Here is why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work and how to fix it

 

Regardless of whether you use Spaced Repetition Apps or not, you can’t deny that there is some controversy among language learners whether such programs are truly effective. Some people swear by it while others prefer more old-fashioned pen-centered strategies. It gets even better! Even among SRS enthusiasts, you can find different militant fractions. Some claim that Memrise is the best. Other that Quizlet is the way to go.

 

For many, it can be quite difficult to wrap their head around what’s true and what’s not. Let’s sort it out so you can finally know the answer.

 

What’s the scientific consensus about Spaced Repetition Apps

 

 

If you have ever seen one of the aforementioned squabbles online, the first thing you need to know is that opinions that SRS is ineffective are completely detached from reality. Spaced repetition is among the most thoroughly researched memory-related phenomena in the world. Its efficacy has been replicated in hundreds of comprehensive and extensive studies (read more about choosing the best language learning methods).

 

It is effective on a variety of academic fields and mediums. 

 

Spacing effects can be found in:

 

  • various domains (e.g., learning perceptual motor tasks or learning lists of words) such as spatial44
  • across species (e.g., rats, pigeons, and humans [or flies or bumblebees, and sea slugs, Carew et al 1972 & Sutton et al 2002])
  • across age groups [infancy, childhood, adulthood, the elderly] and individuals with different memory impairments
  • and across retention intervals of seconds [to days] to months (we have already seen studies using years)

 

Source (probably the best article online about the spaced repetition, well worth checking out)

 

The benefits of spaced study had been apparent in an array of motor learning tasks, including:

 

  • maze learning (Culler 1912)
  • typewriting (Pyle 1915)
  • archery (Lashley 1915)
  • javelin throwing (Murphy 1916; see Ruch 1928, for a larger review of the motor learning tasks which reap benefits from spacing; see also Moss 1996, for a more recent review of motor learning tasks).

 

Heck, there are almost no exceptions to this phenomenon. Sure, there is maybe 5% of studies which haven’t replicated these findings. But upon reading more about their design and methodologies used, one might conclude that they are often an example of bad science.

 

The only notable exception I have seen so far is that children can often fail to exhibit a spacing effect unless they process learning material in a certain way. This, however, is a topic for another article.

 

Where does all this controversy about the effectiveness of SRS programs come from then? I will get to it soon.

 

First, let’s concentrate on what makes learning truly fast and effective.

 

Encoding – the most important criterion for effective learning

 

 

A simple model of memory

 

 

Here is why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

 

The process of memorization can be depicted in the four following steps:

  1. Retention intention
  2. Encoding – involves initial processing of information which leads to the construction of its
    mental representation in memory
  3. Storage – is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
  4. Recall – is the retrieval of stored information from memory

 

Let’s concentrate on the second step of this process. Clearly, you can see that it’s a gateway to the land of remembering. But what does encoding really mean?

 

Encoding is any kind of attempt of manipulating a piece of information in order to increase your chances of memorizing it.”

 

What’s more, there are two kinds of encoding.

 

Two types of encoding

 

 

Shallow encoding

 

 

Shallow encoding doesn’t help you to connect the piece of information with other meaningful information nor does it help you to further your understanding of it.  It usually concentrates on meaningless banalities.

 

Example: you are trying to memorize the word “skada” (Swedish for “to damage”). The prime example of shallow encoding would be to start counting the number of vowels or consonants in this word.

 

Deep encoding

 

 

The absolute opposite of shallow encoding. This time you are trying to make a meaningful connection between different items. The more the better.

 

Deep encoding is so powerful for your learning that it even shows up in brain scans as increased activity in key brain areas associated with memory. It is this activity that appears to give deep processing its memory advantage. (source: How Memory Works–and How to Make It Work for You).

 

So what’s the example of deep encoding in the world of language learning? Creating sentences or saying them out loud, to be more precise.

 

Interestingly, every time I say it, there is always someone who seems surprised. I guess the reason being that we don’t appreciate enough how complicated it is for our brains to create a sentence.

