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Article spaced_repetition_purple_brain

Published on October 9th, 2013 | by Dan Walsh


Study Less, Learn More: The Spacing Effect Paradox

The cure for forgetting.

Forgetting is a common and frustrating problem. I’m sure this sounds familiar: you spent all spring semester studying some topic, maybe European history. You took the test and did fine. You learned the material, well done. However, by the time fall semester rolled around, you couldn’t recall the year the French revolution began to save your life. You invested so much time learning and only a few months later half of the information had seemingly fallen out of your head at random. Forgetting is frustrating because it is is inefficient and feels like a waste of your time and effort. There is a solution.

Peter Wozniak was a student at the Poznan University of Technology in Poland during the 1980′s. He desired a fluent mastery of English, but was running into the limits of his own memory. It seemed he would forget a word just as soon as he learned a new one. He spent the next 10 years tracking his progress on English flash cards by recording when he got a word correct or incorrect. From this data he discovered that initially learning a language is easer than retaining it. Poor retention was actually the main challenge toward fluency. Over time, he forgot 40% of his hard-earned English vocabulary. Once he gained access to a computer with enough power, this information became the algorithm that would prevent a user from forgetting anything – ever. The algorithm was called SuperMemo, and it proved the paradoxical effects of spaced repetition.

The more you study, the more you will retain the information. At least, this is the traditional wisdom. The principle of spaced repetition learning defies this paradigm, however. It asserts that studying less, and only at the right times is the most effective way to learn. For maximum value, you should review information just as you’re on the cusp of forgetting it. The gap between review sessions will grow as you more thoroughly internalize the information. These increasingly longer intervals between review sessions create an exponential curve which shows forgetting isn’t a random occurrence at all. Forgetting is very predictable.


Image: Wired Magazine

If you time your review sessions to follow the projected forgetting curve, you can master any topic in drastically less time. You will also lock it into your memory forever. There are language learning courses that take advantage of spaced repetition to great effect. Users of these programs can gain the equivalent language skill of a 130+ hour college class in less than 35 hours [source]. I have had similar results.

I used a spaced repetition audio course to learn Thai in 2007. I crammed during my 45-minute morning commutes for about a month before my trip to Thailand. I was far from fluent by the time my plane touched down, but I had mastered enough to bet on Muay Thai fights and hustle taxi drivers into buying shots of Johnnie Walker for me. My total study time was less than 20 hours. Spaced repetition works.

The SuperMemo program itself is cumbersome to use. However, there are many other programs that have utilized the spaced repetition algorithm to help users learn languages and just about everything else. These programs have proliferated as audio courses, websites, and even mobile apps. From neat party tricks like learning how to say “I love you” in 100 different languages, to practical courses for learning how to program in a quarter of the time, spaced repetition can be applied to pretty much anything.  Are you ready to get started? My favorite resources are listed below.


Learn Languages


I used the Pimsleur audio course to learn Thai in 2007. If you spend the time and get through the recordings, you’ll know the language. It’s that simple. With over 50 languages from which to choose, they have the largest selection I’ve encountered. Most courses follow the repeat-after-me, call and response format. This limits learning in the early audio units to useful phrases, but they are very useful. And because of their heavy focus on spaced repetition, you’ll probably have these phrases for life. I still wake up sometimes with Japanese phrases in my head, and I listened to that course back in college! Some recordings are better than others, so check reviews before you buy. Prices range from $20 – $200 depending on the course. Most are available on Amazon.

Michel Thomas

These courses are great. They feel almost effortless. Whereas Pimsleur uses call-and-response to drill the listener (effective) Michel also guides you through the underlying logic of the language (also effective). His method relies slightly less on spaced repetition but makes up for it by demonstrating how easy learning a new language can be when you understand it. Neither Michel Thomas or Pimsleur is better than the other, only different. Both are highly effective in their own ways. I’m currently using a Michel Thomas course to relearn my broken high school French. Michel Thomas offers 12 languages, mostly European. Each full course runs about $80 on Amazon.


Duolingo is a free website and mobile app for iPhone and Android devices. In contrast to the static audio courses of Pimsleur and Michel Thomas, Duolingo offers dynamic prompts based on how well the user does on each question. What you see is tailored to your past performance. This method is closer to the SuperMemo algorithm than the other two, even though they all use spaced repetition to great effect. Duolingo also utilizes game mechanics to add an extra layer of welcome encouragement. The app was recently redesigned and it looks great. They currently offer Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian, but have implemented a crowd source model which will bulk out their selection. Sign up for a free account on Duolingo.com, or download their app for Andriod or iPhone.


Learn Everything


Memrise is a free web program and mobile app similar to Duolingo. Memrise offers more than languages, however. Most courses have been created by the community and include esoteric topics like Butterflies of Northern Europe, Constellations, Anatomy of the Human Hand, Sailing Terms, Excel Functions, and even a House-esque list of A-Z Medical Syndromes. You can learn almost anything on this site. Memrise also uses a method called “Mems”, which are associative or mneumonic cues to aid learning. Users can customize courses to use their own mems and make learning even faster. An example of this is the French word “mauvais”, which means “bad”, and is pronounced “mo-vay”. The mem in my version of the French course is “Mauvais: that movie was bad”. As you can see, mems can also help teach correct pronunciation. Memrise if the brainchild of Ed Cooke, who trained Josh Foer to become the 2006 US Speed Cards Champion, so it is no surprise that it uses so many memory techniques. Sign up for free at Memrise.com.


Anki is the current king of SuperMemo software. It is a free desktop program (mac and pc), and paid mobile app. Where SuperMemo is clunky, Anki is streamlined. It is the most flexible, customizable,  and useable version of the SuperMemo algorithm. If you’re serious about learning something – or everything - then Anki will be your bread and butter. This program could help you memorize an entire book. Using Anki on a regular basis is the equivalent to having a sci-fi brain chip in your head. You will be a genius cyborg. The program does not come preloaded with any content, so you’ll need to either build your own, or download a “deck” of information made by someone else. These are scattered around the web. Download Anki desktop software for free, or download the iPhone app ($24.99). If you download it and want to learn French with me, I’ll share my deck of the Top 1,000 Most-Used French Words.


Read more about Piotr Wozniak and SuperMemo at Wired.com

Image Credit: Ars Technica

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