[This is a cross-post via the Spaced Repetition Foundation blog, where it was originally published]
Maybe Spaced Repetition isn't the best word. It's only descriptive after the fact, once someone has explained to you about Ebbinghaus and his experiments learning sheets of random numbers during the 1870s. For a general audience, we probably need a better term to help people understand what you can do with Spaced Repetition. We also need better examples and models of people who use it in a variety of domains of their life.
The first use case or scenario in which many encounter spaced repetition software or uses is language learning. And yes, it is great for learning vocabulary in an efficient manner. You can see how people have found ways to blast through large numbers of words by using things like Anki or Memrise.
But it would be a waste to limit our understanding of what Anki or spaced repetition can do to just learning vocabulary lists. It can be used for so much more. Indeed, expanding people's awareness of the various possibilities is an important reason why Matt, Natalie and I decided to set up this foundation.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a few moments to write down some thoughts on how you can use Anki and Spaced Repetition in other areas of your life. This list isn't in any particular order. You'll find that most things involving information or learning can be somehow coupled with the use of spaced repetition software, and the extent of your use is basically only as limited as your creativity.
- Birthdays -- learn all the birth dates of your friends and family. This probably works best in conjunction with some other system like the major system for remembering numbers, but you might be able to brute force this through.
- Kindle Clippings -- using Anki's in-built cloze deletion tool, you can blank out key parts of your kindle clippings to remind you of things you read in previous months or years. This way, books that you've read needn't be confined to vague memories. You can be more deliberate about what you're learning. Even things like book titles could be something you could learn with Anki. Consider a card which tests me on the author's name and the title (based on a short description). This way I avoid having those moments where I forget the title of the book but remember the contents pretty well.
- Magazine articles / things online as you're reading
I do this a lot. Whenever I'm reading online articles -- in Instapaper, let's say, which is the place where I read most things -- I'll save the highlights of passages I want to keep in my reference library. At a later date, I'll go through those highlights and see what I want to remember for the longer-term. I'll then transfer the clipping or highlight into my Anki library.
- New English words -- I'll occasionally come across technical vocabulary that is new to me while readying. If it's a word that I find myself looking up often, I'll save that entire sentence into Anki and use the cloze deletion method to set up an appropriate test.
- People / Faces
Matt seems to use this far more than me, though I'm starting to do it more often. The idea is that you find a picture of people you meet in meetings or in work contexts (Google Images or Facebook works well for this) and test yourself on their names and maybe one or two key facts about them -- that they're a vegetarian, perhaps, or that they just had a baby, or whatever it is. You can even do this pre-emptively. I once did this prior to a conference/event on Afghanistan. The conference home page had everyone's name and photo (those who were speaking / attending) so I just downloaded the lot, made cards for everyone as well as what their job/specialism was. By the time I arrived at the conference I knew everyone's name and who they worked for and what they worked on. It was a far more relaxed and personable experience than previous events of that kind. I don't get invited to speak at such events any more really, so I have no use for this, but I imagine many readers would find this useful.
- Reference materials -- You probably have things in your life that you're perpetually looking up. The time in-between looking-up probably is a matter of months (or maybe years). Just long enough to forget, but not long enough to forget that you once knew this thing. With Anki, those tip-of-the-tongue moments can become a feature of the past. No more remembering that you once new something.
Some examples: perhaps the precise proportions of a recipe you make every month or two. Yet every time you make the recipe you have to look up whether it is 1 part flour to 2 parts water, or 1:3. Anki can keep your memory fresh.
Similarly with important medical data, or phone numbers, or points of contact for certain work projects or people.
- Coding language -- I used this while studying coding this past summer, and have found it great for making sure that the conventions I learnt for one language didn't get forgotten while I worked on the next language / scenario.
- Revising things you should probably already know but maybe have forgotten
This, for me, is the subject of mathematics. I studied it at school, but since then have had less need for it. This past year I've returned to mathematics with the somewhat embarrassing realisation that even things like my times-tables aren't as solidly in my brain as I'd like. I can tell you what 6x7 produces, but I'll probably need to think about it for a few seconds. Enter, Anki. I've been drilling myself on times tables for a few months and have found a real uptick in the speed at which I can recall those answers.
You probably did a certain amount of this at school, but since then haven't added to the knowledge (or some maybe has been forgotten). Learning all the capitals of all the countries of the world (and being able to locate them on a map) isn't just an abstract skill. Things like this enhance your ability to understand and interact with the world. Instead, when you read a news article referencing a number of countries, you can place them on a map and realise that Ouagadougou is the capital of Burkina Faso and that it's included in the article for that reason.
Other niche things I've used Anki to help me with:
- brewing times for different varieties of tea, and also the ideal temperature of the water
- Ayas for the Qur'an (i.e. learning to recite these by heart). I know many use Anki for learning Bible verses, too.
- Learning the periodic table (alas, many years ago, in a deck now since deleted from my phone)
- The Japanese Kanji
Others use Anki for learning med-school data.
As I wrote above, the limit to what you can use Anki for is basically limited only by your creativity and imagination.