Why creating sentences is so complicated

 

 

Why most Spaced Repetition Apps don't work for you and how to fix it

In order to create even the simplest of sentences you have to:

 

  1. remember actively the words you are currently learning
  2. remember all the other words in the sentence actively
  3. connect them in a meaningful way
  4. apply all the known grammar rules
  5. choose the appropriate register of the sentences (i.e. a form of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting)
  6. remember the pronunciation of all the words in the sentences
  7. pronounce all the said words by using your muscles

 

As you can see, it’s not that trivial to produce a sentence. And that’s why this process is so meaningful and memorable for your brain.

 

Initially, a lot of my students grumble about having to create many sentences. They say it’s too exhausting. I agree. The thing is that producing sentences equals knowing and being able to use a language!

 

To make your inner geek happy, it’s worth mentioning that encoding is very often connected with two other principles of memory which make your learning even more effective:

 

The level of processing effect (Craik & Lockhart, 1972)  – the more you process a given piece of information, the better you remember it.

 

The generation effect (Slamecka & Graf, 1978) – active production of a given piece of information increases your chances of permanently storing it in your long-term memory.

Read more about optimizing your language learning here.

 

Interesting, right? Now it’s time to answer the most important question – what if somebody is too lazy to actually go through all the trouble of producing sentences?

 

Consequences Of Lack Of Encoding (i.e. why most Spaced Repetition Apps don’t work)

 

 

I hope that the following paragraph will help you make a very important decision – never ever use or buy any learning app. I don’t care that you read that Gabriel Wyner is working on a revolutionary app or that Memrise has a better algorithm now.

 

The most important and effective thing you can do for your learning is to create multiple contexts (i.e. sentences) for a word you want to learn. Simply repeating ready-to-use flashcards, especially the ones without any context, won’t work well. This simple fact renders all the memory apps combined useless. ANKI is really all you need.

 

Think for a second about the solution those apps dish out to you. Most of the time they simply give you ready-to-use flashcards, often without any context! Or meaningless games which perpetuate shallow encoding. Or even when you see a flashcard with a word in the context, it was not encoded by you and thus it will be way harder to remember.

 

Time to stop looking for magical solutions. You won’t find them in apps.

 

To my chagrin, I don’t see any big company talking about this. Of course, the reason is obvious. If you pay for an app, you have to be convinced that it’s truly magical and life-changing. I don’t think they would sell well if the owners started screaming from the rooftops “They are sh*t! What’s truly magical is the effort you put into encoding your vocabulary”!

Read more about Common Language Learning Mistakes and How To Fix Them With Lean Language Learning.

SRS programs are just a white canvas

 

 

SRS programs

 

The right way of thinking about such programs is seeing them as a white canvas.

 

Algorithms underpinning them are close to perfect in themselves. Unfortunately, some people crap in their hand and insist on smearing it until they get a one-eyed unicorn. The next thing you know is they are running around the internet and screaming that SRS programs don’t work. You can’t be lazy when you learn.

 

I know that doing ready-to-use flashcards seems “quicker” to use because you don’t have to invest too much energy into producing them. However, in reality, they are more time-consuming in the long run because you need to spend more time repeating words unnecessarily.

 

It has to do with the mechanism of passive rehearsal which is simply a mindless act of rattling off a cluster of pre-prepared information. Many years ago it was actually proven that it has little effect on whether or not information is later recalled from the long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

 

If you ever want to use such flashcards, simply treat them as a source of vocabulary to learn. Other than that, simply encode your vocabulary and you will be fine. All ready-to-use flashcards can do is create the illusion of time-efficiency while slowing your progress down at the same time.

 

Thinking Flashcards – Unleash Your Creativity With The Power of Spaced Repetition Programs

Thinking Flashcards - Harvest The Power of Spaced Repetition Programs To Unleash Your Creativity

 

Being creative is definitely one of the superpowers of modern times. Alas, various TV series and movies have warped this amazing skill beyond recognition.

