There are a lot of things that techie types esteem beyond their worth. Spaced repetition systems (SRS) sound like unnecessary complication on top of flashcards, and thus an obvious example of that phenomenon. They are not.

Here is the simplest explanation of spaced repetition I’d recommend if you’re skeptical or not interested in nerdery1.

I used spaced repetition to make a professor think I was Talented at learning German. I used spaced repetition to ace tests on persnickety details of the C programming language and POSIX minutiae. I used spaced repetition to make people think I was naturally good at things when I wasn’t, and I used spaced repetition to improve my fiddly fundamentals in things I actually was naturally good at.

I am not going to provide any motivating cognitive science, hand-wavey or otherwise, because that argument has been made and I don’t need to.

Broadly, my experience led me to believe that spaced repetition is the best way to be able to remember things that you don’t actually care about in your gut. The things you care about you can always recall–a phrase in a foreign language that made you laugh hard, your crush’s class schedule, the core idea of your master’s thesis…

However, there’s a lot you may want to have memorized that you can’t emotionally care about until you need it: CPR cadences, interview answers, the word in a foreign language for “can opener”… When the moment strikes, you will care, but until then, how do you make it stick?

One thing people don’t often mention about SRS is that it is accommodating of human weakness. Too often the “construct from first principles based on Science” approach to reality believes it can paper over our failings and foibles, can ignore our socially determined differences, can build greenfield where structures exist. But when I go back to my Anki deck after weeks, months, years away–it sees that I am now forgetting what I once remembered, and it brings back what I need to relearn. After these gaps it’s interesting to see how I’ve changed. CS things I used to think I’d need to know now seem like laughable trivia; Latin phrases I’d wanted to memorize now have a different ring from the experiences I’ve had in between. Often I need to modify, delete, refocus the cards I’d made for myself. That’s okay. Your deck will change as you do.

In my university days, there was an email I sent around to everyone who asked about my setup2, so I’m going to reconstruct that resource here.

what is it good for? (absolutely something)

  • vocabulary - in one’s native or acquired tongue, and especially when you need to memorize grammatical metadata along with a denoted meaning
  • memorizing poems/prayers/lyrics - you will need to split the poem up into little bits such that you are prompted with two lines and must recall the line that follows
  • dates, names, formulae - anything fiddly that you can’t rely on a holistic understanding for

tools

I have yet to find anything surpassing Anki.

The official docs have all the technical details you might need. When it comes to best practices for formulating cards, they link to this article by Anki’s competitor3.

why I am not sharing my deck

You really need to build your own. I know that seems like trite character-building nonsense, but the cards you make yourself are a thousand times more useful than decks you can import4. I advise being liberal about adding cards to your deck, but also very open to deleting them – it’s easy to realize that something is only worth memorizing with a certain cue, and quick to get rid of something you realize you didn’t care about at all.

tips

I recommend only segregating decks for language learning so you don’t have to note that this card with an English word on it is prompting you for the French translation rather than the Cantonese. General information should be all mixed up together. Similarly, if you’re not working with someone’s deck built from simple to complex, I recommend adding new cards in random order.

  1. Via Marijn, thanks Marijn!! 

  2. Typically after the first major test of the semester. Not to brag, but okay maybe a little to brag. 

  3. The article isn’t necessarily worth reading all the way through except for number 4, I’d say. 

  4. Possibly in the same way that the act of paraphrasing in taking notes is valuable–figuring out how to best quiz yourself will give you the right start on memorization.