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Spaced Repetition Goes Mainstream?

Jon B at 無国籍/Mukokuseki links to this Wired Magazine article on SuperMemo.

This is really exciting stuff. In my own little way, I’ve been trying to spread the word about SRS (spaced repetition systems) as tools since a man named Chris Houser first told me about SuperMemo way back in 2004. As one quite aptly titled psychology paper put it, the fact that not every student with access to a computer uses an SRS in her learning is a massive “Failure to Apply the Results of Psychological Research”.

There are a lot of gems in that Wired article. Like this one:

We associate intelligence with pure talent, and academic learning with educational experiences dating far back in life. To master a difficult language, to become expert in a technical field, to make a scientific contribution in a new area — these seem like rare things. And so they are, but perhaps not for the reason we assume.

And this one:

Extreme knowledge is not something for which he programs a computer but for which his computer is programming him.

And this one that so succinctly captures the beauty of the SRS:

provably linking the distant future — when we will know so much — to the few minutes we devote to studying today

And, finally, this one, for all you serial crammers out there. You know who you are.

He wasn’t just trying to pass his exams; he was trying to learn.

The SRS offers a way to actually remember all that stuff you learn, while doing less work than you’re now doing. Sounds like snake oil, I know, but it’s not…it’s just…a more efficient way of doing things.

So to all of you still sitting on the SRS fence — let go of your “talent” fetish/superstition and come play!

  32 comments for “Spaced Repetition Goes Mainstream?

  1. May 7, 2008 at 13:18

    Yeah, that was a great piece. Kind of strange thinking about that guy’s life. He’s kind of a hermit who sits around writing and remembering things all day.

    Thought you might also like this article in the New Yorker about a Chinese guy who taught himself English to fluency without traveling. Now he’s a happy millionaire:

  2. captal
    May 7, 2008 at 14:35

    I like this quote:

    “If you skip a few days, the spacing effect, with its steady march of sealing knowledge in memory, begins to lose its force. Progress limps. When it comes to increasing intelligence, our brain is up to the task and our technology is up to the task. The problem lies in our temperament.”

    My problem is my temperament! I do understand that some people, like khatz, are able to learn by doing something as much as humanly possible in the amount of time they have. I do not have that temperament- I need my time off or I wear out. I think I have trained myself over the years, and untraining at this point would probably be feasible, but I don’t desire it enough to do so. Some days I may work on Japanese for 5 hours, some days none- I can’t convince myself to do it (which is why I’m reading articles instead of learning Kanji). My motivation is lacking… I can tell myself I want to be fluent, but I don’t want it as much as I want to just kick back and relax. It is nice that some of my relaxation methods do include Japanese- anime and dramas- but learning 2000 kanji is not high on my list of entertaining things to do.

    One thing I have realized is that when my motivation is lacking, I can come to this site and read, and I immediately feel better and my motivation improves. That doesn’t mean I’m going to put another 100 kanji in Anki today, but maybe it means I put in 10 or 20 more, which is a lot more than the 0 I may have put in. And those 10s and 20s add up.

    What motivation tools do you all use?

  3. Madamada
    May 7, 2008 at 15:36

    I contaced Chris Houser in 2001 or 2002 and he basically told me to forget about the whole idea.

    Maybe he hadn’t heard of SuperMemo at that time.

  4. May 7, 2008 at 16:43

    I’m trying to convince people of the greatness of SRS all the time, and the mayority just don’t want to listen. They say things like: “Ahhh, I don’t like computers”, “No man, not learning word lists won’t get you anywhere”, “I can pas my exams with cramming, and I never heard of this SRS-shit so I think it won’t work”. Yes, that’s what people say. It’s sad that I’m making a lot of progress in college and they don’t.

  5. May 7, 2008 at 16:44

    majority* hehe 😉

  6. Mark
    May 7, 2008 at 17:05

    I don’t tell anyone in my professional field about SRS, and if anyone I know mentions SRS I snort derisively and make mocking comments. Then I go home and religiously do all my SRS reps. When I get to Jp fluency, I am considering paying Khatz a huge bribe to remove this site from the web. Am I evil ?!


  7. May 7, 2008 at 17:48

    My favorite motivation technique is to just sign up for the test.

    If we’re talking about Japanese, just sign up and pay for the JLPT in advance. Knowing that you -have- to take it, and paid for it, should be enough to get you studying.

    My guitar teacher would do the same thing. Just sign us up for classical guitar recitals and say. Well. You’re playing. You can either do well. Or screw it up and be pitiful up there. Your call.

    Just sign up!

  8. captal
    May 7, 2008 at 18:46

    But the test is only once a year- the first Sunday in December! 7 months away… I don’t even know what level to aim for then 😀 Following their guideline- I only need 900 hours of study for Level 1 (rolls eyes- yeah right)- I have a friend who has been a Japanese lecturer for 30 years and has taken the JLPT level 1 two or three times and hasn’t passed it. I have another friend who has lived in Japan for several years, is fluent, and said the JLPT level 1 is just too damn hard and a waste of time. What are other people’s experience?