There is always some charming and smug asshole who seems to deliver a brilliant solution after one glance at the piece of paper. I mean, how realistic is that?

Being creative is a hard work and more often than not, it’s a long process. And it’s certainly not easy.

Problems with coming up with creative solutions

 

I love to walk around the town and observe how new businesses prosper.

As in any big city (Wroclaw – see some pictures here), there is always a new shop or a restaurant cropping up around the corner.

And as in any big city, most of them go bankrupt. There is nothing weird about this.

What’s weird is that most of these businesses almost never try anything to stay afloat.

I know because I regularly check what they are trying to do in order to help themselves. The answer 99% of the time is “nothing”. They just establish their business, see that it doesn’t work and then put up the shutters.

And I die a little bit every time I see this.

Would it hurt them to think up a couple of things which will help to save their business? Would it hurt them to try just a little bit harder? Many of them just throw a towel and gracefully bend over and let their lack of creativity take most of their life savings.

That just goes to show that maybe being creative is not that easy. Maybe there are obstacles which you need to be aware of in order to overcome them.

Let’s go through them to see where the potential pitfalls lie.

1. Lack of system

 

Thinking Flashcards

 

I know plenty of really smart people but almost none of them have any system for being creative. When asked why they usually answer that:

  1. it is weird
  2. it is robotic
  3. creativity shouldn’t be tamed
  4.  [[ insert another rationalization – use random excuse generator ]]

And I get it.

Everyone would like to be this spontaneous genius. You see a problem and bam!

Just 5 seconds later you shake out a brilliant idea out of your sleeve. The crowd cheers, your admirers sway as you walk on and grace them with your greatness.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. Most of the time, you just look blankly at a piece of paper and then start bawling uncontrollably.

2. Availability Heuristic

 

Availability Bias or Heuristic, the term coined by Daniel Kahneman, states that we tend to most easily recall what is salient, important, frequent, and recent.

This tendency can be perceived as the brain’s energy-saving mode.

Why burn through precious deposits of glucose to recall everything when you can just concentrate on what’s available?

The problem with this bias is that what’s available in your memory is rarely what’s needed to really solve a problem.

3. First-conclusion bias

 

If you want another proof that your brain is lazy and spiteful, look no more.

First-conclusion bias states that most of the time, we are willing to accept the first idea we get. Once again, this is yet another energy-saving mechanism of ours.

Remember that logical and creative thinking requires activation of prefrontal cortex which is the most energy consuming part of our brain.

Once again, the problem is that the first conclusion is rarely any good.

Now that you know your enemy a little bit better, let’s take a closer look at the process of being creative.

The most important tenet of creativity

 

Thinking Flashcards - Unleash Your Creativity

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

“Since the only way you are going to find solutions to painful problems is by thinking deeply about them—i.e., reflecting.” – Ray Dalio

We like to think about being creative as of something magical. You know, the magic comes, rubs you gently on your arms and sticks the right words into your ears together with its tongue.

The reality is that it’s definitely more like pushing a boulder up the hill. If you drop it, you will probably never pick it up again.

And that means that

creativity is more about the process than anything else.

You need to constantly revisit the problem and constantly send the intention of solving it to the unconscious (read more about problem-solving).

What’s more, I believe that creative ideas come from accumulating many small insights. You can’t just settle for whatever knowledge you currently have – being creative is the process of curating the right ideas, tools, and facts (read more about why memorization is necessary to think effectively).

The following quote nicely reflects this idea:

“To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practised, requires years of contemplation.” – Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain

Now that you know what being creative is all about, let me explain how thinking work.

Thinking flashcards – how to make them

 

You can use any SR (spaced repetition) program to create thinking flashcards. The one I always recommend is ANKI. It gives you full control over your content. What’s more, you can be sure that it won’t disappear overnight or some company won’t block your knowledge database if you don’t give them your spleen or twerk.

