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Spaced repetition software for efficient learning

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.


Link: Anki website

Let’s say you want to learn a large volume of information (such as vocabulary when learning a foreign language) and you want to make sure that you remember most of what you learn not only next week, but also five years from now. Normal people need some kind of reviewing system to accomplish this, but most of these are not really systems at all, but more or less educated guesses at when something needs to be reviewed. In addition, the data is often reviewed in sections organised the way the material was arranged in the original source (such as a text book), meaning that most of what you review is data you already know and don’t really need to repeat.

Spaced repetition software is a highly effective way to avoid this problem and increase efficiency astronomically. I realised the importance of this when I started learning Chinese seriously, but it’s only recently I’ve tried to maximise the benefits of using spaced repetitions software to learn more and faster with less effort. I’ve used a program called ZDT almost from the start, but only a few weeks ago, I decided to change to Anki, another program more heavily focused on spaced repetition. I also want to refer to a previous article focusing on spaced repetition in ZDT, not because I suggest you use that programme anymore, but because most of what I said there still holds true for any programme.

Anki has a few advantages over ZDT, which isn’t to say that the latter is not a good program (in fact, it’s better than most). Still, I decided to change for a number of reasons and that’s what I’m going to talk about now. Even if you’re using some other program, I think many of the points I bring up below will be relevant. If you’re not using a computer to help your studying, I think you should seriously consider doing so because of the fantastic increase in efficiency that will lead to; I can’t possible overstate the importance of this. Here are a few selected advantages in Anki, sometimes with remarks about ZDT:

Heavier focus on spaced repetition – This is the core of Anki, meaning that a lot more effort has been invested into this area. These advantages are the main reason that I decided to change software, but they are too many to discuss in detail here, but they include intervals based on scientific studies, more control over intervals and more detailed options when reviewing, such as being able not only to say if the answer was correct or not, but also if it was hard, medium or easy to recall, thus speeding up the process of separating the difficult cards from the easy ones.

Flexibility and versatility – Anki is a lot more versatile than ZDT. It can handle lots of more different kinds of data, and is built to be expanded with plugins. The user can use the program to study anything than can be broken down into smaller pieces. In Anki any kind of data can be entered (in ZDT it’s impossible to add non-Chinese in the Chinese field, for instance, making it impossible to add words in Chinese using Latin letters).

A large community – Anki seems to enjoy a sizeable supporting community with lots of people writing plugins and a lot of things going on development-wise. This is not a prerequisite for me, but it is reassuring to know that people are constantly working to improve the software.

Online version – I didn’t really think about how good it would be to have online features until I tried it with Anki. I can now review my lists from any computer and keep the cards as well as the attached statistics synchronised on more than one computer. This means that moving around, travelling and so on will be a lot easier with no need to suspend reviewing for a long period of time. It’s also a safety precaution to have all cards online.

Superior card management – Cards can be sorted and viewed in almost any way imaginable, which makes it very convenient to make adjustments (which was a pain in ZDT). It’s also possible to search for cards, prevent duplicates from being added and much, much more. These features contitute an extreme improvement from any other program I’ve tried.

Practical and smooth reviewing – While reviewing, corrections of cards can be made on the fly as they are discovered without having to interrupt the session. It’s also possible to undo answers to cards, removing the annoying problem with easy cards being reviewed too often only because of typing mistakes or a wrong click with the mouse.

So, having said all this, is Anki the perfect solution? I would hesitate to say perfect, but it’s a lot closer to that than ZDT is. I see no reason whatsoever to continue using the latter and I recommend both new and old learners to consider your choice of software again. Please take into account that I used ZDT for literally thousands of hours over more than two years, so I think I know what I’m talking about. It remains to be seen if there are even better programs out there, but I feel like I’ve taken a major step in the right direction and that any other gains that might be found elsewhere are merely adjustments or smaller improvements rather than something qualitatively different.

By way of conclusion, if you are the students mentioned in the beginning who use pen and paper to review your vocabulary, please think again. It’s of course difficult to say how much efficiency can be increased by using the proper tools, but I’m prepared to say that the change is in the order of several magnitudes. If you are already using a program, it’s always healthy to question what you’re doing. This is not an attempt to convert people to Anki in particular, but rather a call for people to think more about what they are doing and urge you to look around you and see what options there are. After all, you don’t want to spend your life trying to build a mountain by carrying stones in your pockets only to later find out that you could have hired a truck for free.

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  1. Michael Cannon’s avatar

    Olle, Between Anki and your card lists that I’m slowly updating and sharing via Anki shares, I’ve had good success with my Chinese vocabulary memorization as well. It’s surprising how quickly you can get through 70-90 reviews and new cards overall each day without feeling like you’re studying hard.

    Reply

    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      I plan to share all the PAVC books on Anki as soon as I’ve entered the rest of book five. I have long since stopped studying that book, but I’ll go through it on my own for the sake of completeness. Glad to hear it’s working!