    I’ll keep it in mind- perhaps I’ll aim for the level 3- I’ll be in Japan at that time this year anyway. At least I only need to know 300 kanji 😀


  9. Rob
    May 7, 2008 at 21:14

    Finding a cute Japanese girl usually helps when motivation is lacking…..

  10. quendidil
    May 7, 2008 at 23:08

    Well, then take the JLPT 2 at least.
    JLPT 1 does have some archaic grammar, but 2 should be good enough to get Japanese jobs from what I’ve seen of job requirements so far, I’m still taking 1 at the end of this year though :p

  11. quendidil
    May 7, 2008 at 23:26

    On a side note, Americans use the word ‘spectacles’ too? They used that in the article.

  12. Nivaldo
    May 8, 2008 at 05:49

    When it comes to motivation I think it’s just like Khatz said, FORGETFULNESS, and if I’m not wrong it’s also one of the first points shown at antimoon’s site, something like you must love english and english will love you back(don’t remember well the whole sentence). Anyway, when motivation is lacking I don’t use anything in particular apart from REMEMBERING THE DREAM. When I imagine myself reading those kanji-kana combinations without stopping not even pausing just turning the pages of a manga book, laughing about things that Naruto does, getting the sense of the story with all its nuances. Maaaan, when I remember that dream while doing other things, I simply stop and think: “What the hell am I doing here, away from my japanese environment which I love so much?”. Of course, it’s not that easy but as Khatz also said (this guy says really nice things 🙂 ) it’s just a matter of habit. Today for example I wasn’t really in the mood to read manga but after I started reading I just couldn’t go back to romaji. This comment is in fact just a little pause. 😀

  13. Anok
    May 8, 2008 at 11:47

    Like Khatz says, you just gotta enjoy the journey and stop focusing on getting “there”. Remember the dream and measure yourself by what you DO know not what you don’t. You likely know a lot more now than you did a month ago. Try to always do something fun – Japanese shouldn’t be a chore. If it is, why are you even bothering to learn it? You should be enjoying yourself as much as possible. Crush your hindering thoughts and conquer your motivation.

  14. Marilyn
    May 8, 2008 at 14:13

    With all the talk there is about SRS, I’ve tried them (such as Anki for sentences and the spaced repitition on the Remembering the Kanji website), and I’m currently going through Pimsleur’s Japanese I, which has an SRS approach. Of course, no Japanese audio listening is a waste, but I was kind of wondering: what do *you* think about Pimsleur and its potential effectiveness in the long-run, especially opposed to alternative speaking/listening programs for Japanese?

  15. May 8, 2008 at 19:51

    I don’t know what Khatz things, but so far I know Pimsleur is onoy good for pronounciation. It doesn’t teach you much vocabulary nor it has much advanced grammar in the sentences. Also, there’s waaaay too much English in it, and English is bad when you want to learn another language, besides English 🙂 (ok, with the sentences there’s English aswell (or your native language), but it has a clear reason that it’s there, with Pimsleur there’s al ot of unnecessary English)..

  16. captal
    May 8, 2008 at 21:08

    ok ok, I’m remembering the dream- which currently is to be better at kanji than natives… which reminds me, I need to be off doing kanji… but the problem is that kanji can be a chore!!! Luckily I find a lot of it quite fascinating, but a lot of the learning comes down to- ok, put stuff in Anki, think of clever/gross/funny story, or steal one from RTK, and if all else fails, think of a clever rhyme or something. But coming up with clever stories even gets boring after a while.

    I know I can push through it- I’m at 1100 right now- I just need to better allocate my time (this bloody MBA keeps getting in the way). Sheesh, if I only do 20 a day that’s only 47 more days, and I know I can do more than that (I’m no Wan though- if I do 50 in a day I get warm, fuzzy feelings.) がんばる!

  17. Nivaldo
    May 9, 2008 at 02:38

    I understand what you’re feeling and I think everyone who went through RTK understand too. It’s not easy to just go through 20xx kanji. I would recommend reading the article “Calm down, hurry up” and “Strategies for overcoming burnouts”(I think it’s that, don’t remember well). But yeah, the strategy I used was just to focus on each kanji individually. This way I managed to “calm down my spirit”(sounds a little bit religious 🙂 ).Maybe I’m just repeating what Anokさん said. Anyway, If you’re enjoying learning kanji, good, if not, bring fun to it so as to enjoy it. 🙂

  18. Rob
    May 9, 2008 at 03:31

    This may seem silly, but one thing I did when I was plowing through RTK was on the RTK website you can view other members and their progress as well. So I would just pick another member at random that was a little bit ahead of me in terms of progress and then imagine I was in a race against them. I would imagine that I hated them and I had to beat them no matter what. Silly yes, but it was fun and it helped to push me to get done faster.

  19. captal
    May 9, 2008 at 12:56

    Great idea Rob! I’m going to steal that idea, thanks!