1. Create a separate deck

 

Once you download it, create a separate deck and call it appropriately (like Bartosz’s Magical Idea Deck).

2. Select a problem you want to solve

 

It doesn’t matter how big a problem is as long as it is something that bothers you. If nothing comes to your mind right now but you would like to give this strategy a try, here are a couple of ideas which might help you:

  • help your friend solve a problem
  • come up with X ways to improve your life / earn more
  • come up with X ways to improve some product
  • think about how you can help develop your own / sb’s company

Once you’re done, put the name of the problem into the question field

3. Add two things into the answer field

 

a) Limitations:

I believe that placing some limitations on your ideas is one of the best ways to boost your creativity. It limits the general pool of possibilities and allows you to concentrate on the ones that count.

b) Tools/facts/information

Put anything which can contribute even slightly to solving the problem. Facts, products, tools, people and so on.

Example:

 

A friend of mine runs a very successful pub (its motif is a pre-war Poland). He has been increasing his profit for many years now but it seems that he’s running out of steam.

Q: How to increase the profit of X pub?
A:

limitations:

  • easy and cheap to implement
  • it has a viral potential

tools/ideas/facts:

  • Happy hour ideas
  • Original dish of the day
  • Ask people what they would like to buy there (surveys)
  • Organize wine/vodka/whiskey degustation
  • Come up with a new, weird holiday to promote the pub (e.g. Hate My Boss Mondays – you can win X for the best anecdote about your boss)
  • Buy stuff for X money and take a part in a lottery

As you can see, not every idea is original and let me be clear – it doesn’t have to be. Most of the time, a solution to almost every problem is already out there.

What’s more, you don’t have to flesh out all your ideas right away. You can add more details with every next review of your thinking flashcard.

Thinking flashcards – how to use them

 

 

You already know how to make thinking flashcards. Now, let me explain how they work. Don’t worry, it’s extremely easy.

1. Click “show answer” and brainstorm

Once you see the title of a flashcard, click “Show answer” so you can see your current list of ideas. Try to use whatever information you have there to come up with the solution. Nothing comes to your mind? Move on then.

2. Add another idea

Add at least one idea or limitation to your current list. You have to keep on stirring the cauldron of creativity!

3. Rinse and repeat

Repeat the process until you finally come up with something interesting.

Remember that the intervals between your brainstorming sessions shouldn’t be too long. Always click “again” if you’re afraid that’s happening.

Also, keep in mind that it’s unlikely that you will arrive at the solution while browsing or expanding these flashcards.

All they do is constantly keep a given problem at the forefront of your mind.

When your input reaches the critical mass, you will find yourself coming up with great ideas in the most unusual places. Although, it usually happens when you don’t concentrate on the problem at hand.

Creativity is truly sly, isn’t it?

Final words

 

Throughout the years, I have read about dozens of different creativity techniques but this is the only one which has allowed to be consistent. There are good reasons for that.

Thinking flashcards help you:

  1. accumulate your input in an organized manner
  2. attack a given problem regularly
  3. are fully automated.

Especially, if you already use ANKI or other SRS program. What’s more, they don’t cost you much energy. If you have ever given up on your creativity in the past, maybe it’s time to reconsider!

Your homework

 

It would be a shame to let this article go to waste. If you find this method appealing, choose one problem you have and get down to work.

Remember – it doesn’t have to be anything big. As always, the trickiest part is to start. Of course, if you decide to use it, please let me know how it went.

 

6 Ways You Can Use To Track Your Progress In Language Learning

Track Your Progress In Language Learning

I wonder if you’re like me when it comes to tracking everything?

I used to hate it passionately. I mean, how much geekier can you get? And all these vain people scrupulously jotting down their weight. Pathetic!

And then one day I decided to buy myself scales. I joyously stepped on them just to see that I hit 100 kg mark. WHAT?! I came to my sense around that time and started tracking, not only my weight but my learning progress as well.

