LessWrong seems to be a big fan of spaced-repetition flashcard programs like Anki, Supermemo, or Mnemosyne. I used to be. After using them religiously for 3 years in medical school, I now categorically advise against using them for large volumes of memorization.
[A caveat before people get upset: I think they appropriate in certain situations, and I have not tried to use them to learn a language, which seems its most popular use. More at the bottom.]
A bit more history: I and 30 other students tried using Mnemosyne (and some used Anki) for multiple tests. At my school, we have a test approximately every 3 weeks, and each test covers about 75 pages of high-density outline-format notes. Many stopped after 5 or so such tests, citing that they simply did not get enough returns from their time. I stuck with it longer and used them more than anyone else, using them for 3 years.
Incidentally, I failed my first year and had to repeat.
By the end of that third year (and studying for my Step 1 boards, a several-month process), I lost faith in spaced-repetition cards as an effective tool for my memorization demands. I later met with a learning-skills specialist, who felt the same way, and had better reasons than my intuition/trial-and-error:
- Flashcards are less useful to learning the “big picture”
- Specifically, if you are memorizing a large amount of information, there is often a hierarchy, organization, etc that can make leaning the whole thing easier, and you loose the constant visual reminder of the larger context when using flashcards.
- Flashcards do not take advantage of spatial, mapping, or visual memory, all of which the human mind is much better optimized for. It is not so well built to memorize pairs between seemingly arbitrary concepts with few to no intuitive links. My preferred methods are, in essence, hacks that use your visual and spatial memory rather than rote.
Here are examples of the typical kind of things I memorize every day and have found flashcards to be surprisingly worthless for:
- The definition of Sjögren's syndrome
- The contraindications of Metronidazole
- The significance of a rise in serum αFP
Here is what I now use in place of flashcards:
- Ven diagrams/etc, to compare and contrast similar lists. (This is more specific to medical school, when you learn subtly different diseases.)
- Mnemonic pictures. I have used this myself for years to great effect, and later learned it was taught by my study-skills expert, though I'm surprised I haven't found them formally named and taught anywhere else. The basic concept is to make a large picture, where each detail on the picture corresponds to a detail you want to memorize.
- Memory palaces. I recently learned how to properly use these, and I'm a true believer. When I only had the general idea to “pair things you want to memorize with places in your room” I found it worthless, but after I was taught a lot of do's and don'ts, they're now my favorite way to memorize any list of 5+ items. If there's enough demand on LW I can write up a summary.
Spaced repetition is still good for knowledge you need to retrieve immediately, when a 2-second delay would make it useless. I would still consider spaced-repetition to memorize some of the more rarely-used notes on the treble and bass clef, if I ever decide to learn to sight-read music properly. I make no comment on it's usefulness to learn a foreign language, as I haven't tried it, but if I were to pick one up I personally would start with a rosetta-stone-esque program.
Your mileage may vary, but after seeing so many people try and reject them, I figured it was enough data to share. Mnemonic pictures and memory palaces are slightly time consuming when you're learning them. However, if someone has the motivation and discipline to make a stack of flashcards and study them every day indefinitely, then I believe learning and using those skills is a far better use of time.
Good information! This is really more "a vote against flashcards" than "a vote against spaced repetition", though, at least given your concrete issues with flashcards. Spaced repetition is an algorithm for figuring out when to review material that you want to memorize; flashcards are one thing that spaced repetition is applied to, because it's easy to stick flashcards in a computer. As far as I know, no matter what object-level mnemonic devices you're using, spaced repetition is still strictly better than "when I feel like I'm forgetting" or "right before a test" or any of the other obvious review strategies, if you can deal with the cognitive load of scheduling things, or get a computer to do it for you.
Is there space for some sort of SRS that allows for input of the more helpful types of memorizations that you listed (pictures, venn diagrams, etc.)?
You are absolutely correct; this is a hair worth splitting. I meant "spaced repetition flashcards", and I have only seen formal spaced repetition algorithms applied to flashcards. In my particular case, I end up with 30 or so "pages" of related information, as opposed to 500 flashcards. I agree that using spaced repetition algorithms to tell me when to study which page is likely better than alternative methods, though I haven't found an algorithm optimized for that sort of thing, and at the moment my intuition of "when I'm forgetting" is sufficient for the low number of separate objects to study.
[For this comment, I will use the term "page" to mean any collection of related information, be it a list, table, memory palace, notes on a single topic, etc.]
