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.

 

To sum up, currently there is no other technology, including virtual reality, which is as effective as spaced repetition programs. However, if you don’t actually put in the effort and try to produce sentences for the words you learn then you waste most of the potential of this software.

Quick learning is not about time but about the effort.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning – Limit Passive Learning Activities

“Repeat after me!”

Repetitio mater studiorum est

Spending time with my grandfather was always a little bit weird.
He didn’t want to talk much or play some stupid games.

Oh no.
He used to sit me in front of him and grill me about different school subjects.
Physics. Math. History.

But his personal favorite was teaching me Latin proverbs.

Most of them slipped my mind.
But among all those which stuck with me, this is the one I cherish the most:

Repetitio mater studiorum est – repetition is a mother of studying

These four words contain the wealth of wisdom if you only interpret them in the right way.

On the surface, the problem with learning doesn’t seem that complex, right?

As long as you repeat things you want to learn, everything is fine and dandy.

But let’s be honest for a second. Like, really honest.

How easily can you recall words during conversations in your target language?
How often does your mind go blank?

You desperately try to recall the word you need but there is nothing there.
Just the depressing nothingness.

Rings true?

There you have it!

So the problem might a bit more complex than we have thought after all.
Put on your “learning overalls” and let’s dig a little bit deeper to explain why repetition is simply not enough.

Let me start with basics.

Two Kinds Of Repetition

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

In its most basic form, the repetition can adopt two forms.

It can be either:

1) active

or

2) passive

But what does “passive” mean, especially in the context of language learning?

It means that you don’t engage with the information you get.

You don’t do it actively (duh).

That’s why activities like reading and listening fall into this category.

What terrifies me the most, is that the default style of learning, for most of the people, is passive learning.

“But why do passive learning activities suck donkey balls?”, you might ask.
Let’s get to it.

Why Passive Repetition Sucks and Hinders Your Progress

 

Before I get to the science, let me tell you about one friend of mine. This story might sound familiar to you. Actually, problems of about 90% people who write to me fit perfectly into the following scenario.

Anyway. So this friend of mine has been learning Russian for over two years now.

I haven’t heard her talk for a long time but I thought that her level should be at least decent.
Russian is not that different from Polish after all. So imagine my surprise when I heard her speak Russian a few weeks ago. She barely scratched B1 level.

My first reaction? “No f***ing way”.

She’s been learning systematically for over 2 years and she can barely string a sentence together? After some investigation, I got to the bottom of it. Yes, her teacher visited her every week. Yes, they did learn.

Or should I say, “learn”?

Because the process they went through barely resembled any kind of real learning.

They basically read some articles together.
For an entire hour.

Almost no speaking at all. No meaningful conversations.
No active learning.

Nada. Null. Nothing.

If at any point of reading this description you told yourself, “Hey, this is pretty much how my lessons look like!”, then run.

Run the hell away from your teacher or language school.

A visit to a local strip-club seems to be a better investment than this.
At least you will know what you pay for.

The pyramid of effective learning

 

Science is very clear about passive learning.

It was proven a long time ago that passive learning has a very little effect on whether the information is later recalled from long-term memory (Craik & Watkins, 1973).

Many other studies have managed to successfully replicate the results of the aforementioned research.

So how does effective learning look like?

Take a look at the pyramid of effective learning.

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

 

There is a good reason why learning and listening are at the absolute bottom of retention rates.

Effective learning requires , so-called, effortful recall.

This should be the mantra of every learner. If you want to learn fast, you have to take control of your learning.

Without the control, your learning is like a boat with no sails in the middle of the storm.

You go one way and then the other without any sense of direction.

That damn boat needs a captain! You, that is!

Ok, so what does the effortful recall mean?

It means that the more effort you put into recalling a piece of information or to execute a skill, the more this act benefits the learning. (Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel).

Once again, there are a lot of studies which confirm the effectiveness of active learning.
Here are results of some of the recent results.

“Tests that require effortful retrieval of information (e.g., short-answer) promote better retention than tests that require recognition (Larsen et al. 2008).”

Effortful retrieval of information improves recall 1-month later, compared with no test (butler and Roediger 2007)

It’s worth mentioning that you can mix these strategies together.
Why not reap the benefits from the synergy effect?

How does this information transplant onto your learning ground?

 

First of all, let’s do some simple math.
Considering the said effectiveness of given learning strategies, we might conclude that:

1 minute of talking is worth 5-7 minutes of reading/listening. (read more about benefits of talking to yourself).

