What’s the Big Deal about Spaced Repetition?
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What’s the Big Deal about Spaced Repetition?

Ximena Lama-Rondon

If you ask most language-teaching gurus online, there’s a good chance that they would describe language learning as a long-term and arduous commitment. This is largely true: at some point of the journey, you will need to memorize a couple thousand words, be able to recall them immediately, and know how to tie them together.

But there's still room for fun surprises, so... yay?

Now imagine how long would it take to learn Spanish if you have to through your whole vocabulary list on every review? Then, you would be immediately crossing from “tough” into unequivocal “boring” territory.

Fortunately, we live in the age of working smarter, not harder. Because of this, researchers have found new ways to ensure you only review the materials you really need to check.

This is where spaced repetition comes in to play!

What is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition is an evidence-backed learning technique that provides you with a more efficient way to drill vocabulary, helping you to remember it for longer.

Spaced repetition seeks to deal directly with one of the main problems of learning: the fact that our brain is designed to progressively forget what it doesn’t review or it doesn’t use. Think of cramming the whole night before a major exam: you will probably learn some of the most basic concepts covered, but your mind may reset as soon as the exam is over.

I found myself trekking through the dunes in the middle of 33MPH winds. It was early in the morning when the winds were less violent, but when the sunrise hit the winds took a drastic change for the worse.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash, showing what your mind looks like the second you pass a class

To counter this, spaced repetition has you review, at periodic intervals, the content that you are least familiar with.

How Did Spaced Repetition come about?

The method of spaced repetition dates back to 1885, when Hermann Ebbinghaus first published his studies on memory. He found that, when we are trying to learn a lot of information at once, we tend to forget most of the new knowledge immediately after coming into contact with them.

Then, we continue to forget more and more details at a progressively slower speed. The rate in which we forget things then follows a pretty steep curve.

However, if we review the same set of knowledge before we have completely forgotten it, the amount of knowledge we will immediately forget will be slightly lower. As we continue reviewing, the “forgetting curve” will flatted, and some of what we learned will enter our long-term memory and stay there.

Later on, during the mid-20th century, these theories were finally put to the test as part of a pilot study conducted among schoolchildren in Iowa. Results showed Spaced Repetition to be more successful than regular rote memorization – yet, they fell into obscurity for a few decades.

How to get started with Spaced Repetition?

So basically, it’s all a matter of reviewing the materials you don’t know more often, then?

Yes – although implementing a steady, verifiable rhythm requires a bit of mental mathematics. There are two main ways to work around this. First, you can get a fancy flashcard app that offers spaced repetition algorithms.

If you would prefer to try it old school (or avoid paying any Play Store fees), you can also try it out with handmade flashcards. This may take a little bit more elbow grease:

  1. Collect all the new words you would like to commit to memory
  2. Create one flashcard per word – put the word in your target language on one side, and the English translation behind.
  3. Quiz yourself using your flashcards. Separate any words you couldn’t recall at all, those you couldn’t recall immediately (or don’t know super well), and those that come naturally. We'll call them the piles A, B, and C.
  4. Use a Leitner box to sort through the 3 different piles on each review. The goal is to progressively be able to move words from pile A (the ones you don’t know) to piles B and C (that you’ve already learned).

Leitner boxes require a bit of a complex process, but this video breaks it down into simple steps.

If you follow a spaced repetition method, you will probably have to go through your Leitner box many times – just not as many as if you were just re-reading the entire flashcard set. We’re after saving time here!

So how often should you try this out?

A Note on Frequency: Is More always Better?

Ehh – up to a point. After all, spaced repetition is not just about repetition, but also about the “spacing” part.

In order to get the most bang for your buck, you should aim to repeat your vocabulary just before you are about to forget it. Naturally, this will vary depending on how well you know each word, and on how good are you at remembering things.

Dead Fish... :(
Photo by Foad Memariaan / Unsplash

According to language researcher and coder Piotr Wozniak, this is how you should try to space out your vocabulary sessions:

  • For words in your A pile, review them within a day
  • For words in your B pile, review them within a week
  • For words in your C pile, review them at least every 35 days

How to turn these words into thoughts?

Let’s fast forward a few days, and pretend that you have finished adding a few hundred words to your vocabulary. So what happens now?

After all, isolated words by themselves don’t really help you convey ideas. You will also need to know the expressions and structures that make language sound natural. While grammar manuals exist, spoken language is a living and ever-evolving thing – so you should learn it directly from the people who speak it.

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