obligatory post on SRSing

In case you’re wondering, SRS stands for Spaced Repetition System – it’s a way of not forgetting information over long periods of time.  Also, this post is only obligatory in the sense that many other reputable language blogs have already written (in quite some detail) on the subject, and I won’t be adding very much to the pool of knowledge.  However, it’s useful to have some information on it here, if only for the sake of completeness.

Before saying more about SRSs though, I’d like to tell you about the major gripe I have with the education system of today, at all levels.  Curricula never have any problem shovelling all kinds of information (useful or otherwise) down the throats of students.  They expect students to memorize it, but learning methods are never really factored in. This is silly – it’s like trying to eat a banana without peeling it first. It’s like trying to build a house from the top down. To put it bluntly, it is plainly contrary to common sense.

Because of this, the only way people ever consider learning anything is by bulk rote memorization of one form or another, because “that’s how we did it in school”, or “it’s just what works for me”. This is not idiocy in and of itself – it does work – but it’s a horrifically long way around the problem of having to learn stuff.[1]

One solution to the above problem is spaced repetition.  It is essentially a flashcard system. You make the flashcards, and your program of choice will show them to you. So far, so pointless right? “I can do that with scruffy little bits of card!” you say. Here’s the twist – depending on how well you remember the answers to your flashcards, you can choose to see that card again in 2, 5 or 7 days. And when you do see it again, you should still be able to remember it – you’ll then have the choice of seeing it in 4, 9 or 13 days. Next time? 9, 15 or 19 days, and so on, with the between seeing it each time increasing every time it comes up and you remember it correctly, until the intervals are to the order of years.  (Incidentally, the maths behind them are based on in-depth research into the workings of long-term memory, and started way back in the 1930s.)

SRSs don’t let you remember everything though – they’re geared so that you [only] recall 90-95% of what you’ve learnt at any given point in time. This is because it takes about double or triple the repetitions to get that last 5-10%, which isn’t really a good use of time.  However, memory doesn’t (and can’t) “take a break”, so it’s really in the interests of the user to battle on regardless.  Although they do require an upfront investment of time in creating your cards, this is more than paid for by the time saved having to learn and relearn information.

So anyway, hopefully that’s a useful introduction to the SRS if you didn’t already know what they were.  There won’t be too much more on them here, for reasons outlined at the start; I highly recommend you try them out though if you haven’t already.  Happy SRSing!

P.S.  I know I said I wasn’t going to post for a few days, but… I’m weak.  I wrote this a while ago, so it doesn’t really count.  Yup.  In any case, it underpins some of the other things I’m going to say soon, so it’s justified.  Honestly.

People who use them also tend to get put off because they really have to be used daily to be useful (although not necessarily for very long – 10 minutes or so once you’ve stopped adding new cards), and because you can build up a large backlog of cards if you take a break, which is off-putting.

[1] Kinda like taking a trip to France via America, rather than just taking the ferry from Dover. You could, but you wouldn’t.

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4 thoughts on “obligatory post on SRSing

  1. You can get spaced repetition in a natural way by reading and conversing in real situations. If you want to review a word, start a conversation about that topic or read a book about it. The word(s) will be repeated naturally. The best part is that the most important words are repeated the most.

    • Can’t argue with that – fluency in a foreign language is completely attainable without ever using an SRS, and you can get a good spacing effect over time by just doing plenty of real life practice. There are enough people out there testament to this.

      However, I really think there are benefits to using an SRS for language study, at all stages of competency – when you’re first starting out, it might be difficult to remember enough words to be able to read any kind of book or take part in any kind of conversation. An SRS lets you chronicle your progress in a way that lets you progress in an i+1 way – a way that means you’re never out of your depth.

      Later on in your study, you might be interested for a while in science fiction films, and accumulate a load of vocabulary from that; you then abandon it in favour of medical dramas for a few months. You’d forget a lot of the sci-fi words if you didn’t have an SRS showing them to you at the right times. Without an SRS you’d have to pay more attention to what you needed to do, as opposed to what you wanted.

      At all stages though, the SRS optimises your time efficiency, which is the main point of using one. Although it’s possible to misuse them, I think they have great potential for many kinds of study, language learning included.

  2. Pingback: Notes on “How To Learn Cantonese” #2 « thousand mile journey

  3. Pingback: Music – Thoughts on SRSing « thousand mile journey

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