Memorize Anything

Today I read an amazing article in Wired about Piotr Wozniak, the inventor of software that uses spaced repetition to help you learn things permanently. Spaced repetition is where you learn something, then relearn it right at the point where you’re about to forget it. Each time you relearn it, you remember it for a longer period of time. The concept is simple, but requires a computer to determine the exact point at which you need to relearn something.

Wozniak created software called SuperMemo (SM) to implement the spaced repetition algorithm. In essence, it’s the ultimate flashcard program. It allows you to use images, HTML, and sounds, too. His latest feature is “incremental reading”, where you grab a bunch of documents from the web (or email, etc.) and throw them into SM. You prioritize the documents as you insert them; when you have time to read them, SM determines the order. As you read the document, you pull out info nuggets that you don’t want to forget, and these get added to the flashcard stack. Interesting, but it sounds like a bit of work.

Although it can be used to learn anything, the killer app is language learning. Indeed, in Wozniak’s native Poland, SuperMemo has been used extensively by students of English who wish to study abroad. There’s also rampant piracy and use in China and other countries. However, piracy is unnecessary, since Wozniak writes openly about the algorithms he uses, and open source alternatives have arisen.

One standout is Mnemosyne. It also offers support for HTML, images, and sound. One interesting feature is the 3-sided flashcard, which is particularly suited to language learning by including written form, pronunciation, and translation.

Another free program I saw recommended was OpenCards. It is based on OpenOffice Impress, a free PowerPoint alternative. As such, your flashcards can contain anything that can go into a PowerPoint slide, such as background images, animation, video, sound, etc. OpenCards runs on all major operating systems.

One issue I had with this super learning system is that, other than language, I couldn’t think of much that I wanted to keep in permanent memory. It did occur that in addition to foreign words, this is a great way to retain a large English vocabulary and keep it sharp. In On Writing, Stephen King recommends expanding your vocabulary by reading good authors and looking up words you don’t know1. I already do this, but now I can retain them indefinitely. That’s pretty cool.

If I was in school, however, this would be a fantastic way to retain knowledge for tests. I did a lot of cramming, which they tell you not to do. Cramming helps you pass quizzes and tests that cover recent lessons, but when it comes to the comprehensive final, it fails2. High school students who use this system diligently can demolish memorization-heavy AP tests. Not to mention the vocabulary-heavy SAT. Heck, this could make even high school language courses worthwhile! And all of this would lead to a clear advantage in college, where the same system should also work wonders. Later in life, you can brag about graduating magna cum laude – in French! – even though you studied something you never ended up using.

Update/Clarifications (4/23/08)

In case I didn’t sell this strong enough, the Wired article explains how cognitive psychologists and memory researchers are completely baffled as to why everyone isn’t using this technique. They equate it to using torches when light bulbs are available.

Although there is an obvious use for high school students, it occurred to me that placement in accelerated classes starts as early as 3rd grade. In my school system, you had to be placed there by 7th grade if you wanted to take the most advanced math classes in high school. So parents probably should start their kids as early as 2nd grade.

You don’t need to leave your computer on all the time – it will save your progress to disk 🙂 However, it is important to use the software daily. Skipping several days can set you back quite a ways.

Another free program is Anki. While it’s a general purpose spaced rep. program, it has extra features for learning Japanese, English, and Russian. Students of Japanese can also try Reviewing the Kanji. It was also suggested in the Lifehacker forums that Pimsleur language CDs (which are available at your local library if you don’t want to buy your own copy) could be converted to OpenCards decks for optimal aural learning.

Update (6/15/09)

I should have mentioned that Anki is my main program now. I find that it’s the most usable at this time. However, for practicing your pronunciation of foreign languages, Rosetta Stone is pretty good.

  1. As opposed to going out of your way to pillage the thesaurus, or using some other list of vocabulary words without a relevant context. []
  2. How bad it fails is related to how well you learned it the first time, the difficulty of the material, the strength of your short term memory, etc. Before you argue that cramming works, consider that you may be a genius, or, perhaps, you went to a shitty school. Just saying. []

5 thoughts on “Memorize Anything”

  1. I was thinking the same thing; sounds neat, but unless you are in school it’s hard to think of an adult use.
    It’s really just a high tech method of… wait for it… STUDYING.
    (Just got a chill up my spine.)
    I can see it now. “You know when I was growing up, we didn’t have these fancy ways to to help up remember things. Computers were for Turtle Graphics and nothing more. We just read facts over a million times, and we still failed, but at least it was honest work. grumble grumble.”

  2. I will definitely research the freeware/shareware versions of this software. OpenCards sounds like the ticket for the Japanese flashcards that I’ve been working on. I’ll skip the romanized and go straight to hiragana characters. And you can store a voice track, woo hoo !! But you need to have your computer ON all of the time. On the day after Earth Day, I think we may have taken a step backwards. If only Zbalance could provide a paper flashcard that could also provide a sound clip ((it was called a sound card: it looked like the old-fashioned computer punch card with a magnetic strip running along the top. You slid it into the player and it gave you 3 seconds of sound. It could be used over and over again)) …..

  3. Just as advertised, Pimsleur CDs available at my local library. While is the secret still not out ?? Because there are concerns that profit from our ignorance. The highly-priced (and effective) Rosetta Stone courses come to mind.

    The faithful CrackTeam blog reader has just save him/herself hundreds of dollars, just by continuing the ever-running CT educational degree program. Does anyone have a printer that prints gold leaf for certificates??

  4. It should be noted that Pimsleur uses “graduated learning”, which is like spaced repetition, but nowhere near as accurate as the computer-controlled algorithm. The HUGE difference is that the software tailors the repetition precisely to YOUR memory. Pimsleur is using some average, or perhaps just a guess.

    I’m glad you mentioned Rosetta Stone. The author contacted them for comments, since they DON’T use spaced repetition. To quote (emphasis mine):

    The most popular learning systems sold today — for instance, foreign language software like Rosetta Stone — cheerfully defy every one of the psychologists’ warnings. With its constant feedback and easily accessible clues, Rosetta Stone brilliantly creates a sensation of progress. “Go to Amazon and look at the reviews,” says Greg Keim, Rosetta Stone’s CTO, when I ask him what evidence he has that people are really remembering what they learn. “That is as objective as you can get in terms of a user’s sense of achievement.” The sole problem here, from the psychologists’ perspective, is that the user’s sense of achievement is exactly what we should most distrust.

    So Rosetta Stone gives you a great sense of achievement while you’re using it, but does not guarantee retention.

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