I know that reading and listening might feel productive but they are clearly not.
These are so-called feel-good activities.

I constantly shock students of mine by telling them not to listen to anything for the first 8-10 weeks of learning. Instead, I help them concentrate on active learning.

Only after this period of time do they start listening practice.
And the gains always amaze them.

There is also one, very little known fact, about your potential choice of learning strategy.
You see, if you don’t learn actively, you automatically condemn yourself to…

UNINTENTIONAL LEARNING

*gasp*

What Is Unintentional Learning?

 

Optimize Your Language Learning

Picture by: Zack Cannon

Now, this is a truly fascinating type of learning.

Unintentional learning takes place when you acquire vocabulary accidentally. it is a by-product of repeating a given piece of information a certain number of times.

It’s worth mentioning that is it also one of the default and (most useless) strategies of almost every language learner.

The body of research shows that you need to repeat a piece of information (unintentionally) between 20 and 50 times in order to put it into your long-term memory. 20 to 50 times! (one of many sources)

Needless to say, it takes way too much time. And time is the luxury a few of us can afford.

Of course, One might argue that 20-50 repetitions are not that many.
After all, if you read extensively and listen, you should get to this number of repetitions after some time.

Right?

No.

Here comes another plot twist.

Unless you learn three thousands words, reading is a veeery slow and inefficient activity.

And until you reach this number, your odds of learning words contextually are slight.

Sure, you can infer the meaning, but there is a good chance that your guess will be incorrect.

And what about rare words which you might find useful?
What If I need to know the word “thimble” because that was my dog’s name and I feel the need to share it with English speakers?

How many thousands pages must I read to stumble across this word, say, 10 times?
Hell, I don’t remember when was the last time I heard this word in my native tongue!

What about other like tangs, udder, piston and so on?

I need such words frequently during interpreting or teaching. Relying only on passive learning activities would make me a terribly inefficient teacher/ coach/interpreter.

So here you have it.
L2 Learners are simply at disadvantage as for the number of repetitions of words.

Of course, every problem begs for the solution.

We will get to it later.

Is the incidental learning that bad?

 

No. Of course not.
Incidental vocabulary acquisition makes some sense.

Maybe even a lot.
But only on one condition.

You already know enough words (and grammar) to learn from context.
Typically, that’s about 5000 words for most of the languages.

But the problem is to learn these 5000 words before you run out of motivation…!

Final Thoughts

 

As you can see, passive learning activities are a cardinal sin for most language learners.
The chance is that if you take a good, hard look at your learning habits, you will discover why your progress is so unsatisfying.

It still plays important roles in the learning process but only if you go through the critical phase of deliberate and active learning.


Do’s and Dont’s of Learning Languages – How to learn a language on your own (Part 2)

Dos and donts of learning languages

By now you should know clearly why you want to learn a language.

And don’t you ever forget about it. Let it be your guiding light. Now it’s time to learn how to organize your learning.

1. GET READY

Describing what it means to be ready is always quite tricky. The reason is simple – there won’t be many situations in your life when you feel really ready and the conditions are conducive. However, in the perfect sugar-coated world your readiness should involve three elements:

Being ready physically

Comfort is important. Before you start learning, make sure that you’re not hungry, tired or sick.
Get some snack or a nap if you have to. Otherwise a few minutes deep into the learning you will start having dirty fantasies about rubbing a chocolate on your chest while being wrapped up in sheets.

Being ready mentally

“Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.”
Edmund Burke

Do your best to clear your head before you get down to learning. Stress is probably the worst enemy of effective studying. It dumbs you down drastically. Meditate, take a walk – do what it takes to unwind.
Anything is better than suddenly realizing that instead of being focused on learning you catch yourself plotting against your boss.

And come to terms with the fact that you’ll probably never be able to speak a language like a native speaker. Let go of the ideal you nurture. I know it all too well. I combat my anxieties and fears on a daily basis.

Being ready emotionally

Incite emotions and get excited. Think about all the things you’ll be able to do with your newly acquired language! Imagine the world of possibilities! Make it vivid, so vivid that you almost feel that it’s real. Get yourself pumped.

Watch some motivational videos (like this one – Rise and Shine) or read an inspiring article.
Or maybe create a set list which gets you in the mood. Survivor’s “Eye of the tiger” seems like a natural choice here!