      Reply

      1. little_mike’s avatar

        Hi Olle,

        Would it be possible to share the book 3 and 4 if you have them already on Anki? I am studying now the 4th book and it would be very useful! Thank you!!

        Reply

        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          I’ll fix it today or tomorrow. I actually forgot about it and it shouldn’t take too much time to share the relevant cards. Check again in a day or two and if you still haven’t seen anything, nudge me again!

          Reply

            1. little_mike’s avatar

              Great!!!!!
              Thank you very much!!!!
              I’m so happy!!!

              Reply

            2. Chris’s avatar

              Some of the useful plugins for Chinese learners:

              – “Pinyin Toolkit (0.6.3)” – Advanced Mandarin Chinese Support
              The Pinyin Toolkit adds many useful features to Anki to assist the study of Mandarin. The aim of
              the project is to greatly enhance the user-experience for students studying the Chinese language.

              – “Allows numbers to match pinyin tone marks”
              Useful when doing pinyin reviews by typing the answer – if your pinyin has tone marks, this plugin converts your tone number to tone marks.

              – “Traditional Hanzi Stats”
              Really nice to see your progress, and find new common words you missed.

              I don’t know if it’s really useful to you, but for beginners these are a nice add-on.

              Reply

              1. Olle Linge’s avatar

                I’ll check them out. Especially the stats plugin seems interesting. I’m spending a lot of time learning formal Chinese, but there are lots of really common words I just haven’t encountered (I’ve only lived here for one and a half year, remember). Any help finding these words is great!

                I’ve installed the Mandarin Toolkit, but I must be doing something wrong. The only thing it adds is pinyin for the words and that’s completely useless three times out of four, because I’m given so many alternative readings that I have to use an external dictionary to be sure anyway (this was, however, true for ZDT as well).

                Reply

                1. Chris’s avatar

                  Well, starting from Hanzi, it can fill in the pinyin, definition, measure words, and provide colored Pinyin and Hanzi by tones (as used on MDBG). Ah, and formats the definition nicely. Besides this, doesn’t do much else. Have a look in Settings -> Pinyin Toolkit preferences to get a better idea. I got used to the way it formats things nicely.

                  Reply

                2. Chris’s avatar

                  So what’s your most important advice for using SRS Olle? I try to get all my students hooked on Anki, and despite the “wows” at first, most just seem to give up after a week or two. Attitude is of course the problem.

                  I think it’s important that you don’t burn out. Yes, you must use the thing everyday, there is no getting away from it, but if the reviews start to get too much, stop adding material just do reviews. Recently my average was 450 cards a day and to be honest, despite getting through them, it was too much for me. I opted for no new cards for a week and now I’m back to 200-300 a day and can start adding some new ones again.

                  Do you ever find yourself “dreading” the reviews?

                  Reply

                  1. Olle Linge’s avatar

                    Using this kind of software is like any other habit and the normal rules apply. People usually find the first two to for weeks the hardest, after that a habit has formed and continuing will be easier. This is encouraging to know, so tell people the need to stick with it for a while.

                    Furthermore, you are right. Burn out is a serious problem, not for me now, but for anyone who starts something like this. Most people tend to set too ambitious goals. I’ve had periods when I’ve learnt 50 new words per day, but that doesn’t mean that a beginner can do that. I’m used to this, it’s not as hard as it seems. You wouldn’t try running a Marathon without practicing shorter runs first, right? I’ve seen lots of different opinions, but if one wants to establish a new habit and it takes more than half an hour a day, it will most likely fail.

                    If I was teaching somebody a language from scratch, I would try to get them to use Anki from the very start, but I would also make sure that they have time to learn. Opening a new deck with 10000 words is truly daunting and nobody wants to be reminded of how little they know (or rather, how much remains to learn). And yes, I do dread reviews sometimes, but it has to be quite a lot. Coming back from vacation and finding 2000 words in the queue is not recommended, but I’ve been able to handle that more than once. It’s still something I dread, though.

                    Reply

                  2. Chris’s avatar

                    Can I ask you, how many Card Templates do you typically use in Anki?

                    I started with 3: HanziReview, MeaningReview and PinyinReview and I usually generate all the 3 cards for new words, and with time I keep suspending the useless ones (too familiar or duplicated by others)

                    Reply

                    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

                      I use characters -> definition and pronunciation almost exclusively, so I look at a card, read the characters and translate to English (or give a Chinese synonym) and then checks whether both answers are correct or not. I know people recommend to use separate cards because that’s a more efficiently way of spotting problems, but I doubt that having 20000 cards instead of 10000 would be more efficient, especially since I tend to get the reading right in 99% of the cases, even if I don’t remember what it means.

                      I do have all the PAVC vocabulary going from pinyin to characters and definition, though, meaning that I write the character (perhaps not on paper, but with my finger) and state what it means.

