Spaced Repetition Software: Beyond Rote vs. Progressive

by brachbach

Flashcard software programmed with memory algorithms is a student-centered way to learn essential basic facts.

Often in debates about education today, rote learning , back-to-basics, and learning the cannon are pitted against progressivism, student-centered learning, contructivism, and 21st century learning. For example, we see these two sides in the debate over No Child Left Behind.  These controversies tend to grind on and on, with researchers and activists supporting each side.

I think that there’s a way forward out of this debate for a specific kind of knowledge, namely facts that need to be memorized. These could be organic chemistry molecules, mathematical formulas, or vocabulary words in a foreign language. Clearly, simple facts like these can never capture the entirety of their knowledge domains, but they are critical to know. These are the kinds of things that back-to basics proponents define as true knowledge, but that could easily inspire boredom if they were taught in a purely rote manner. On the other hand, students learning under a more open-ended pedagogy might never get around to learning these facts.

The new way forward that I’m talking about is spaced-repetition software (SRS). SRS is basically flashcards. The difference is that the software uses an algorithm that models human memory to show you the flashcard at just the right time, right before you were about to forget the information. This allows you to retain the information with the minimal time investment; eventually, you should only have to review a card once every few years. (As an aside, I think that SRS is an example of the real promise of educational technology; a specific new affordance of computers (the ability to easily calculate when to present the flashcards) makes a really useful pedagogy (SRS) much more feasible.)

Here’s what makes SRS such a strong learner-centered and individualized method for learning these rote facts; it’s generally agreed that it’s essential to design your cards and you mnemonics to remember the information yourself (the sources linked below tend to agree on this). That design can involve a great deal of skill. For example, I’m currently using SRS to remember Chinese characters. Characters are made up of components that have some semantic and phonetic meaning, but they are put together in complicated and unpredictable ways. This makes them hard to memorize. However, one can build mnemonics based on the components, related characters, and the overall look of the character. Each character is a new challenge to devise a good mnemonic to facilitate remembering the flashcard when it comes up on my SRS.

SRS skills are a really important way to “learn how to learn.”  Educators should teach SRS and students should learn it. SRS requires a certain amount of self-discipline, so it may not be suited for the youngest learners, but I certainly think that it can be learned in high school. I even see the potential for SRS to raise our standards of student remembering. For example, many of my Chinese teachers in college  fully expected that I would forget a large proportion of the words that I learned in class, but with SRS, there’s no reason to settle for such low expectations.

Educators will probably differ in whether they teach SRS by lecture or by collaborative discovery, but once learners acquire the skill, it should transcend those boundaries. More broadly, I hope that technologies like SRS can eventually make the big bitter debates in education seem irrelevant.

I have discussed SRS in very hopeful tones, but my research experience in technology for education suggests that new technologies may well have negative effects on teaching and learning, or even more likely, make no sizeable impact on education. One dystopian scenario that I imagine for SRS is that the technology is hijacked by hard-core back-to-basics proponents, who design one standardized set of SRS cards. Teachers assign students bunches of these pre-made cards that students have no interest in working on. Students refuse to review the cards (thus getting seriously behind in their homework, since the march of human forgetting is steady), and worst of all, get turned off from SRS in general and never want to use this potentially highly useful learning tool again. An even more likely scenario is that, after attending a continuing education seminar on SRS that is heavy on theory but light on practical applications, teachers say, “that’s very nice, but I don’t see how it will fit into my curriculum.” They reserve it for one day a month in the computer lab, under which conditions the technology cannot possibly do its job.

Actually, maybe the most important thing that educators can do in regard to SRS is to avoid these negative outcomes. Khatz, a big proponent of using SRS for learning Japanese who believes that formal schooling is mostly a waste of time, writes on his website that the best thing that teachers can do is to get out of the way and give students the time and space to use really effective learning techniques like SRS. Maybe so, though personally I’m more hopeful teachers can take a more active role in bringing the benefits of SRS to their students.

If you want to check SRS out for yourself (and I definitely recommend that you do if you are currently trying to learn facts of any kind), Anki is my favorite SRS application. Make sure you search for information about making cards for the domain that you are learning, because there are some important tricks if you want to optimize your learning. At a higher level of abstraction, the deep but disorganized Supermemo documentation, based on decades of research, has general rules for formatting knowledge for SRS.

Hope this is helpful to you and your students!


3 Responses to “Spaced Repetition Software: Beyond Rote vs. Progressive”

  1. This is fascinating! I’ve been struggling with how to use SRS in tutoring. It works okay with one-on-one, except that my kid has attention problems and finds it easier to pay attention to reading words in a book than reading words on flashcards. I also made the rookie mistake of trying flashcard-like lessons in a group of four, which was a disaster – one kid gets into it and shouts out the answers, and the others get left behind. It’s definitely something I want to teach my kids…but I really do think SRS might be more effective if I could outsource it to some sort of tech application. Of course, I don’t have the leeway to do so.

    I’ll definitely try out Anki or Supermemo next time I have a chance.

  2. Will, if you’re actually trying to implement spaced repetition (SR) manually, you’re going way beyond the call of duty. Before SR software (SRS), people did manual SR by making notecards and storing them in a filing box with multiple divisions. They moved the cards between the different divisions to implement memory algorithms. But that’s a whole lot of work and you’d never be able to get as precise as a computer anyway. That’s one of the cool things about SRS as an educational technology; SR was pretty infeasible before SRS was invented, so SRS is really something new rather than the same old pedagogy implemented on a computer.

    I assume that what you mean is that you tried to use flashcards with the kids who you are tutoring. Flashcards are the form of the SRS without the memory algorithms that are SRS’s essential function. Not to say that flashcards are bad; I can’t see most elementary schoolers having the self-discipline to actually do SRS, so flashcards administered by a human tutor may be the best thing for them. Also, if you’re teaching kids how to read relatively common words that they will encounter again and again in the future, SRS isn’t necessary because they’ll be getting plenty of review of their knowledge from everyday experience. Since most of what we teach in elementary school is pretty basic, this is actually another argument against using SRS in elementary and maybe also middle school. I think that flashcards are a totally different pedagogy from SRS, considering the lack of a memory algorithm and the addition of the social dimension of doing flashcards with a tutor or in a group (which you mentioned in your comment).


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