    I also like to see how many stars I’ve gotten for stories I’ve shared 😀

  20. きのこ
    May 9, 2008 at 18:20

    Pimsleur drills you repetitively on very basic sentences like “どこに行きますか?” so it’s good for polishing your pronunciation if you still have some lingering accent trouble. I don’t recommend it as the sole method of learning Japanese (heaven forbid) but it can be a good supplement. The woman on Pimsleur II doesn’t sound Japanese, though. Her “すみません” is all wrong.

  21. Marilyn
    May 10, 2008 at 06:23

    ^Yeah, thanks for your comments, guys. I’m just going to complete Pimsleur while I’m doing Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji”, since it’s decent enough. Plus, I still am shaky about pronouncing Japanese words/sentences with a Japanese accent…I still sound so American. =P

  22. May 11, 2008 at 03:11

    Try analyzing the sounds. I find a lot of people now analyzing the sound, and then they wonder how come they sound so American/Dutch/etc./etc. Also, input if very important to get a good accent, because eventually you begin imitating the speech of natives.

  23. May 11, 2008 at 04:33

    Man, I hate those typos. ‘Now’ must be ‘not’ and ‘sound’ ‘sounds’, ‘if’ ‘is’ etc. etc. ;).

  24. Daniel
    May 11, 2008 at 14:24

    As an American, when I hear ‘spectacles,’ I think of those glasses attached to a thin rod, where the person uses the rod to hold them in front of their face when they want to read something.

    I also find that human nature makes it hard to successfully employ an SRS. Just like we say “I am going to exercise every day” or “I am not going to drink any Pepsi today”, there are always obstacles and without an iron will, practicing with an SRS everyday is VERY difficult.

  25. vgambit
    May 11, 2008 at 14:43

    After reading this article, I think I’m gonna start using SuperMemo instead of Mnemosyne or Reviewing the Kanji.

    I mean, Piotr Wozniak lives his life by SuperMemo (literally). He’s also the creator of the algorithm and the lead programmer for the project (which he has been working on since before I was born).

    To be honest, I wasn’t really all that confident about SRS (as many times as I have attempted to use it in Mnemosyne) until I read this article and tried out SuperMemo. After doing the demonstration cards, I’m hooked.

  26. May 11, 2008 at 17:02

    I recently thought about switching to the more user-friendly Anki but decided to stick with Supermemo. It may not be pretty but it does whatever I want it to do and more. Someone said they had problems putting audio in the question; I’ve just done it with just a little bit of fiddling around. Long live Supermemo! Having said that, I really do hope they get someone on board to make the program less buggy!

    It might be hard to do SRS everyday, but definitely not impossible. I’ve been running Supermemo everyday for about 3/4 years now and have plugged in everything from Japanese to Physics to Maths to English. Yes, there have been days I’ve missed or rushed through, but doing it properly 20 times a month is better than not at all!

  27. khatzumoto
    May 12, 2008 at 12:09

    Don’t mean to be mean to Pimsleur but, I personally feel that there’s too much English and it’s not natural enough — too stilted. And, it plays to the whole “buy language skills in a box” desire without fulfilling it. Just what Ramses said.

    I play around a little bit with language tapes for Mandarin and Japanese speakers to learn Cantonese, buuuut…the bulk of my listening (and skill) has come from watching Cantonese things by and for Cantonese speakers. That’s what this is all about: “keeping it real”. It’s real Japanese that you need to be able to understand and real Japanese speakers talking at real speed…with whom you need to be able to communicate.

    So…I’d say it’s much more worth it to watch a drama or the news and then rip the audio.

    But that’s only my opinion and maybe other people have made good progress with tapes like that; it’s just that I personally didn’t use them for Japanese. I find them a little too dry, too boring.

    Funnily enough I was having a conversation with this Japanese guy, and I explained the method I used, and he said: “That’s genius…You know why that works? Because the things you watched and listened to had EMOTION”. I thought that was an interesting (and very accurate) insight on his part.

    Anyway…whatever. Do what’s fun.

  28. khatzumoto
    May 12, 2008 at 12:23

    You guys are my heroes…Way to tough it out! (LoL).

  29. May 24, 2008 at 07:10

    What got me wired on the SRS thing, besides the fact that I read all about the abysmal failure of the learning industry to do anything with it all the time (since that’s my profession), is a neat little app in facebook called Kanjibox.

    It has some drilling algorithms in (best described as “SRS-y”) but its quiz function, with repeated testing and scoring is a great motivator as you get to see how you are doing against others.

    If Anki, which is great on usability, could be mashed up with some kind of social sites so you could track progress against other people in some meaningful way, that would kick ass, and give a real external motivation that I suspect would help some of the correspondents here.

  30. January 29, 2010 at 13:15

    I’ve been promoting Anki to all my calculus students for about a year now 🙂

  31. YesforSRS
    January 29, 2010 at 17:07

    Best way to motivate yourself to use a SRS:

    Use a SRS for a few months. Pay attention to how the things you put in become very familiar and hard to forget.

    Quit using your SRS, but keep studying. Notice after awhile that things have become hard to remember and that the SRS is a great tool.

    Go back to your SRS. Learn to use it in moderation/style that is adaptable to you. Love your SRS.

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