A vote against spaced repetition

LessWrong seems to be a big fan of spaced-rep­e­ti­tion flash­card pro­grams like Anki, Su­per­memo, or Mnemosyne. I used to be. After us­ing them re­li­giously for 3 years in med­i­cal school, I now cat­e­gor­i­cally ad­vise against us­ing them for large vol­umes of mem­o­riza­tion.

[A caveat be­fore peo­ple get up­set: I think they ap­pro­pri­ate in cer­tain situ­a­tions, and I have not tried to use them to learn a lan­guage, which seems its most pop­u­lar use. More at the bot­tom.]

A bit more his­tory: I and 30 other stu­dents tried us­ing Mnemosyne (and some used Anki) for mul­ti­ple tests. At my school, we have a test ap­prox­i­mately ev­ery 3 weeks, and each test cov­ers about 75 pages of high-den­sity out­line-for­mat notes. Many stopped af­ter 5 or so such tests, cit­ing that they sim­ply did not get enough re­turns from their time. I stuck with it longer and used them more than any­one else, us­ing them for 3 years.

In­ci­den­tally, I failed my first year and had to re­peat.

By the end of that third year (and study­ing for my Step 1 boards, a sev­eral-month pro­cess), I lost faith in spaced-rep­e­ti­tion cards as an effec­tive tool for my mem­o­riza­tion de­mands. I later met with a learn­ing-skills spe­cial­ist, who felt the same way, and had bet­ter rea­sons than my in­tu­ition/​trial-and-er­ror:

  • Flash­cards are less use­ful to learn­ing the “big pic­ture”

  • Speci­fi­cally, if you are mem­o­riz­ing a large amount of in­for­ma­tion, there is of­ten a hi­er­ar­chy, or­ga­ni­za­tion, etc that can make lean­ing the whole thing eas­ier, and you loose the con­stant vi­sual re­minder of the larger con­text when us­ing flash­cards.

  • Flash­cards do not take ad­van­tage of spa­tial, map­ping, or vi­sual mem­ory, all of which the hu­man mind is much bet­ter op­ti­mized for. It is not so well built to mem­o­rize pairs be­tween seem­ingly ar­bi­trary con­cepts with few to no in­tu­itive links. My preferred meth­ods are, in essence, hacks that use your vi­sual and spa­tial mem­ory rather than rote.

Here are ex­am­ples of the typ­i­cal kind of things I mem­o­rize ev­ery day and have found flash­cards to be sur­pris­ingly worth­less for:

  • The defi­ni­tion of Sjö­gren’s syndrome

  • The con­traindi­ca­tions of Metronidazole

  • The sig­nifi­cance of a rise in serum αFP

Here is what I now use in place of flash­cards:

  1. Ven di­a­grams/​etc, to com­pare and con­trast similar lists. (This is more spe­cific to med­i­cal school, when you learn sub­tly differ­ent dis­eases.)

  2. Mnemonic pic­tures. I have used this my­self for years to great effect, and later learned it was taught by my study-skills ex­pert, though I’m sur­prised I haven’t found them for­mally named and taught any­where else. The ba­sic con­cept is to make a large pic­ture, where each de­tail on the pic­ture cor­re­sponds to a de­tail you want to mem­o­rize.

  3. Me­mory palaces. I re­cently learned how to prop­erly use these, and I’m a true be­liever. When I only had the gen­eral idea to “pair things you want to mem­o­rize with places in your room” I found it worth­less, but af­ter I was taught a lot of do’s and don’ts, they’re now my fa­vorite way to mem­o­rize any list of 5+ items. If there’s enough de­mand on LW I can write up a sum­mary.

Spaced rep­e­ti­tion is still good for knowl­edge you need to re­trieve im­me­di­ately, when a 2-sec­ond de­lay would make it use­less. I would still con­sider spaced-rep­e­ti­tion to mem­o­rize some of the more rarely-used notes on the tre­ble and bass clef, if I ever de­cide to learn to sight-read mu­sic prop­erly. I make no com­ment on it’s use­ful­ness to learn a for­eign lan­guage, as I haven’t tried it, but if I were to pick one up I per­son­ally would start with a rosetta-stone-es­que pro­gram.

Your mileage may vary, but af­ter see­ing so many peo­ple try and re­ject them, I figured it was enough data to share. Mnemonic pic­tures and mem­ory palaces are slightly time con­sum­ing when you’re learn­ing them. How­ever, if some­one has the mo­ti­va­tion and dis­ci­pline to make a stack of flash­cards and study them ev­ery day in­definitely, then I be­lieve learn­ing and us­ing those skills is a far bet­ter use of time.