Spaced repetition is a technique that most of the time involves flashcards. It is used to learn practically anything. But it has been proven to be super-efficient for learning languages.

We could describe spaced repetition as a method where you’re asked to remember something (it could be a word, a formula or a certain fact) within time intervals.

Mother_and_daughter_in_the_park

When we learn something, we need to review it again fairly quick so it may stick in our head.

We can then wait a bit more time to review this thing we have just learnt the second time. And we can wait even more to review it the third time and so forth.

This technique takes into consideration the tendency of our brain to forget things. So with a base repetition system, the thing we’re trying to learn will reappear for our review at an optimum time for our retention.

Mother_watching_daughter_play_in_the_park_through_window

The importance of learning how to learn

My little nephew was born some time ago. He’s my parents’ first grandchild, so we’re all excited! My sister and her husband have frequently been going to my parents’ home and so have I. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to see him during these first stages.

It has been a great experience for me. He’s very lively and even during his first weeks, he would be looking around, absorbing every sound, being impressed by everything he saw.

One of the things that fascinated me the most was how he was conscious of the world surrounding him.

When he was just over 3-months-old, I was playing with him and stretched my arms to him without touching him. He looked at me and stretched out his arms to me too. I put down my arms and he also put them down. I repeated the exercise and he followed me again.

I was thrilled and went running to look for my sister. She said it just may be coincidence so in her presence I tried to increase the level of difficulty of the exercise.

I stretch forth my arms to him and he also stretch them towards me. With my arms stretched I closed my hands and he also tried to move his little fingers to close them (he couldn’t but his fingers moved trying to close). I then opened my hands again and he also opened them wide again.

Without doubt, he was copying all my movements. I was surprised because I didn’t think he could do that at such a young age. All those movements are super simple for a grown-up but they must be challenging when being done for the first time.

I hadn’t realized until that point that we begin learning in life from the very moment we’re born.

Soon came the day when he gave his first steps and later on he said his first word. He has continued to learn throughout all these stages.

So, due to the fact that learning will be an action he will be performing during the course of his entire life, it will be important for him to learn how to learn. But you may argue with me, “He’s been learning already, what do you mean he needs to learn how to learn?”

He will need to understand how his brain works to use it more efficiently. And not only him but this applies to all of us also. Considering how our own brain processes information, will benefit us greatly.

Have you ever asked yourself what’s the best way to learn?

We’ll spend so much time learning. So this is a very pertinent question. Is there anything we can do to learn things more quickly and remember them longer?

Did you know that the usual way we approach learning is also one of the worst? We have all been there: before an exam, an interview or presentation, we’ve probably spent the night before cramming as much information into our brain as we can and leave it at that. The next day probably we did OK or maybe we even did well. But ask us a couple of months later and our precious new knowledge is nowhere to be found.

How can I efficiently learn things?

Science behind learning tells us that the most efficient way to learn is by using a technique called space repetition.

This works for any new knowledge or skill. It is based on evidence.

A space repetition system works by asking you to review information at increasingly longer intervals. So if you learn something today, a spaced repetition system might show it to you again tomorrow, then in three days, then next week and so on until it’s lodged itself securely in your long term memory.

Who discovered this technique?

Although this might seem a novel idea, this is not a new concept. It was first described in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus.

He was a German psychologist. He is today remembered mostly because he pioneered the experimental study of memory. We owe him the discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. He was also the first person to describe the learning curve.

Let’s take a closer look at how space repetition works

So let’s use charts here to understand this concept better. We’re going to plot your retention (how much you remember something) vs. time.

Teacher_explaining_forgetting_curve_chart

So you learn something and without reviewing it, the “forgetting curve” will look like an exponentially decaying curve. That’s kinda scary! Do you know what your name is? 😉

To fight this forgetting curve, we should actively retrieve the material we learnt. It could be done at increasingly spaced intervals after being exposed to it the first time. By doing this, the forgetting curve starts to flatten out and you’ll get a lot better longer-term retention.

When would be the right time to review the material you’re learning?

The best time to revisit information that you’re trying to learn is right around the time you would naturally forget it. Since forgetting typically follows this exponential curve, the trick becomes timing your study sessions around it.

Here is a chart that helps us understand what happens with our forgetting curve each time we review the information just before forgetting it. Let’s take a look.

Teacher_explaining_how_we_flatten_the_forgetting_curve

So, from a practical standpoint you’ll be having more widely spaced intervals between study times for the material you’re more familiar with, and shorter intervals between study sessions for material that you’re less familiar with.

