Self-spaced repetition software

Screenshot Sims 3

Games are usually the enemy of studying, but some elements of games can be used to improve learning.

Spaced repetition is an amazing technique for learning without understanding. Understanding is certainly superior and in a league of its own, but it is hard to command or even predict; and sometimes you need to memorize for a while before you can understand. One may compare this to gathering ingredients before you can cook. Before you can read sentences, you must know the words, and so on.

Spaced repetition takes advantage of a particular memory effect: The best time to repeat something is just before you forget it. Repeating many times in a row adds little after the first couple repetitions. Repeating at fixed intervals helps, but the best effect comes with increased intervals. You may for instance double the intervals, which is more effective than fixed intervals. But the best effect is when one actively recalls a fact just as it is about to be forgotten: It should take a little effort to remember it, but one should be able to do it.

Since our brain is not under constant surveillance, the only person who can know this time is ourselves. Conventional Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) starts with a standard model of human memory, then adjusts intervals down if people keep forgetting, or up if they remember everything. Good SRS lets the user mark the difficulty with which they remember. But there is an even better solution, at least in some ways, and the Duolingo online language site has found it.

When you start a study unit in Duolingo, the “learning meter” is empty. As you learn, it fills up until it is full. But as time passes afterwards, the learning meter begins to slide down toward empty again. You can see this for each topic, and for each “workbook” in a topic. (This is a session that typically takes 10-15 minutes to go through.) You can then go back and test yourself.

If you go back and run the test while you remember everything, you will certainly get the learning meter back to full again, but the experience will be rather boring. Duolingo is a very game-like learning system, where you have to translate back and forth, listen to sentences in the target language, describe pictures or pick from multiple choices. You never know what the next question will be. But if you know everything by heart, it is not very exciting. It is like winning chess against a small child.

On the other hand, if you wait too long and have forgotten the words or phrases, you will be thrown out after three mistakes and have to start that workbook over until you get it right. That is not too much fun either, even though it only costs you a few minutes.

The result is that the users themselves find out how long to wait to get the most rewarding “game” experience. If it was too easy, you learn to wait longer. If it was too hard, you make sure to return earlier next time. There is no need for the software to know whether you learn fast or slowly. All it needs to do is reward you when you get the balance right, and it does so with an exciting learning experience and a feeling of winning against a worthy opponent: Your own forgetfulness. You pick your battles, so with a little experience you pick the best time yourself.

I am not sure how easy this is to translate into other forms of learning, but I think it may be easy with anything that requires memorization of facts. Geography and history come to mind. Make small, focused units and a table where one can see which ones begin to slip. Adjust the speed at which they slide depending on past performance. It can probably be done better than it is in DuoLingo, but the principle works amazingly well. Humans are very good at learning things when having fun.

Learning on YouTube

Memory: Slideshow from a YouTube Video from Stanford University.

Actually, I barely have any visual sketchpad at all. At my best times I can visualize small single-color filled rectangles and colored circles or triangles. That’s about it. I seem to be able to think consciously even so, thanks to the Inner Voice?

I have been looking around on YouTube for videos about studying, learning and memory.

(This is for selfish reasons mostly, as I am still trying to establish a Japanese vocabulary that will get me started on reading that language.)

One video was half an hour long, and it had a few minutes of interesting content. There was a woman in America who could remember every day after the age of twelve, a couple decades in all. But it was not just that she could remember: She could not forget. Her husband died four and a half year ago, and she still remembered it as if it were yesterday. At all times a stream of random memories was running through her head. She realized of course that this was not normal, and sought professional help. So far, it seems she has helped them more than they have helped her. She still remembered everything, while they learned new fascinating things about human memory.

At first they thought she was the only one, but they found a few more over time. Brain scans showed that certain parts of the brain was larger than normal in these individuals. They did not comment further on that, but I feel compelled to add that this does not say what is cause and what is effect. We know that there are visible changes in the brain of people who have meditated regularly for many years, and the changes are greater in those who have meditated longer, which implies that the practice leads to the biological changes, not the other way around. Who knows what would happen to your brain if you somehow created a psychological mechanism that runs memories through your head continuously. So it could be that it started out as just a habit and grew into a massive change in the brain. Stranger things have happened. Or perhaps not – it is pretty strange. Also, she was Jewish.

I remember (but only vaguely) a couple decades ago, reading a book at a friend’s place. It was about memory too, and was probably the first time I learned that people with amazing memory exist, and that they all remember visually. There was also a man with a natural unlimited memory. He automatically assigned visual qualities to words and numbers, which may have been the reason for his amazing skill. He could learn anything and recall it at any time, and his memories of his own life stretched back to the crib. Also, he was Jewish.

Aimed at more normal people is a series of short lectures on study technique and memory by Dr Chew at Samford (not Stanford) University. He discourages multitasking and swears to deep interaction with what one is trying to learn. Interestingly, the desire to learn (or not) has no effect on learning; the depth of the interaction decides. The time spent has no effect if processing is shallow; the depth of interaction is what matters. By deep processing we talk of the meaning of what you learn. So sorting words alphabetically or by the length of the word, for instance, has very little effect, even if you play around with the words in many ways for a long time. But thinking about the meaning of them, trying to find examples, comparing and contrasting, connecting them to something you already know, relating to them emotionally … these are deep forms of interaction and lead to forming memories more effectively.

On the other hand, there is the Spaced Repetition Software which I have praised from time to time. This is a tool for cramming random facts which are not easily related to a field of experience. I use it for learning Japanese vocabulary. It shows a fact frequently in the beginning, then more and more rarely. The ideal is to show it just before it is forgotten. By doing this, it trains the brain to wait longer before forgetting it, until eventually the time frame is likely to outlast your remaining lifetime. This approach requires a bit of energy at the start, but the total time spent is pretty short compared to the effect. It is tailored to isolated facts, though, and higher education in our age is not about cramming as much as understanding. Of course, you cannot cook without ingredients, and you cannot study something without facts.

I’ve been watching a few more and set aside others for watching later, but I have to update at some point if there is to be any point in writing. So this is it for now. Why not add your own favorites?