2. CREATE A SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT

Each one of us should have a safe haven. A place which immediately can be associated with learning.
The place which immediately triggers the willingness to learn in you.

But it’s hard. It’s hard to draw a distinct line between your working and play space and the one for learning.
Still, try to find yourself a nook you can call your own. Go to cafe or library if you can’t find it under your roof.

Once you have it, get rid of all the potential distractions. Turn off the music*, put aside anything that may distract you.
And don’t get too comfy. If you sink into an armchair it will smell your weakness and lure you into the oppressive clutches of sleep!

A supportive environment means also one more thing. Tell your beloved ones to give you some space and keep everything relatively down.

3. FOCUS AND HAVE A REMINDER

Now you have a place where you can learn! Congratulations! There shouldn’t be many things left which may distract you.

Next thing on the checklist – stop multitasking. Decrease your cognitive load. Regardless of what you’ve heard – that’s another thing which dumbs you down. If you do two things at once, divide your attention and intelligence by two. It basically makes you equivalent of a retarded shrimp. And I can tell you they’re not very good at learning languages.

Get yourself a reminder of why you want to learn. It can be a piece of jewelry given to you by your ancestors/wife/husband. A picture of your dream house. Anything which gets you going is just fine.

If you’re single, hang a picture of some person who inspires you.

Dos and donts of learning languages

Whenever you find yourself distracted let your reminder work its magic.

4. BE REGULAR

The chance is that if you’ve ever stuck to some routine I don’t have to convince you why it’s so extremely important to be regular.

If not, let me tell you what has been told thousands of time – it’s better to learn 10 minutes per day than to do it once per week for 2 hours.
But why? The numbers don’t add up. Well, math is a cruel mistress.

There are dozens of rules which govern learning. One which is (probably) the most important for you is:

Spacing effect – you remember things better if they are distributed over a long time span and the bigger the number of repetitions

If learning each day is not a habit for you, you should do all in your power to develop it.
Set some time aside every day for learning – e.g. 25 min at 19:00 .

5. LEARN IN SMALL DOSES

You might have heard this saying before – learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Truer words have never been said. But …

When it comes to regular learning, try to slice your learning time into pieces if you plan to learn for more than 1 hour.

We’re only human. Our attention span is anything between 20 -40 min. After that time your thoughts start wandering into unknown directions. That’s perfectly ok. Just be aware of this fact and prepare beforehand.

Take a 10-minute break every 30 minutes. This is, of course, a mere suggestion.
You have to experiment a bit to see what works for you.

Also, don’t forget about the Serial Position Effect. We tend to remember the most items from the beginning and from the end of our studying It means that the more breaks you have the better you take advantage of this phenomenon.

6. CREATE SYSTEMS (and why they beat goals)

I believe that goals are a great starting point. But it’s only a first station in your journey.
They won’t carry you very far. However, as great as they are, they have their limitations.

Let’s assume that your initial goal was to learn 10 words per day or 15 min per day. If you fail to stick to this goal, you’ll start feeling bad. “I can’t even do this one thing right”. Every time you fail, the chance that you’ll return to your learning schedule decreases. After some time, caught in despair, you stop learning.

What if you manage to actually follow through? You might be so content with yourself that you’ll stop there.

And this is a gist of problems with goals. They limit you in one way or another.

So why are systems better?

A good system is characterized by two things. It facilitates wanted behavior and makes it difficult to yield to unwanted one.

Who needs strong will when you have systems?!

Example:

I know that I have a very strong inclination to browse various websites after a few minutes of working on my computer. That’s why I downloaded the app which blocked these websites for better part of the day (here you can find other blocking apps)

Leechblock – for Mozilla
StayFocusd – for Chrome

Thus I increased my chance to stay focused while learning. What’s more, the only objects which I keep on my desk are books and dictionaries. It considerably decreases the risk of getting distracted.

So go ahead. Think about how you can create the system to facilitate your learning.

7. (LEARN HOW TO) LOVE THE GRIND

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”Stephen King

Discover an appreciation for what you have to do. Anybody could learn in perfect conditions. But as I said, it rarely happens. Grit is born out of pain. Every time you force yourself to learn you build your habit. Brick by brick.

And don’t compare yourself to others and their progress. Everyone has his own fight to do.
And we all start with different gear and skills.

Just show up. Day by day. That’s the secret.

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”Martin Luther King Jr.