The Great Spaced-Repetition Software Hoax

spaced repetition softwareDear Memorizers,

I got a great question earlier today about spaced-repetition-memorization:

Hey man, I know you’re into using your mind and all of that, but if you had to recommend some kind of software, do you like Anki or Mnemosyne better? 

First off: you’re right. I am into using my mind. I’m into you using your mind too.

I really wouldn’t want to spend any time ranting and raving against the use of spaced-repetition software.

As those of you who have been reading Volume 1 and Volume 2 of this newsletter know, I’m pretty well cool with whatever people want to do, so long as it gets them results. There’s no doubt in my mind that pure mnemonics is superior to any and all forms of rote learning, technology-assisted or otherwise, but I also know that getting started with memorization techniques requires time and effort and even passion.

Not everyone has these elements.

That said, I’ve tried both of these software programs and they most certainly do what they are designed to do.

Or do they?

Each software has its own style, but they share the basics in common: You enter the target material you want to memorize on a digital index card with the “solution” on the other side of the card and then the software shows you that information while testing your accuracy. If you get it right, you are tested on the target information progressively less and if you get it wrong, you are tested on the target information progressively more.

The idea here is that more exposure leads to greater retention – if you need it.

I’ll admit to you that when I first started with German, I used the “Before You Know It” software, which works in precisely the same way. I can’t say that it was entirely useless, but …

In addition to being the equivalent of banging words into your skull with a digital hammer, there are some problems with software like this.

First of all, this kind of program only works if you are learning multiple words at a time. You could set it to test you on just one word over and over again, but then you’re not really getting spaced repetition.

In essence, such software trains you to look at a word and then maybe you remember it or you don’t before it gives you about 3 or 4 other words that you may or may not become familiar with before returning you to the initial word and testing you on it.

At no point are you encouraged to actually learn the word, let along memorize it.

Worse, if you’re at all new to the language, you may as well be trying to distinguish snow flakes.

When using software like this, you’re encouraged by a machine to not really pay attention to the word. Rather, you’re encouraged to first recognize it and then essentially stutter your way into familiarity with it based on the whims of an algorithmic machine gun.

But let’s not throw the Tin Man out along with his oil …

How might spaced-repetition be used more effectively?

Here’s something you can try:

Instead of putting your target word on one side of the card and the meaning of the word (in your mother tongue) on the other side of the card, take a moment to fashion a mnemonic and place it in your Memory Palace. Do this for ten words.

Then, when entering the word into Anki or Mnemosyne (I’m not really convinced that one is better than the other), put the target word on one side of the card and a description of the mnemonic you used on the other without including the meaning.

If you’ve created your mnemonic well using the Magnetic Memory principles, then it will tell you not only the meaning of the word, but also how it sounds.

This way, if you’re going to pummel yourself with a digital, spaced repetition hammer, then at least you’re exercising two channels of talent at once: repeated exposure to the target word and extra practice at decoding your mnemonic in real time.

That’ll build you some mind muscles, I’m sure.

An alternative, more challenging and altogether more interesting strategy here would be to not include the target word at all.

Instead, have the meaning of the word on one side of the card, and the mnemonic you used to memorize the sound of the word on the other.

In this case, you’re actually forcing yourself to repetitively produce the word from your memory without actually seeing it.

Why is this such a cool exercise?

Because it resembles what you’re going to do when you’re in a conversation or when you’re taking a test and need to write in your target language without a dictionary or any other aid.

You’re going to need to sunder the target word in real time in the absence of the word. You’ll have nothing but context and your Magnetic Memory mnemonics to help you.

All of a sudden, these repetition software programs seem to have struck gold.

It’s the old Super Hero thing, I guess. With great power, comes great responsibility.

Use the power of software like this in a mature manner that respects the abilities of your mind, and you certainly can soar.

But just be cautious that the cure never becomes a poison, certainly not when its fangs strike on algorithmic autopilot.

Speaking of pilots, I’m thinking about starting up a monthly Magnetic Memory Postcard Program, which is to say that you’ve got the chance to receive a very interesting memorization tip once a month (twelve times a year) on a postcard. These will feature memorization ideas shared exclusively on these postcards with those who sign up to get them. More news soon.

Until next time, teach someone else what you’ve learned about memorization. Helping people improve their memory skills is one of the best ways we can make the world a better place. And the more we remember, the more we can remember. And the more we learn, the more we can learn.

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