When I first learned about the idea of spaced repetition, I felt like I'd discovered a magic trick or a secret of some kind. Here was a piece of research that could transform how quickly I learned new words (I was studying Pashto at the time) and how well I recalled them. On the other side of that elation, I felt a simultaneous frustration and sense of disappointment that this piece of pedagogy / educational science hadn't come up before in my schooling career. All those vocab cards I'd created for my BA degree in Arabic and Farsi! So much inefficiency! Not to mention all the things I had studied at primary and secondary school. Most of that specific knowledge remains but it is like the shadow of its original form. I've recently started studying Maths again and I'm painfully aware just how much I've forgotten.
Spaced repetition is a principle that advocates a specific series of intervals between reviews of a particular fact or 'thing' that you want to memorise. A German scholar called Herman Ebbinghaus discovered that there is a pattern to how most humans learn and forget materials, and he outlined a specific algorithm to ensure optimum recall and retention of whatever you are trying to learn. For that, we must be thankful for the (seemingly) boring experiments he had to go through to get to that piece of insight.
Anki is a piece of software that manages your study and recall of individual pieces of information. The spaced repetition algorithm or insight is at the core of how Anki works and helps you. I've used Anki to learn languages, to memorise smaller facts and useful pieces of information, to cement my understanding of broader concepts, among other things. It's pretty adaptable to whatever your specific learning needs are. This is why I've stuck with Anki over its competitors. (I've tried pretty much all of them, and continue to do so, but Anki remains the most customisable and useful IMHO).
Over the years, I've had the privilege to share Anki with others along my travels. Sometimes this has come in the context of language learning, other times like with the friend who wanted to learn all the names of all the bones in the human body.
In fact, Anki was the original bridge or glue that started my friendship with Matt Trevithick, Sources and Methods co-host and all-round busy person. I walked into his office in Kabul -- he was working at the American University of Afghanistan at the time -- and spied a huge stack of flashcards in a box in the corner. I pointed to them and he explained with great pride how he'd learnt them all. We talked through his process a bit and soon enough I was singing the praises of Anki and how much time he'd save and...and...
We've had many conversations over the years relating to language-learning, the different ways Anki can be used and our overwhelming and continuing sense of disbelief that the principles of spaced repetition aren't more widely adopted in the field of education. People who get deep into self-study eventually stumble on SRS, since you often try to find ways to get faster or better in the absence of a teacher telling you what to do. The Quantified Self movement has been instrumental in spreading the gospel of SRS, too, in their special sessions devoted to the topic in their yearly conference, or through the pride-of-place given to show-and-tell explanations of how SRS has allowed someone to learn Chinese, or hieroglyphics or so on. (Click here for the QS list of talks referencing SRS. I'd highly recommend dipping your toe into some of these talks. Most are extremely engaging.)
Bringing matters up to the present day, I have a bit more time and bandwidth for focus now that the PhD is finished and Matt and I had been talking about this sense that more people should be using SRS for a few years, so we have finally bitten the bullet and started something to try to make that happen.
The Spaced Repetition Foundation is our institutional first step to start to spread the lessons to a broader audience and to more varied contexts. Our mission statement reads:
"The Spaced Repetition Foundation, an independent, not-for-profit center, is dedicated to advancing the adoption of spaced repetition as a supplementary learning tool.
"Despite the scientifically proven ability of spaced repetition to vastly increase the retention of information in the brain as a supplemental learning tool, the use of this technique is, at present, largely restricted to select individuals and students for personal enhancement or academic achievement. To date, no single center exists to advocate for the increased adoption of this approach in educational settings at the macro level, to increase public awareness of this useful tool, and to serve as a focal point for interested individuals to come together and work on these issues.
"Attempting to solve this problem, Natalie, Alex and Matt, long-time users of spaced-repetition applications, decided in the summer of 2016 to start the Spaced Repetition Foundation, which seeks to function as an independent advocate dedicated to increasing the adoption of spaced-repetition technology wherever learning is happening."
Note that we are not completely and exclusively technology-centric in our approach. At least part of the work involves outreach, involves testing use cases and scenarios, and if it really is to find a place in the broader world (away from electricity and flashy phones, perhaps) it must be adaptable to low-tech or no-tech approaches.
Going forward, we'll be spreading the word about the science behind spaced repetition (spoiler: it works), ways everyone can use some form of review-recall testing in their lives, and generally galvanising different communities to find ways to rethink their approaches to knowledge acquisition and long-term recall through spaced repetition. We have some specific first steps planned, but I'll hold off with those details until they are more pertinent.
I'm extremely glad, too, that we will get to work with Natalie McKnight, the other co-founder, who brings a wealth of institutional and practical educational experience beyond simply the solitary learner that Matt and I represent. Natalie is Professor of Humanities and Dean of the College of General Studies at Boston University. I'm excited to work together with her to expand the kinds of communities and settings we can reach.
If you have any interest in the work we're doing, please sign up for our newsletter here or if you are interested in learning more, please do get in touch. Full details are available on our website at http://www.spacedrepfoundation.org.