Spaced repetition systems (SRS)

As we have stated at the beginning of this post, people studying create flashcards with the bits of information that they want to retain. They either use physical flashcards or digital flashcards. As time goes by, people have increasingly been doing these things electronically.

There have been created plenty of programs that are SRS. These programs use space repetition algorithms to optimize your review intervals according to your performances. By tracking how well you remember each bit of information they adjust individual intervals so you can spend more time with those things you remember less and less time with those things you already know well.

Mother_calling_daughter_through_a_window

The results?

You’ll be spending much less time actually studying while remembering everything much better.

We can obviously access SRS on our desktop. But we can also check them out daily on our mobile devices which makes all this system very convenient.

While you’re learning vocabulary in a new language, all you need is your phone and a bit of time each day to incorporate space repetition into your routine.

Girl_in_classroom_imagining_playground_slide

Would we recommend a specific SRS platform?

There are many. Some are free and some are paid. But I’d like to suggest a very commonly used platform. It’s good and it’s also free. Its name is Anki. And you can use it to learn vocabulary for your new language.

Besides its use for languages, this popular platform is widely used by students of medical schools or by those that want to recall historical facts. In general, Anki can be used to study whatever you want.

Do SRS have any cons when it comes to learning languages?

Because SRS are really effective, some tend to overuse them spending hours and hours just reviewing flashcards and not doing some of the other necessary activities to learn a language.

Our advice concerning SRS

Please use SRS. Use them daily but use them with moderation. Divide your time assigned to learning languages into 4 parts and dedicate no more than ¼ to reviewing flashcards.

Happy learning!

Girl_imagining_forgetting_curve


10 Comments

Nicole · June 2, 2020 at 1:26 AM

Hi,

I struggle a lot with English. It’s not my first language.

A friend that has been learning languages (and seems to learn them quite easily) has sent me the link to this post. And I find it interesting we can progress learning vocabulary even though we tend to forget things. Just knowing there is an optimal time of reviewing content can avoid us the frustration of trying to recall something and not being able to.

Thanks!

    Jonathan Henry · June 2, 2020 at 11:05 PM

    Hi Nicole,

    You’re welcome. And we’re glad to have you here at our site.

    I hope you may take advantage of Spaced repetition systems. Feel free to continue visiting us and commenting.

Maria · June 17, 2020 at 12:42 PM

While I was still in school, I took seven years of Spanish and became almost fluent. I’ve been trying to learn Italian now since I want to study Italian architecture. In my efforts, though, I keep forgetting things, especially those words which are most similar to Spanish but JUST different enough. Tough stuff. This article has given me a great suggestion: spaced repetition.

    Jonathan Henry · June 18, 2020 at 11:21 PM

    Hi Maria.

    I’m glad to hear you have been learning Italian. And including spaced repetition will help you with your learning goals. Thanks for stopping by and sharing part of your story with us. Please keep on visiting us.

Dana · June 17, 2020 at 12:45 PM

As a teacher, I understand this concept. I love your graphics – they make it easy to understand. As a mom who has a 5 year old who is suddenly intrigued in learning Japanese (thanks to Ryan’s Toy Review), I will use this concept for him to learn a foreign language. Kids are like sponges – they absorb and learn so much while they are young which is why it is so important to teach them well from the very beginning. Thank you for a great post!

    Jonathan Henry · June 18, 2020 at 11:23 PM

    Hi Dana,

    It’s nice to teach our children a foreign language. And it’s even better when they want to learn it. All the best with your child learning Japanese.

Stephanie · July 28, 2020 at 5:17 AM

“The importance of learning how to learn” what a wonderful way of putting it together! Personally, I think that the learning process is completely different for everyone. As you stated, we tend to forget things quite fast but that can be related to other factors such as mental health, our environment and capacity to concentrate on what we’re learning. I have a short concentration spam therefore learning something new can take twice the time to actually engage in the learning process without feeling the need to just quit. Is very interesting how spaced repetition can work not only for material regarding school work, but also everything that we’re eager to learn and improve our knowledge in. 

    Jonathan Henry · July 28, 2020 at 7:28 PM

    Hi Stephanie,

    yes, SRS can be used to aid us learning anything we need to learn. I encourage you to give it a try.

Ladia · July 31, 2020 at 6:56 PM

I truly believe in the power of spaced repetition. I do it all the time with languages but it can be applied to other areas of study as well. You explained it very well and I wish more and more people read this to understand that only reviewing the information once is not enough if they want something to stick in their long-term memory. They need to practice spaced repetition and will be amazed by the results

    Jonathan Henry · August 2, 2020 at 10:50 PM

    Hi Ladia,

    thanks for sharing your thoughts about spaced repetition. And I agree with your advice.

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