Spaced Learning

What is Spaced-repetition?

Spaced-repetition is a learning concept which is proven to embed knowledge in the long-term memory. The idea involves spacing learning events apart by regularly reviewing material rather than cramming information into the brain in one study session. For example, a student could start learning about the anatomy of the heart and then review what they have studied after two days, then again in one week and so on to ensure full assimilation of the knowledge.

Flashcards can be used to integrate this technique into the study routine as you can quickly review theory and only include material you don’t know to save time. Spacing using flashcards is more effective than cramming with 90% of participants performing better in exams using this method.

The Forgetting Curve

Benefits of Spaced-repetition

Implementing the theory of spaced-repetition optimises the learning process by helping you to retain information better over a longer time period. Many studies have been carried out proclaiming the effectiveness of this learning method but the true measure is difficult to quantify. However, the studies have highlighted some of key reasons to use spaced-repetition.

Here are some key advantages to using this method of learning:

  • Active recall is far superior
  • Learning is retained over the long-term
  • More effective learning method
  • Helps prolong the forgetting curve

If spaced-repetition was easy to do, surely all students would do it? Here’s the catch! Most students make excuses and cram at the last minute which is not an effective learning method. However, the benefits of putting the effort into spaced-repetition method far outweigh the negatives.

Tips For Mastering A Programming Language Using Spaced Repetition

The most popular tool for this is Anki3, a free desktop app that enables you to create and review digital flashcards organized by deck.

In short, whenever you want to remember something, you would create a card in Anki and review it regularly.

The cool part about Anki is that, if you do it right, you’ll need to spend only about 5 to 10 minutes a day reviewing your cards. If you do this, you’ll be able to remember way more than you ever imagined, and you’ll be much more productive.

How to Use Anki

For anything you want to learn, create a flashcard with a front and a back. When you review a card, Anki will show you the front, hiding the answer side.

Anki Flash card

Answer the question in your head, and then reveal the other side to see whether you got it right.

Anki Flashcard back

Then, assess how easily you answered the question, and select one of four options: “again,” “hard,” “good” or “easy.” Based on your selection, Anki figures out when to show you that card again.

And, yes, you can even use images in your cards.

1. Break Down Your Knowledge Into The Smallest Possible Units

Though not obvious at first, there are good and bad ways to create cards. For example, here’s a bad way to write a card:

  • Front
    What does Ruby’s strip method do?
  • Back
    It trims spaces and blank lines from the beginning and end of a string.

Why Is This bad?

First, you probably won’t be able to remember how exactly you phrased the answer because it will have been so long ago. So, each time you answer the card, you’ll have to judge whether the way you’ve explained it corresponds to what you wrote on the back of the card.

Secondly, answers that are open-ended and that consist of more than just one or two words take longer to answer. Even if it takes only a few extra seconds, those extra seconds add up over time.

Thirdly, you wouldn’t be learning how to apply this concept. Definitions are not as practical as clear examples.

Instead, I would do this:

  • Front
    What Ruby method would you use to format " Jessica "?
  • Back

That’s much easier.

For a great guide to formatting knowledge, check out “20 Rules of Formulating Knowledge8” by Piotr Wozniak.

2. Use Cloze Deletion

Following the rule above about Ruby methods was pretty easy until someone told me that class names, module names and constants start with an uppercase letter in Ruby. So, I created the following card:

  • Front
    In Ruby, which things begin with an uppercase letter? (Hint: three things)
  • Back
    Class names, module names and constants

The problem is that I had to recall three things, and the question was ambiguous, so it took a long time to understand.

Then, I learned about a feature of Anki called cloze deletion.

Instead of setting a front and back of a card, you would use cloze deletion to set a block of text and then tell Anki which bits of the text to remove from the card and to test you on. It looks something like this:

  • Text
    In Ruby, {{c1::class names}}, {{c2::module names}} and {{c3::constants}} start with {{c4::an uppercase letter.}}.”

This generates four cards, each of which blanks out only one of those variables.

Anki Deletion card front

Anki Deletion Card back

There’s even a bad-ass plugin, Image Occlusion13, to apply cloze deletion to images.

3. Add A Card Only After You’ve Tested It

While Anki is an incredible learning aid, it’s only one way to retain information. At the end of the day, you need to apply what you’re learning. Remembering a concept will be much easier if you have experience applying it.

If you only read about a programming concept without trying it out for yourself, then your understanding will probably be incomplete. When I think something is trivial or obvious, like where to put a space or comma, I’ll usually have a hard time remembering it when it matters. For example:

  • Front
    In Ruby, create getter and setter methods for name and email.
  • Back
    attr_accessor :name, :email

Without actually trying this out, I might forget whether attr_accessor has a colon after it, whether it accepts strings, where the commas go, etc.

A nice side effect of this is that if you brush up on this every once in a while, you’ll sometimes find that a card is no longer accurate.

