Mar 10, 2014
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:
Here are examples of the typical kind of things I memorize every day and have found flashcards to be surprisingly worthless for:
Here is what I now use in place of flashcards:
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.