Flashcards and Spaced Repetition

Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) have been a staple of vocabulary and language learning (and other learning, particularly memorization) for decades. The principle is pretty simple: the human mind forgets things it doesn’t use frequently – and it does so quickly.  But rather than reviewing constantly, the neural pathways associated with the information are strengthened more by trying to recall the information just before it’s forgotten.

I’ve been toying with ways to use this principle more effectively. There are certainly plenty of tools out there.  One of the most basic, the Leitner Method, involves flashcards and boxes (usually 5).  As you review your cards and get them right, they move into the next numbered box.  Get it wrong, and it goes back to the beginning.  The boxes are reviewed at different intervals; for example, box 1 could be reviewed daily, box 2 every other day, box 3 weekly, box 4 every 2 weeks, and box 5 monthly.

460px-Leitner_system_alternative.svg

The point of contention seems to be the intervals.  In 1932, Professor C. A. Mace, who proposed the method in his book, suggested intervals of one day, two days, four days, eight days, etc. The Pimsleur Method of language learning proposes graduated intervals of 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years, though these are only used as approximates in the lessons.

Many language learning systems (in addition to Pimsleur) you’ve probably already used incorporate this system in one form or another. Duolingo and Memrise are examples.

Today, though, I decided to look at simple flashcard applications. After all, languages aren’t the only subject that work well with this style of learning, and while I love the tactile feel of books and note cards, digital is less wasteful and takes up less space.

Memrise qualifies here as you can build your own set of flashcards, which don’t have to be about language. There are a wide variety of courses already available.  The courses are made by amateur contributors, so you do have to check to make sure you’re getting what you want, but there are definitely some quality courses there. It also encourages you to add images or mnemonics to help you make associations.  The interface is simple, but can feel a bit clunky at times, especially for courses without well made content.

I used Anki for a while when I first began learning Hungarian.  Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up with it.  I tried to organize TOO much, I think. But it did a good job with the interval learning, and I liked that. Premade decks are available, and there are more than there used to be, but I had much better luck creating my own.  You can share your decks between your devices, which is nice, but there’s a bit of a learning curve to doing so.  The interface is basic and not the most attractive thing ever, but it works, and it’s probably the most configurable of the applications I’ve looked at. The web version is very limited, though, and the iOS app costs $24.99, which is pretty prohibitive.

Cerego is an app I hadn’t experimented with at all.  It’s browser-based, which means you can use it from your devices without transferring files. It tracks your statistics visually using a kind of 5-box Leitner system, which is kind of neat.  The basic application is free, but for $10 a month you can upgrade to a teacher version that allows you to track groups’ progress.

Cram is interesting because it doesn’t just deal with flashcards.  It incorporates testing that checks your knowledge in different ways – matching, spelling words out, and even playing hangman.  The browser version even lets you play games with your terms.  It doesn’t seem to allow multimedia integration in its flashcards, and I was surprised, given that it’s marketed to educators, that there was no kind of teacher dashboard to track students.

Memrise Anki Cerego Cram
 Premade Decks  x  x  x  x
 Professional Premade Decks
 Create Your Own Decks  x  x  x  x
Configurable Intervals  x
Adaptive Intervals  x  x
 Intuitive Interface  x  x
 Multimedia Allowed  x  x  x
 Additional Learning Games x
 Teacher Dashboard x
 Goals  x  x
 Statistics x
Share Between Devices  x
Browser-Based Free  Free

Limited

 Free  Free
 Windows/Mac  Free
 iOS Free  $24.99  Free  Free
 Android Free  Free  Free

One last app that I thought was worth a quick mention is brain.cards.  It’s only available for Android, which is disappointing.  It has a very simple, flashcards only function with no added features – and that’s actually why I liked it.  The interface is incredibly simple to use and you just tap to flip, swipe across for the next card, or drag down to create a new card.  It’s just a beautifully simple app, and it’s free. Supposedly it incorporates spaced repetition, but I don’t see how – there is no way to record a correct or incorrect answer and I don’t see prompt to study.  But I can’t help but appreciate the simple elegance of the app.

These are only a few of many flashcard or language apps that use the principle of spaced repetition. The Fluent Panda app, currently in production from the company that operates LinguaLift (and which I’ve promised to review as soon as it’s released), will also incorporate these principles as part of its methodology, and I’m sure that there are many more that I don’t know about.

If you come across any more that have interesting or useful features, let me know!

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