                      The answer to the question why I don’t go from English to Chinese is complex and requires a separate post about my learning strategy (it’s actually already written, just needs to be polished and published), but in short I put a very heavy emphasis on learning to understand before being able to learn to produce. I’d much rather learn to understand 1000 words in written or spoken form than be able to understand and use 250 words. I can learn to understand words very, very quickly, but learning to use them takes too much time. I plan to do that by reading and listening a lot, as well as by practicing using the words I’ve learnt and asking questions. More about this later!

                      So, in short, the 10000 words I have have only a few duplicates (less that 50) and those are the ones that are duplicated in the PAVC word lists. I use two templates, one for characters -> definition + reading and one for reading -> character + definition.

                      This would be interesting to discuss over a cup of tea, i think. Perhaps after playing some badminton? :)

                      Reply

                    2. svampflicka’s avatar

                      i like the last sentence:)!!!!!!!!

                      it really urges me to use the software!

                      thank you mr.snail

                      Reply

                      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

                        Glad to hear it! If you don’t understand how something works or need help, ask me. I’ve only used the software a short while, but I think I’m quite familiar with how it works anyway.

                        Reply

                      2. samD’s avatar

                        hi olle thanks for uploading the pavc files to anki. i have been trying to get anki to have the first card be an audio pronunciation and then click to the definition and written character. i have downloaded pinyin toolkit and it has worked with their example file but i don’t have savvy anki programing skills to figure out how to do this with your files. i want to be able to hear it first and then be able to decide in my head if i know its meaning and how it is written. any help would be greatly appreciated and keep up the studies. -sam

                        Reply

                        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

                          Sorry, I’ve been using the software for a very short time and have no clue about how to accomplish such a thing. Good luck!

                          Reply

                          1. furuide’s avatar

                            Hi Olle,

                            Thanks a bunch for sharing the anki decks of PAVC, it will be a great help.
                            I am using it for 1 and half month now and it’s doing good.

                            I use it the other way ( from english to chinese), spend about 40 mins a day on review (I enter the words after the lesson is complete, use cram deck for first time learning) , but still have about 75% of good answer on mature card it may sounds low but it’s much better than before I start doing such reviews ( it was more about 40% when I review 3 months old lessons at the end of a semester

                            I mays consider to try as you suggested, understanding first : focus on chinese -> english.

                            I have an android cell phone, can run ankidroid and review my decks in the bus, walking in the street, that’s great productivity improvement !

                            I am conviced that in the future those anki like software will be widely used, and that will be the teacher that will spread the vocabulary cards to student decks at every lesson.

                            Reply

                          2. Sofia’s avatar

                            Tjena Olle! Har börjat använda anki lite smått, men funderar lite på hur man bäst ska göra för att t ex lära sig ett kapitel med glosor, runt 30 st, snabbast? Lägger du nya ord i en separat “kortlek” eller lägger du bara allt i samma och köttar på så att säga?

                            Som sagt, tycker det här låter väldigt bra, men visst förutsätter det att man sitter med sina kort varje dag? Hur skulle du rekommendera att man ställer in de olika intervallen (svårt, lätt, mycket lätt osv) för olika ändamål som tentaplugg, dugga, eller mer långsiktigt lärande?

                            Några andra bra tips angående anki? Har du provat anki i mobilen, om du nu har en sån mobil?

                            Ha det gött!

                            Reply

                            1. Olle Linge’s avatar

                              Hej! Det var inte igår. :) Hoppas allt är bra. Jag hänger kvar här borta i Taiwan, men kommer hem i sommar. Vad sysslar du med?

                              Anki hanterar nya ord automatiskt (det vill säga, under skalet finns redan ett system för att hantera nya kort). Allt du behöver göra är att kasta in dem i samma kortlek som alla andra kort och kötta på. Om du verkligen vill fokusera på dem kan du ju tagga dem och sedan välja bara aktivera dessa kort när du tränar, men det känns för mig helt onödigt. Kötta på fungerar bra!

                              Det förutsätter inte att du sitter varje dag, men det blir bättre och lättare ju mer du kör. Flera gånger per dag är bättre än en gång per dag, en gång per dag är bättre än en gång i veckan, och så vidare. Jag kör inte varje dag trots att jag pluggar språket på heltid fortfarande.

                              Jag tycker inte att du ska pilla på intervallen alls. Defaultinställningarna är baserade på hyfsat bra forskning och den är förmodligen mycket bättre än mina eller dina gissningar.

                              Jag har inte testat anki i mobilen, men skulle gärna göra det om någon donerade en bättre mobil. Det verkar awesome.

                              Jag har nog inga fler tips angående just anki, men i vanlig ordning har jag ju skrivit en hel del om att plugga i allmänhet och en hel del av det är ju relevant för att lära sig tecken också. Kika här: http://www.snigel.nu/?p=5525

                              Lycka till och ha det gott du med!

                              Reply

                            2. richy’s avatar

                              Hello, thanks for making the PAVC decks.
                              Can you explain what are the color codes used in the Pinyin field?

                              Reply

                              1. Olle Linge’s avatar

                                They are the standard colours for Pinyin tones nowadays. Google Nathan Dummitt and you shall find.

                                Reply