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Spaced repetition

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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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