A vote against spaced repetition

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From: Jonathan B
Country: USA
Sent: Feb 18, 2016
Subject: memory expert disagrees


This article provides a strong argument against spaced repetition. It is very convincing, esp. this part:

I met with a learning-skills specialist, who felt the same way, and had better reasons than my intuition/trial-and-error:

  1. Flashcards are less useful to learning the “big picture”
  2. If you are memorizing a large amount of information, there is often a hierarchy, organization, etc. that can make learning the whole thing easier, and you lose the constant visual reminder of the larger context when using flashcards.
  3. 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

The full article: http://lesswrong.com/lw/juq/a_vote_against_spaced_repetition/


We totally agree with the learning skill specialist. The entire diagnosis is correct. First 3 points of 20 rules of learning all emphasize the same points.

The only problem with the article that it provides a wrong generalization. Instead of providing a "vote against spaced repetition", it should rather specifically vote against "badly formulated flashcards" and "disjointed learning" (in disassociation from the big picture).

Spaced repetition is just a reflection of how human memory works. As such it cannot be good or bad, like gravity is neither good or bad.

The argument that SuperMemo does not hold the "big picture" is as old as SuperMemo. The answer is always the same: you do not need the big picture in SuperMemo as long as you keep it in your head. Many students fail this principles and their effectiveness in using spaced repetition is also undermined.

Incremental reading is specifically designed to make sure you always follow a pattern in which you keep the big picture in mind and build upon the basics.

Students may give up spaced repetition at their own peril. Without review, memories disappear. Spaced repetition helps minimize the review. However, the entire process relies heavily on smart learning, right choices, material selection, item formulation, and other learning strategies.

Smart learning is difficult because it requires that you be ... well ... smart.


The article lists a few quintessential examples of badly formulated items:

  • The definition of Sjögren's syndrome
  • The contraindications of Metronidazole
  • The significance of a rise in serum αFP

Those are all in violation of 20 rules (enumerations). These questions might be show up in a high school exam dished out by a bad teacher. They have no place in a well-structured SuperMemo collection!

For beginners dealing with similar structure problems, we recommend incremental reading. We can instantly notice that if we paste Sjögren syndrome from Wikipedia, we get material for 5-7 cloze deletions:

Sjögren syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body's white blood cells destroy the salivary and lacrimal glands.

The first two clozes, depending on student's priorities will deal with the name (Sjögren) and the autoimmune targets (salivary and lacrimal glands). Those cloze deletions won't ensure good recall in all contexts. Good recall can only be secured with more learning on the subject, i.e. more cloze deletions. With solid redundancy (e.g. 10-20 items) Sjögren syndrome will become as familiar as flu. Naturally, this will only last if the items receive proper long-term treatment with spaced repetition.

Those less familiar with incremental reading need to be reminded that decomposing complex enumerations into multiple items reduces the cost of learning.