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.

Mother_and_daughter_in_the_park

 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. 

Mother_watching_daughter_play_in_the_park_through_window

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.

Teacher_explaining_forgetting_curve_chart

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.

Teacher_explaining_how_we_flatten_the_forgetting_curve

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. 

Mother_calling_daughter_through_a_window

The results?

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. 

Girl_in_classroom_imagining_playground_slide

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.

Girl_imagining_forgetting_curve

24 Comments

Nicole · June 2, 2020 at 1:26 AM

Hi,

I struggle a lot with English. It’s not my first language.

A friend that has been learning languages (and seems to learn them quite easily) has sent me the link to this post. And I find it interesting we can progress learning vocabulary even though we tend to forget things. Just knowing there is an optimal time of reviewing content can avoid us the frustration of trying to recall something and not being able to.

Thanks!

    Jonathan Henry · June 2, 2020 at 11:05 PM

    Hi Nicole,

    You’re welcome. And we’re glad to have you here at our site.

    I hope you may take advantage of Spaced repetition systems. Feel free to continue visiting us and commenting.

Maria · June 17, 2020 at 12:42 PM

While I was still in school, I took seven years of Spanish and became almost fluent. I’ve been trying to learn Italian now since I want to study Italian architecture. In my efforts, though, I keep forgetting things, especially those words which are most similar to Spanish but JUST different enough. Tough stuff. This article has given me a great suggestion: spaced repetition.

    Jonathan Henry · June 18, 2020 at 11:21 PM

    Hi Maria.

    I’m glad to hear you have been learning Italian. And including spaced repetition will help you with your learning goals. Thanks for stopping by and sharing part of your story with us. Please keep on visiting us.

Dana · June 17, 2020 at 12:45 PM

As a teacher, I understand this concept. I love your graphics – they make it easy to understand. As a mom who has a 5 year old who is suddenly intrigued in learning Japanese (thanks to Ryan’s Toy Review), I will use this concept for him to learn a foreign language. Kids are like sponges – they absorb and learn so much while they are young which is why it is so important to teach them well from the very beginning. Thank you for a great post!

    Jonathan Henry · June 18, 2020 at 11:23 PM

    Hi Dana,

    It’s nice to teach our children a foreign language. And it’s even better when they want to learn it. All the best with your child learning Japanese.

Stephanie · July 28, 2020 at 5:17 AM

“The importance of learning how to learn” what a wonderful way of putting it together! Personally, I think that the learning process is completely different for everyone. As you stated, we tend to forget things quite fast but that can be related to other factors such as mental health, our environment and capacity to concentrate on what we’re learning. I have a short concentration spam therefore learning something new can take twice the time to actually engage in the learning process without feeling the need to just quit. Is very interesting how spaced repetition can work not only for material regarding school work, but also everything that we’re eager to learn and improve our knowledge in. 

    Jonathan Henry · July 28, 2020 at 7:28 PM

    Hi Stephanie,

    yes, SRS can be used to aid us learning anything we need to learn. I encourage you to give it a try.

Ladia · July 31, 2020 at 6:56 PM

I truly believe in the power of spaced repetition. I do it all the time with languages but it can be applied to other areas of study as well. You explained it very well and I wish more and more people read this to understand that only reviewing the information once is not enough if they want something to stick in their long-term memory. They need to practice spaced repetition and will be amazed by the results

    Jonathan Henry · August 2, 2020 at 10:50 PM

    Hi Ladia,

    thanks for sharing your thoughts about spaced repetition. And I agree with your advice.

alex · January 25, 2021 at 1:33 AM

This is a really good piece of advice, 

I only speak English but would love to learn another language as I’ve worked in Italy and France doing ski seasons but never picked up any languages. My main language I would like to learn would be Italian as I would like to go back and do another ski season there. Using this advice would make it easier to learn.

Thank you for this post.

    Jonathan Henry · January 25, 2021 at 3:23 PM

    It’s nice to hear you would like to learn Italian for your ski seasons. Go for it!

Max · March 11, 2021 at 1:34 PM

Wow, this is very helpful! I am learning Spanish and never thought to do something like spaced repetition throughout my day. I use a few different programs so it shouldn’t be hard to “drip-feed” myself every now and then with them during the day. Also, coincidentally I have a new nephew too (first grandkid, everyone’s excited, etc.). I want him to learn Spanish as well, so when I see him I try to speak in Spanish. It’s good practice for me, and at 1 year old he’s hopefully getting some bilingual tendencies already.

    Jonathan Henry · March 11, 2021 at 2:02 PM

    Introducing spaced repetition into your language learning routine will be beneficial in many ways. I am glad that you already have a routine, and it’s a no-brainer to add spaced repetition.

    I hope your new nephew also picks up Spanish! 🙂 All the best!

MIchel · March 20, 2021 at 3:16 PM

I struggle to learn languages and even at school was never great at second and third languages. Reading this post made me realize that I didn’t learn languages in this way, which is probably why I couldn’t remember them.

It makes a lot of sense to go back to something each day until you remember it on your own, but looking at it once and not thinking about it again is a sure way to forget. I am going to try and apply this method to remembering dance choreography too.

    Jonathan Henry · March 20, 2021 at 11:10 PM

    Hi Michel,

    Yeah, these simple considerations can make a difference when learning a language (or anything else, as a matter of fact).

Geoff · March 20, 2021 at 3:22 PM

I had never heard of spaced repetition before. But it is so simple that there is no reason why we shouldn’t implement it.
I can totally concur about the last-minute studying, as I have done it so so many times. I have passed exams one day, that I would fail the next day!
I really appreciate you taking the time to share this.

    Jonathan Henry · March 20, 2021 at 11:20 PM

    Hi, I’m glad you would like to implement this. Yeah, it’s really simple. And it’s also effective!

Sergej · March 27, 2021 at 7:29 PM

Hi Jonathan,

Spaced repetition is a great way for learners to try and create a good memory and understanding of a new concept or process when learning. I used to do this back in college and it really served me well even for my grades. I bet applying this technique when learning a language will be a very effective method to inculcate. This is really helpful. Thanks for such a great article!

Regards,

Sergej

    Jonathan Henry · March 27, 2021 at 11:28 PM

    Hey, I am glad to hear you used Spaced repetition in College and that it was beneficial. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Joyce Easton · March 27, 2021 at 7:37 PM

Thanks for letting us take advantage of the Spaced Repetition Systems! As a blogger who wants to be in front of the competition, it becomes necessary to learn English properly. Most of the time, I get a low readability score when I speak in a passive voice. But when I use active voice, I always get a high readability score. Much emphasis is placed on the use of voice, and this motivates me further to learn English for both speaking and writing purposes. So, I’ll start using Spaced Repetition for expanding my vocabulary.

Thanks.

Joyce

    Jonathan Henry · March 27, 2021 at 11:34 PM

    Yes, I encourage you to use Spaced Repetition. But please be careful not to spend more than 1/4 of your time actively studying English with Spaced Repetition.

Ana65 · March 27, 2021 at 11:25 PM

Very interesting article, it’s amazing how little babies like your nephew can absorb everything like sponges.

Learning with flashcards is something I used when I was little. I will definitely take a look at it again.

What else could I do besides using flashcards? Is there a course you would recommend?

Thank you!

    Jonathan Henry · March 27, 2021 at 11:57 PM

    Hi Ana, Spaced repetition is effective. But we shouldn’t spend too much time with it. There is a course that uses
    Spaced repetition in the right balance. It has a 7-day free trial so you can go right over and check if it’s for you. Click here to go to its review

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