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Are You Using SRS Wrong?

Common mistakes when using spaced repetition software for language learning


Are You Using SRS Wrong?

Common mistakes when using spaced repetition software for language learning


Spaced repetition software helps language learners memorize key facts, points, vocabulary, etc., via spaced repetition. The concept, for example, proposes that men memorize things best in the long term by exploiting the psychological spacing effect. Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese points out, many learners make the mistake of assuming SRS will help solve all the problems of memorization. In a recent blog, Olle explains how SRS works, and how learners can get the most out of SRS.

Olle starts with the common mistake of importing a massive amount of vocab, which oftentimes is counterproductive:

“…this doesn’t mean that you should just import 1000 words from the internet into your SRS and start hacking away (and I don’t mean “hacking” as in “language hacking” here). That isn’t repetition, that’s learning, and a very detached, artificial learning at that. In my opinion, learning something means that you first acquire basic knowledge and understanding about something. Reviewing is about retaining that knowledge over time.

In the case of characters, this might mean looking up radicals and creating mnemonics, for words it might mean to understand the individual characters and link them together in a meaningful way. In this way, SRS becomes a method of reinforcing what you already know. As such, it is very efficient indeed.”

The suggestion is creating your own flash cards rather than the easy one-for-all importing. During the process of creating your own deck of flash cards, you warm up to these words. For me, creating my own decks also allows me to have control over the vocabulary lists, and it makes it easier to create lists by topics or levels of difficulty.

Nothing is completely foolproof. Olle goes on to point out that SRS is actually designed to fail 5-15% of the time and has advice on how to deal with this.

When you forget something, you have a choice. Either you just keep going, reviewing what you forgot regularly until it sticks, or you consider what you forgot as lost and learn it from scratch. The choice depends on the nature of your incorrect answer. If you’re really sure you understand the word and have a ‘of course, I really knew that and just had a momentary lapse’ feeling, then you might not need to do anything.

If you truly have forgotten the word, though, you shouldn’t just rely on more and more repetitions. What I do when I really forget words I should know is that I treat them as new words… Finally, never forget that deleting troublesome cards is a valid option. If the character or word is important, it will turn up again later and you can have another go. If it isn’t, well, then you’ve saved yourself some time and will feel less frustrated.”

Just as there is more to language learning than memorizing a dictionary, SRS is a tool that takes advantage of the way memory works to manipulate repetition. This is why Olle says: “if you spend a major fraction of your total study time using SRS, you’re doing something wrong.”

“SRS works best in combination with as much exposure to the language as possible, along with real communicative practice to teach you how to use the words you’ve learnt…

The way you use SRS will determine what kind of results you get from it. For instance, you can practice character recognition/writing, listening comprehension, translation (Chinese-English or English-Chinese). You can also do various kinds of cloze tests or freer forms of recall.”

The writer concludes with “how you choose to use SRS will determine what you get from it.” Over dependence on SRS limits language learning rather than expanding it. While spaced repetition is sound, learners should be active in language learning.

 Image courtesy of d3b…* from Flickr.