Memrise vs Anki: place yer bets

Instead of doubling the amount of time I spend studying, I am trying to double the precision. Although you can learn almost anything by repeating it 7×70 times, the best time is just as you are about to forget. Anything before or after is less effective. But how do you know when you are forgetting if you don’t remember it?

I have written quite a bit over the past month about Memrise, a free Web resource for memorizing facts, vocabularies etc. It combines two of the most powerful techniques for rote learning: Spaced repetition and mnemonics. Spaced repetition tries to make you recall the fact just before you forget it, as this causes maximum learning with minimum effort. Mnemonics try to associate random facts with something that is easier to remember. This is obviously most effective if you do it yourself, but that can be frustrating. Memrise uses associations volunteered by users, and you can add your own.

I rather like this approach, and the way you can study at your own pace. Unfortunately, most of the time I remember 66% at best rather than the 90% that is the goal of spaced repetition. This was also the problem with the two previous SRS programs I used, AnyMemo and Mnemosyne. (Spaced Repetition Software is SRS business!) So I am testing another free program, ANKI, which has a good reputation among self-study amateur linguists. I am not too optimistic though. Now that this is my fourth attempt, I may have to accept that it is I who am too old for the programs that fit most people. It is the same with physical exercise, after all, but there I can set my own pace. And that’s the thing.

What I really miss is a dial or lever I can set, so the software reminds after e.g. 90% of the time it thinks should be right. Clearly the programs all overestimate my memory for random words. Of course, it would probably have helped if it was not so random, if it was at least somewhat related to my ordinary life. But that’s not what I need it for. I would really like something that was adjustable to me, rather than the other way around. It is kind of discouraging to have forgotten a third or more of the words when it is time to review them. It is also bad for learning – the “memory traces” in the brain weaken more quickly after the ideal recall time, or so I’ve read. So ironically, I would probably even spend less time reviewing if I had that “confidence dial”.

Anki does not have that, but it does have levels in the answers. Instead of just checking for itself whether you got it right, it asks whether it was hard, good or easy. The ideal is good, which is when you remember it with a little effort. If you had to think long and hard, it goes easier on you with that word or fact next time, in the form of asking you earlier. If you say it was too easy, it waits longer. And if you don’t get it right at all, it shows it again very quickly. So that sounds like an improvement.

On the other hand, I liked the suggestions for memorizing words, and I liked the way Memrise used different forms of multiple-choice questions in the early phase of learning a new word, then giving more and more options and eventually requiring you to write the answer. It also requires writing when reviewing, which involves more of the brain and makes it harder to fool yourself (“well, I got it ALMOST right!”).

I have picked up Anki and installed it on my PC and my Galaxy Note 2. (Unlike Memrise which is a website but requires some advanced browser features and can’t be used on my mobile devices.) Anki is also easily synchronized between two (or even more) devices. There are a lot of premade vocabularies and other data sets, and it pleases me to see that a lot of them are for studying Japanese. I downloaded a fairly small one that is mostly tangential to what I have already learned, and am testing it now.

Unfortunately there are obvious errors in the dataset I am testing, although small ones. Occasionally a romaji (western character) is used in a word written with katakana. I saw one obvious misspelling beyond that already in Japanese, and another in the English text. The Japanese is written in a font that is like an uglier Japanese version of Comic Sans. I hope this is a feature of that particular set and not of Anki! It is quite hard to read after the very legible font on my Windows machine, not to mention the downright beautiful hiragana font on the PC running Ubuntu Linux.

Apart from that, it seems nice enough. With the mobile app I can study at the bus, during breaks at work, even while a game is loading. OK, not much since I have a fast machine. But still, very handy. And I like its approach: If I don’t recognize a word, Anki shows it again after a minute. Once I recognize it, it increases to 10 minutes, then a day. I inserted 1 hour between those, the system lets you add steps like that. Then it goes up to 4 days and so on, I am not sure how far it goes. The most important part is of course whether I actually learn the words. I will have to come back to that. But if it turns out to wait too long, like all the rest, I will try to choose “hard” instead of “good” even when I remember, and see if that fixes it.

I really hope I won’t have to write my own. There are already quite a number of these. There’s Supermemo, the original and possibly best, if you can live with complicated. And there’s at least one other that I forgot the name of. I do that a lot, forget names. Although I don’t always remember doing it.

5 thoughts on “Memrise vs Anki: place yer bets

  1. Meant to put this comment here: I’m not an ANKI expert but I believe it will do what you want and let you adjust the repetitions. I’d ask some Anki masters in their forum. It’s also open source so if it doesn’t do what you need, you should be able to edit the code.

  2. You can definitely fine-tune how long Anki thinks the repetitions need to be.

    First, since you’re choosing again, hard, good, or easy, those are what determines how long before it brings something up again. Just by choosing hard instead of good all the time, you’d be greatly reducing the repetition intervals.

    It also has settings for the beginning intervals and the percentage it should use to modify over time as well, though, so that you can tune things a little more to your needs.

    Don’t be too quick to assume that this is just you being slower than most people to learn or something like that. The difficulty/complexity of the information people try to learn through these tools is going to vary a lot, so no pre-chosen set of intervals is going to be perfect. It could be that you’d improve your results somewhat by taking a little more time to stop and dwell on an answer before moving to the next question, to try to give your brain more time to recognize that it’s something important and soak it in.

    • Yes, Anki is the best of the bunch for me, but I had to choose “hard” instead of “good” every time unless (or until) the answer was really obvious. I also inserted an extra step near the beginning.

      Memrise compensated for the too long intervals by making me repeat the word several times over when I had forgotten it, as if I was seeing it for the first time. I was not impressed by this approach.

      I am impressed by Duolingo, a more specialized language learning program. It uses words in a variety of sentences, which causes natural connections in the brain. And it lets me choose when I review a group of words, giving simply a gauge of the decline and letting me judge from experience how low the gauge should go before I refill. This is also good. Unfortunately Duolingo only has a few languages yet, all of them European. But the gauge is a feature I’d like to see in future learning tools. Some may want to wait until it is down to half, while others may want to start repeating at 3/4. This would have solved my problem with a minimum of fuss.

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