Spaced repetition is a technique that most of the time involves flashcards. You can use it to learn practically anything. But many agree it’s super-efficient for learning languages.
We could describe Spaced repetition as a method in which you’re asked to remember something. But you need to do it within certain time intervals. It could be a word, a formula, or a certain fact.
When we learn something, we need to review it again fairly quickly so it may stick in our heads. We can then wait a bit more time to review this thing we have recently learned the second time. And we can wait even more to review it the third time and so forth.
This technique takes into consideration the tendency of our brain to forget things. So, to boost retention there is an optimum time to review the things we’re learning. With a Spaced repetition system, this review time is carefully considered.
Babies start learning early
My little nephew was born some time ago. He’s my parents’ first grandchild, so we’re all excited! My sister and her husband have been going to my parents’ home. And so have I. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to see him during these first stages.
It has been a great experience for me. He’s very lively. And even during his first weeks, he would be looking around, not wanting to miss a thing. Absorbing every sound. He seemed impressed by everything he saw.
One of the things that fascinated me the most was how he was conscious of the world surrounding him.
When he was 3-months-old, I was playing with him and stretched my arms to him without touching him. He looked at me and stretched out his arms to me too. I put down my arms and he also put them down. I repeated the exercise and he followed me again. It was a thrilling experience. I went running to look for my sister. She said it must have been a coincidence. So, in her presence, I tried to increase the level of difficulty of the exercise.
I stretch forth my arms to him and he also stretches them towards me. With my arms stretched I closed my hands and he also tried to move his little fingers to close them. He couldn’t but his fingers moved to try to close his hand. I then opened my hands again and he also opened them wide again.
The importance of learning how to learn
Without a doubt, he was copying all my movements. It was surprising to see he could do that at such a young age. All those movements are super simple for a grown-up. But it must be challenging for a baby to do them the first time.
I hadn’t realized until that point that we begin learning in life from the very moment we’re born.
Soon came the day when he gave his first steps. And later he said his first word. He has continued to learn throughout all these stages. Learning will be an action he will be performing during his entire life. So, it will be important for him to learn how to learn. But you may argue with me, “He’s been learning already, what do you mean he needs to learn how to learn?”
He will need to understand how his brain works to use it more efficiently. And not only him but this applies to us all. Considering how our brain processes information, will benefit us a lot!
Have you ever asked yourself what’s the best way to learn?
We’ll spend so much time learning. So this is a very pertinent question. Is there anything we can do to learn things quicker and remember them longer?
Did you know that the usual way we approach learning is also one of the worst? Before an exam, an interview, or a presentation, we usually do this. We spend the night before cramming as much information as we can into our brains. And then leave it at that. The next day we may do OK. Or we could even do well. But ask us a couple of months later and our precious new knowledge has vanished away.
How can I efficiently learn things?
The science behind learning tells us that spaced repetition is very efficient. It works for learning any new knowledge or skill. And it’s based on evidence.
We should review information at increasingly longer intervals. And that’s how Spaced repetition works.
So, if you learn something today, a spaced repetition system might show it to you again tomorrow. You’ll review it again in three days, then next week, and so on until it’s embedded in your long-term memory.
Who discovered this technique?
Although this might seem a novel idea, this is not a new concept. It was first described in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus. He was a German psychologist. He is today remembered mostly because he pioneered the experimental study of memory. We owe him the discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. He was also the first person to describe the learning curve.
Let’s take a closer look at how space repetition works
So let’s use charts here to understand this concept better. We’re going to plot your retention (how much you remember something) vs. time.
Let’s say you learn something today and don’t reviewing it. Your “forgetting curve” will look like an exponentially decaying curve.
To fight this forgetting curve, you should actively retrieve the material you learned. You should do it at increasingly spaced intervals after your exposure to it the first time. By doing this, the forgetting curve starts to flatten out. And you’ll get a lot better longer-term retention.
When would be the right time to review the material you’re learning?
The best time to revisit information is right around the time you would naturally forget it. The forgetting typically follows this exponential curve. So, the trick becomes timing your study sessions around it. Here is a chart that helps us understand things better. Our forgetting curve looks like this each time we review the information. Remember you must do it before forgetting it. Let’s take a look.
So, from a practical standpoint, we could explain it like this. For material you’re familiar with, you’ll have wider spaced intervals between study times. And for the material you’re less familiar with, intervals will be shorter.
Spaced repetition systems (SRS)
People studying, create flashcards with bits of information. We already stated this at the beginning of this post. What’s their goal? To retain information more easily. They either use physical flashcards or digital flashcards. As time goes by, people have been doing these things electronically more and more. These flashcard programs use spaced repetition algorithms to optimize your review intervals. There are plenty of SRS programs out there.
According to your performances, you’ll review the flashcards. These programs track how well you remember each bit of information. And then they adjust individual revisit intervals. So, you can spend more time with those things you remember less. And less time with those things you already know well.
You’ll be spending much less time actually studying while remembering everything better. We can access SRS on our desktop. But we can also check them out daily on our mobile devices which makes all this system very convenient. When learning vocabulary in a new language, you can use spaced repetition. All you need is your phone and a bit of time each day to incorporate this into your routine.
Would we recommend a specific SRS platform?
There are many. Some are free. And others are behind a payment wall. But I’d like to suggest a very popular one. It’s good and it’s also free. Its name is Anki. Many are already using it to learn vocabulary for your new language. Besides its use for languages, it’s also used by students of medical schools. And on occasions also by those that want to recall historical facts. In general, you can use Anki to study whatever you want.
Do Spaced Repetition Systems have any cons when it comes to learning languages?
Because Spaced Repetition Systems are effective, some tend to overuse them. How do they overuse them? By spending hours and hours reviewing flashcards. It may sound like a good idea at first. But only using flashcards is a bad move. Why? Because you should also be doing some of the other necessary language-learning activities.
Our advice on SRS
Please use SRS. Use them daily but use them in moderation. Divide your time assigned to learning languages into 4 parts. And dedicate no more than ¼ to reviewing flashcards. Happy learning!
Here is a course that includes SRS as part of their learning tools. It’s integrated into their platform in a balanced way. You may want to check it out by clicking here.