not constitute vocabulary learning, which requires that you know how to use those words. SRS is not spaced learning. Learning benefits from a compelling context in which words are used.
- Fifth, using flashcards on a daily basis can cause stress and loss of motivation. Simply being tested on a daily basis causes stress, which is a motivation killer.
- Sixth, flashcards can give a false sense of security.
- Finally, flashcards are boring.
- Mooney, Shane: Spaced Repetition for All: Cognitive Science Meets Big Data in a Procrastinating World, Quizlet, 09.03.2017 (accessed on 28.07.2021).
Why Language Learners Hate Anki
(Days of French 'n' Swedish on YouTube, 10 minutes, 10.07.2021).
(The full version of this video is only available on Patreon.)
Spaced Repetition in Other Areas
Spaced repetition has also been used for subjects that have nothing to do with language, for example chess.
- Dan Schmidt:
Mnemosyne, part 3,
dfan says (blog), 07.07.2013.
See also the earlier posts Mnemosyne (04.07.2009) and Mnemosyne update (11.09.2009).
- What is “spaced repetition” and how can I use it to improve my chess? on StackExchange (started in July 2015).
- Effectiveness of a spaced repetition system (SRS) for memorizing tactical patterns for long-term skill gain? on StackExchange (started in December 2014).
- What are the things that a 2000 player knows that a 1800 player doesn't know? on StackExchange: dfan's response mentions spaced repetition as a technique for improving in tactics and openings.
- I Stopped Using Anki | The SRS Endgame (Matt VS Japan on YouTube, 45 minutes, 02.07.2018). This long video is based on the experience of a learner of Japanese. There is a short summary of the video at the top of the Reddit post MattVsJapan (Famous AJATTer) talks about why he quit repping Anki - insights from a former anki-maniac.
- Anki/SRS unbelievers: a discussion thread on A language learners’ forum.
Using Notion as a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) like Anki or SuperMemo
(Mickey Mellen on YouTube, 6 minutes, 20.09.2019).
See Notion.so for the product. Notion is free for personal use, students and educators. (Accessed 10.12.2020.)
Ebbinghaus and Other Early Memory Research
This section is temporary and will probably move to a different part of the site.
- Ebbinghaus, Hermann: Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Translated by Henry A. Ruger & Clara E. Bussenius (1913). Originally published in New York by Teachers College, Columbia University.
- Kihlstrom, John F.: The First "Golden Age" of Memory, Lecture Supplements for Psychology 122, "Human Learning and Memory", 1999, 2014.
- Li, Li; Xiao, Wei: Time-Decayed User Profile for Second Language Vocabulary Learning System, (PDF of full text), International Conference e-Learning, Lisbon, Portugal, 15-19 July 2014.
- Murre, Jaap M. J.; Dros, Joeri: Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, PLoS ONE, 10(7), 06.07.2015: e0120644. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0120644.
- Kohn, Art: Brain Science: Overcoming the Forgetting Curve, Learning Solutions Magazine, 10.04.2014.
- Genovese, Jeremy E. C.: Hermann Ebbinghaus and the forgetting curve, peakmemory, 29.06.2013.