Spaced repetition is a technique that most of the time involves flashcards. You can use it to learn practically anything. But many agree it is super-efficient for learning languages.
We could describe Spaced repetition as a method that establishes remembering something as the goal. And to achieve it, it encourages reviews within certain time intervals. It could be a word, a formula, or a fact.
When we learn something, we need to review it fairly quickly. If we do not, it may not stick in our heads. We can then wait a bit more to study what we recently learned the second time. And we can stay away from it even longer 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 what we are learning. A Spaced repetition system emphasizes the review time.
Babies start learning early!
My little nephew was born some time ago. He is my parent’s first grandchild. So, we are all excited! My sister and her husband go to my parent’s home frequently. And I go too. Thus, I have had a marvelous opportunity to see him during these first stages.
It has been an extraordinary experience. The boy is lively. And even during his first weeks, he would be looking around, not wanting to miss a thing. He seems to be 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.
I was playing with him just before he turned 3-months-old. Without touching him, I stretched my arms to 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. “It must have been a coincidence,” she said. So, in her presence, I tried to increase the level of difficulty of the exercise.
I extended my arms to him, and he also stretched them toward me. With my arms elongated, I closed my hands. And he also tried to close his fingers to close his fist. His fingers moved slightly, but he could not shut his hand. Thus, I opened my hands again, and he 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.
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 meaningful for him to learn how to learn. But you may argue with me, “He has 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 which is the best way to learn?
We will 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? Tell me if you have not done this before an exam, an interview, or a presentation. We spend the night before cramming as much information as possible 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 is based on evidence.
We should review information at increasingly longer intervals. And that is how Spaced repetition works.
So, if you learn something today, a spaced repetition system might show it to you again tomorrow. You will review it again in three days, then next week, and so on. The revisits take place until the knowledge gets 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. Today he is chiefly remembered 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 us take a closer look at how space repetition works!
So, let us use charts here to understand this concept better. We will plot your retention (how much you remember something) vs. time.
Let us say you study something today. And you do not review it. Your “forgetting curve” will look like an exponentially decaying curve.
Fighting this forgetting curve is simple. And the way to do it is by actively retrieving the material you learned. Performing revisits at increasing spaced intervals after exposure to it the first time. By doing this, the forgetting curve starts to flatten out. And you will get a lot better longer-term retention.
When would be the right time to review the material you are learning?
The best time to revisit information is just before 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 us take a look.
So, from a practical standpoint, we could explain it like this. There will be familiar material. You will get exposed to it with wider spaced intervals between study times. And for the material you are less familiar with, space 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 is their goal? They want 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 will review the flashcards. These programs track how well you remember each bit of information. And 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 will be spending much less time 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 the 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 SRS platforms. Some are free, and others are behind a payment wall. But a popular one that is good and also free is Anki. Many are already using it to learn vocabulary for a new language. Besides languages, students in medical schools also use them. And on occasions, even 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 efficient, 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 counterproductive 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 four 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.