4. Save Cool Tricks And Best Practices

Always save tricks and best practices that you read about, see in a video or notice in other people’s code.

I once saw someone do a cool trick in the command line to display all of Ruby’s core methods in the interactive Ruby shell (IRB). So, I made this card:

  • Front
    How do you display all of the core methods in the IRB?
  • Back
    Kernel:: + (Tab) + (Tab)

Doing this guarantees that your code will get better over time. Even experienced developers should look out for best practices and clever techniques. It could mean the difference between quickly remembering the name of that obscure command and hunting through StackOverflow for half an hour.

5. Practice Every Morning For About 10 Minutes

The real value comes from frequent, short practice sessions. If you take more than a few days off, then your review backlog will grow, and you’ll have trouble recalling facts that you’ve recently learned. (Don’t worry: Anki caps each deck at 60 cards, and you can adjust this number.)

One last thing. Sure, you could download some decks out there to get started — such as Jack Kinsella’s web development deck14 or Derek Sivers’ decks for Ruby15 (ZIP) and JavaScript16 (ZIP) — but your own cards will be much more personal, formatted to how you learn and recall facts. You won’t learn or remember nearly as well by using someone else’s deck.

Top 10 Learning Techniques: Ranking From Best to Worst

Ironically, one of the things that people don’t really learn to do well in school was to learn.  We are taught rote memorization and told to absorb it for arbitrary tests without being taught how to effectively absorb the material. The methods are categorized as low, moderate, or high in terms of utility (effectiveness) in absorbing learned material.  Highlighting / marking / underlining, summarizing, and rereading—-all popular study methods taught in school—-registered as low utility.  

Learning techniques effectiveness

Practice testing (High)

This should come as no surprise—practice testing has been lauded by learning experts as one of the best ways to retain information. Practice testing has over 100 years of research to back up its effectiveness.  Simply put, it works.

Practice testing doesn’t need to actually be an actual test and in a testing environment.  In actuality, you can test yourself anytime, anywhere, and with anything.  You can test yourself in your head by asking yourself questions and answering them.  You can also test yourself by using flash cards.  You can test yourself by doing practice problems without the aid of notes or textbook material.  And yes, you can test yourself by setting yourself up in a testing environment.

Recent evidence suggests that practice testing also improves the ability of students to mentally organize their knowledge, and thereby increasing the speed and efficiency of the information retrieval process.

Tips for practice testing: Studies show that immediate retesting without time between tests does very little good in increasing learning.  Rather, practice testing should be done when enough time has elapsed between practice tests.

Distributed / spaced practice (High)

Distributed practice is the method of dividing your studies over time intervals rather than doing it in one large chunk.  This is why cramming for tests does not work; studies have repeatedly shown that distributed practice is better for material retention and absorption.   The reason distributed practice works is because it gives the brain time to absorb the information by switching back and forth between focused and diffused mode of thinking.  The evidence is pretty clear that spacing your studies is important to remembering what you learn.

A study showed that students who distributed 6 study sessions with an interval of 30 days between each session did the best when a test was administered 30 days after the 6th session.  The students who distributed their 6 sessions with 1 day between each session did slightly worse on the final test (also given 30 days after their 6th session), but did better than the first group in all the tests given prior to the final test.  And the people who did not allow a day to lapse before restudying fared the worst.  They did dramatically worse on the final test than the first two group.

Tips for distributed practice: Although it would be nice to let 30 days sit between each study session, you are not given such luxury in an academic environment; most classes span 3-4 months in length and have between two to four big tests during that time, along with weekly quizzes and homework.  Thus, the best thing to do with a test for school is to use the 24 hour spacing interval to restudy your material.  Within the first several days of learning, you should space out your learning between every 24 hours.  After the first four review sessions (with 24 hours between each review), your review sessions can be further spaced out and less detailed.  In fact, letting a month go by after the first four review sessions is completely fine.

Combine distributed practice and practice testing and your test scores should skyrocket.

More … on moderate and low methods

4 Popular Note Taking Strategies

1. Cornell Method

You simply divide up your notes into 3 sections. The right column is home to the general area.

Cornell Note taking method

2. Split Page Method

This method has similarities with the Cornell Method however it is still a principle unto itself. The idea is that you divide the page vertically into two sections. A main idea and secondary ideas.

3. Visual Aids

This method is based on the use of visual aids to improve how the brain processes information. It involves using pictures, graphs, diagrams, etc. Mind Maps are becoming one of the most widespread methods of note taking.

4. Symbols and Abbreviations

No matter which method you use to take notes, there will be times when you cannot keep pace with the class and your wrist will begin to hurt you from writing. Therefore it is important that you develop your own language of symbols so that you can write more with little effort. Once the class is over, you can always “translate” your notes that you took during class. This will leave you with your own ‘language’ of notes.

More… on Note taking strategies


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s