Learning With Flashcards: Spaced Repetition – Skipping Mistakes?

by Language Learner on August 26, 2012

Flashcards are a great vacabulary learning system, because you get to quiz yourself. Studies have shown that recalling information from memory is actually (a lot) more effective if you want to memorize something than reading it.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of spaced repetition – it means that you repeat a given piece of information you want to learn after a certain amount of time, and is largely based on the pioneering memory research of Ebbinghaus.

Want2LearnThai recently made an interesting point regarding how he(? I’m just assuming the author is male based on my sexist stereotyping after reading his post) thinks flashcards & spaced repetition is often used wrongly:

[…] when you spend heaps of time going over the words you got wrong.  Every system is different, but many will keep putting the cards you got wrong that day back in the review list for that day till you get it right.  Don’t think that sounds bad?  At first it isn’t, but then the more of these you have, the more they back up and delay you seeing or reviewing the cards you do know.  The idea is to simmer as many words as possible and not to burn one side of the pot before heating the other.

While I like his metaphor of simmering words, I think this is misguided.

Studies have shown that the best way to master a new skill is to fix errors as soon as possible.

Let me give you an example:

learning to play an instrument. A couple of years back, researchers recruited a bunch of musicians to learn to play a challenging piece of music. They had a certain amount of time (so and so many days). The researchers kept track of how and how much the musicians practiced. Afterwards, their mastery of playing this song was rated.

Interestingly one of the traits that separated those who played the song best from those who played the song worst was this: the best performers corrected mistakes immediately. Meaning, they played a song, and when they hit the wrong note somewhere, they stopped, played the last segment again and again until they played it well. Whereas the worst performers just kept playing the song even when they made a mistake.

When I first read about this, I was actually quite surprised. I always preferred the latter method, because it seemed a more holistic approach (and now that you already know about my sexist stereotyping habit, you can also know that I have a tendency to think of holistic everythings [ideas, methods, approaches, etc.] as superior to partialized everythings). I figured you learn the “big thing” first, and then from that you gradually zoom in to the smaller details and straighten them out.

Turns out my idea was wrong.

And that’s why I find Want2LearnThai’s assumption so interesting, because it’s kind of headed in the same direction.

But in my opinion, repeatedly quizzing yourself about vocabulary you couldn’t recall (or recalled incorrectly) until you know it is the right way to use spaced repetition when learning vocabulary.

Of course he’s right that if you don’t review cards which you’ve just freshly imprinted into your memory, there’s a risk that you’ll forget those words again.

But in a case were you get stuck in a backlog of flashcards you didn’t get right, I’d say the issue is more that you’ve got too many cards in the deck.

So my personal recommendation would be not to change the default settings of most flashcard programs/apps when they repeat flashcards you got wrong. Ironing out mistakes as soon as possible is a good way to learn.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

IIvy August 28, 2012 at 5:17 am

If you are studying vocabulary by this Spaced Repetition method, I strongly recommend you visit superflashcard.com and have a look at Tour part: http://about.superflashcard.com/tour/
They incorporate this Spaced Repetition perfectly into their apps. This site has been my best favorite site since I started study German

Language Learner September 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

I Ilvy, thanks for sharing that, looks interesting!

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