Can you actually imagine a runner who just runs around and one day shouts out: “I’m gonna win a marathon”! And then an old man standing nearby strikes a conversation, something along these lines:

– “That’s amazing! So what’s your best time so far?”

+ “Best? Uhmm, dunno really. I guess it’s not that important to me.”

“Have you ever run  a marathon before?!”

+ “I’m not sure. But once I ran so long that my feet hurt and I had an ouchie.”

That would be weird, right? And yet, a lot of us actually do it. Very often we start thinking that we don’t get better anymore. WHY?! (a dramatic pause and Carmina Burana in the background)

Habituation

 

Not only is it a cool word, but also one of the most important (and frequent) processes which occur in our lives!

Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations.[1] Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequence.

And therein lies the rub. We get used to our current skills level. And that’s why we NEED tracking. The best part is that it does not need to be sophisticated to be effective.

At the bare minimum, it should be able to show you if you’re moving in the right direction. Or moving at all. Because the chance is that you’re spinning your wheels knee-deep in a turd ocean of self-admiration!

6 Ways To Track Your Progress In Language Learning

 

My idea of tracking my progress is quite tightly connected to the core language competencies: reading, writing, listening, vocabulary, grammar, and speaking.

Of course, to start tracking anything, you need a place to note your progress. Remember, it doesn’t have to be high-tech. You can use a notebook, Google spreadsheet, Excel or Calc (Open Office).

TRACKING VOCABULARY

I assume that you already use Anki. If you don’t, download it immediately (unless you use some other spatial repetition programme).

Anki makes tracking your progress really easy. The first important piece of information for us is the number of words you’ve covered so far.

 

Track Your Progress In Language Learning

If you see that within a month you’ve moved from 406 to 700, it’s a clear sign that you’re on the right path.

The second thing worth tracking is the recall rate (especially correct mature).

Track Your Progress In Language Learning

This piece of information clearly tells us how well you remember the information you learn. If it’s alarmingly low (below 40-50%), it’s a signal that you should seriously consider improving your learning techniques.

TRACKING READING

Usually, we either read e-books (e-articles) or paper ones. In my opinion, you should track the medium which you use more frequently. When it comes to reading, a good tracking criterion is to simply note down the number of pages you’ve read.

TRACKING LISTENING

It doesn’t matter whether you listen to podcasts, music or simply watch TV-series. Tally it up and enter the data.

TRACKING WRITING

If you write mostly online, start counting how many words you have written (use Word Count Tool). Otherwise, start counting the number of pages you’ve written.

TRACKING SPEAKING

Let’s be honest, it’s not the easiest thing to track. I’ve never done it as I prefer tracking words. But if you know that speaking is your absolute priority – go for it. Check when the Skype conversation or a meeting with your friend starts and when it finishes, and sum up the total number of hours.

If you really put the effort into your learning, I’m sure that after just a few weeks you’ll be amazed to see what you’ve accomplished so far!

TRACKING GRAMMAR

It sounds daunting, and I agree. But for me, it comes naturally. As I’ve written before, preparing the outline of the grammar is something which should be done before you start learning a language on your own.

Once you have it, start crossing out the grammar topics which you’ve covered or just put a date next to them. It shows how much further grammatically you should get to achieve a certain level.

Benefits Of Tracking Your Progress

 

1) you never hit a plateau

You see and know that you’re making a progress.

2) increased motivation

You can admire your hard work at any time. Open Excel and take a look at yourself, you sexy, hard-working beast! And that obviously helps you stay focused.

3) instant feedback

You see when you slack off or that your learning methods need a change. The data don’t lie! Also, it helps you see patterns in your learning.

4) you don’t focus on the negative

It’s a sad fact but we tend to focus on negative things in life. Your successes stop giving you joy after a couple of days. We lose sight of our achievements. Your language log will keep on reminding you about them!

Conclusion

 

Tracking is a powerful tool in language learning. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Of course, you don’t have to go over the top. It’s enough that you start tracking elements which are the most important to you.

So go ahead and let me know how it works for you!