Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning by Gwern Branwen

If you’re interested in spaced repetition and haven’t read it yet, Gwern Branwen’s essay is a fantastic review, including research into the benefits of testing, what spaces repetition is used for, software, and other observations. There are lots of resources here for people that want to know the research behind why spaced repetition works, including many studies on the effects of testing and the effects of spacing your learning. 

Here are a few points I found most interesting in Gwern’s essay:

People underestimate the benefits of spaced repetition: Gwern references fascinating research on how students and teachers grossly underestimate how much better spaced repetition is compared to cramming for learning. 

Spaced repetition as a tool for maintenance of knowledge, not gaining new knowledge: According to some of the research referenced in the essay, spaced repetition doesn’t teach you new skills or abilities. Rather, it just helps you maintain existing skills.

  • Skills like gymnastics and music performance raise an important point about the testing effect and spaced repetition: they are for the maintenance of memories or skills, they do not increase it beyond what was already learned. If one is a gifted amateur when one starts reviewing, one remains a gifted amateur.” 
  • I’m resistant to this idea that you can’t learn using flashcards. I agree if new flashcards are thrown at you randomly, then yes that is a very inefficient way to learn. But what if flashcards are presented to you in a specific order when you are learning them, and “advanced” cards are not shown to you until you’ve learned the prerequisite “beginner” cards? I don’t know the research on this, but this strikes me as potentially a better way to learn than reading, if the cards are formulated properly.  To my knowledge, none of the spaced repetition tools out there (e.g. Supermemo, Anki) allow for this kind of “card dependency” – if you know of a tool that does this, let me know.

Tradeoff between lookup time and mental space: A key question that you have to ask yourself when using spaced repetition is what information should I add to my spaced repetition system? Why add anything at all to it when you can just look it up on the internet?

  • The answer is that lookup costs can be large, especially for information that you use a lot. Often when you want to apply your knowledge, there isn’t enough time to look it up, or the time to look-up impedes your thinking. An extreme example of this would be trying to recall an important piece of knowledge in a job interview – good luck pulling out your phone in front of the interviewer to get the right answer.
  • To figure out what to add, you have to strike a balance with the tradeoff between lookup costs and the cost of adding the item to your spaced repetition system and reviewing it. Gwern provides a 5 minute rule as a criteria for deciding what to add: if you think you’ll spend over 5 minutes over your lifetime looking something up or not having the knowledge in your head will wind up somehow costing you more than 5 minutes, then it’s worth it to add it to spaced repetition.

Idea – dynamically generated cards: Gwern offers some interesting ideas about the possibility of dynamically generated cards. For example, having a card that teaches multiplication by randomly generating numbers to multiply. Similar ideas apply to chess, go, programming, grammar, and more.