To be explicit: I vote against using spaced repetition (of any sort) to identify specific facts within a "page" of information. When reviewing a page, of course you can go quickly over the parts you know well and dwell on the parts you don't, but I would encourage the student to not completely ignore the other details "until it's time."
As an example: I have a collection of f... (read more)
How long have you been using these alternatives to flashcards? How likely is it that you are still in the honeymoon phase?
I think that's mainly an example where it's not straightforward to make good cards.
Basically I would get a list that rise in serum αFP does X, Y and Z. Then I would make cards:
Does higher or lower serum αFP does X?
Does higher or lower serum αFP does Y?
Does higher or lower serum αFP does Z?
I personally formulate the cards a bit differently but that's the core.
I do have Anki cards that contain Ven diagrams. At the beginning the Ven diagram is shown empty and the user is asked where a given item belongs on the Ven diagram.
As answer card the whole Ven diagram is shown and the item that the user had to place is highlited with a special color. I haven't yet automated the production of such Ven diagrams but I think that's part of the future of Spaced Repetition Learning.
If you want to learn info... (read more)
Can we please taboo "memorize" here? It seems to me the problem is conflating two different mental activities: 1) developing the ability to recall specific discrete responses to stimuli, and 2) gaining cohesive understanding of the component pieces of a "big picture", and the connections between them. It seems not at all surprising that the best approach for each would differ, with spaced repetition being good for the former and things like venn diagrams, mnemonic pictures, and memory palaces being good for the latter.
Concrete examples for clarity: In the first category would be vocabulary learning, e.g. mapping the stimulus 国 to the response "country". In the second category would be, say, abstract algebra: learning the group axioms and how they relate to the semigroup axioms in one direction and the abelian group axioms in the other direction.
What would be a good introduction to memory palaces? What did you use?
The video of Brienne's presentation at the South Bay meetup is the most useful guide I've encountered.
How good is your ability to internally visualize? I've been putting off investigating memory palaces for my own use because I find it very difficult to use a mental paintbrush.
My local LW group did some exercises with them and they worked rather well. I don't have a very good ability to internally visualize but was still able to remember significantly more with a memory palace.
Find a friend to try it a couple of times and see how it works for you.
Anki is good for trigger -> response sorts of memorization, but requires a bit of hacking for other things. Combining mnemonics with spaced repetition, I've heard, is ridiculously powerful. I've got a card with three sides, Trigger, Association, and Response, to try and strengthen the trigger -> response bond. I've set it up so I've got Trigger -> Response, Association -> Response, Trigger -> Association and Trigger -> Association and Response cards. If anyone wants me to share this format, I'm happy to do so.
ETA: Combining this with habit-training techniques is, I predict, potentially powerful.
Stuff I learned at the Melbourne CFAR workshop. Class name was offline habit training, i.e. actually performing your habit multiple times in a row, in response to the trigger. Salient examples: Practicing getting out of bed in response to your alarm, practice walking in the door and putting your keys where they belong, practice putting your hands on your lap when about to bite nails, practice straightening your neck when you notice you're hunched. These are all examples I've implemented, and I have had good results.
Adding associations is a key part, too. For these examples, I imagine the alarm as an air raid siren and my house getting bombed if I don't get out of bed on time. I imagine Butch being shot by Vincent in an alternate version of Pulp Fiction if his father's watch wasn't on the little kangaroo and he had to hunt around for it. For biting my nails, I imagine Mia Wallace being stabbed in the heart . The connection here is biting nails can make you sick. The vividness and intensity makes up for how tenuous that is. For posture, I imagine Gandalf the Grey compared to Gandalf the White (plus triumphant LoTR music).
Since I made that comment, I got about a third of the way thro... (read more)
This sounds like a false dilemma. Maybe on their own, flashcards are not very effective, and on their own, mnemonic devices work well enough (for you). But this is not enough to conclude that flashcards are not useful after you adopt mnemonic devices. Maybe the additional effort (of also using spaced repetition, in addition to mnemonic devices) doesn't significantly improve long term retention, or maybe it does.
There's an Anki Deck on "The 20 rules of formulating knowledge [in SRS]". It's highly recommended for frequent Anki users. Here's some examples:
So it seems that many of the points you mention are addressed if you use Anki effectively. Your post makes sense though: In my impression 1) most people are not using it as ef... (read more)
While recommending the article I wouldn't recommend the deck because of cards like:
Front: redundancy can be performed by repeating information using...
Back: various methods
To me that card looks likes trouble.
I have used Anki almost daily for the last six months.
Mostly, I use only images to represent concepts.
I think you postulate a dichotomy where none exists.
Yes, text only memory cards are, for many things, not good enough.
Then you say mnemonic pictures are what you use.
Guess what? That's how I use Anki! I mostly use Anki with mnemonic pictures!
Another interesting case against SRS.
From a Psychology textbook I read (and other sources, including here): "Elaborative Rehearsal" is a kind of reviewing that improves retention: instead of just rereading atomic "facts", it's more effective to look for meanings and connotations, to ask "why?", and to see how it fits in the bigger picture. Having a good understanding of principles and relationships makes transfer easier, i.e. it makes it more likely that you'll be able to use what you learnt in different contexts (i.e. in daily life and not just on LessWrong / wh... (read more)
I actually had this exact idea for learning the notes + saxophone fingerings for the treble clef. I was systematically going through Yamaha's interactive chart, making screen shots and slowly putting them into anki cards during boring, otherwise low-attention demanding meetings.
I never finished the job -- I just learned the notes and fingerings by directly practicing the saxophone. I think this is a bit of a parable of one of the challenges... (read more)
Have you tried Anki's image occlusion and Cloze deletion feature. You can fit entire diagrams or texts that give you the "whole picture" all the while blanking out certain portions of it to test yourself. Anki is great. Admittedly, basic flashcards do have their limitations.
In what program can I create my own unique flashcard repetition algorithm? How?
Not sure about other people/situations, BUT I personally have found, in classroom settings relating to math and CS theory, that a 2-second delay can impede understanding. Especially when a definition relies on a combination of well-chunked previous concepts, which is especially the case when dealing with math.
An interesting comment to this article from the creators of spaced repetition
As spaced repetition and flashcards are a technique and tool respectively it is (to me) obvious that they are useful for certain kinds of circumstances. Flashcards really are useful only when you want to associate 2 things to each other (for example a word and its translation) and might not be the best way to build an organized knowledge of a subject. Because of that I wouldn't use them for that purpose in any case.
Thank you for pointing out an area where they fail, that was useful information.
A question to the community: Do you really believe as much in spaced repetition/Anki as the post suggests?
Hm. But when we recall something, we refresh all the connected memories as well. It gives you the whole picture. You may be referring to some specific kinds of flashcards, the ones that only make you recall one particular fact, and that depend on some particular association. Here is an example of flashcards that I created to prepare for my uni course: http://www.memcode.com/courses/18. For example when I answer to this question: 'How is one bel defined?', I can't help but recall:
Is this against spaced repetition as such, or against flash cards?
For me the value of Anki (or my own custom program that I wrote a while back) is as a review-scheduler, not as a quizzer.
Anki became useful for me after I stopped making flashcards on the run, while I was learning the content. Now I make flashcards only from what I already know from memory, two or three days after I've learned it through other methods, without ever reading anything while I'm typing into a text file that I'll then import to Anki ( their GUI is too slow and cumbersome for me ).
Spaced repetition came out of scientific studies on the forgetting curve; these weren't studies on the learning curve.
A simple substitute strategy for using spaced repetition: Say fact usefulness has a power law distribution: some facts you are going to look up 10s or 100s of times, others not that frequently. Say it's hard to predict which facts are going to be the ones you look up 100s of times. If that's true then by using SR you're going to create a lot of wasted cards for facts that you thought you'd look up 10s or 100s of times but in fact are pretty useless. Instead what you could do is every time you want to look up a fact, before looking it up, try to recall i... (read more)
One of my brothers is a physics undergrad at Caltech. He described the Caltech curriculum as having a "fire hose" feel where the professors throw one thing after another at you in rapid succession, trusting you to reconstruct that knowledge later as necessary. From what I've heard, MIT has a similar approach. This seems opposed to a spaced repetition approach where you make sure each chunk of knowledge is a solid, permanent block before proceeding.
One possibility is that the "fire hose" approach does get you spaced repetition for cor... (read more)
What i fail to understand is "Are you sane?" Using ANKI for three years! Mastery for the sake of Mastery is stupid, and not recommended. Mastery for purpose/reason is required. What is a swiss army knife? A swiss army knife is so powerful because it combines a lot of tools and pushes them into one cool gadget. Our mind is that swiss army knife, but you are trying to fill this swiss army knife 1000 times with only one type of weapon i.e. a thousand cork screws or a thousand simple knives, that defeats the purpose of the swiss army knife i.e. our b... (read more)
FYI, I had a lot of trouble reading this post due to being a single block of text. (It felt like it was supposed to about 10 paragraphs)