New computer software makes studying easier by carefully timing reviews
TORONTO — Whether you’re a full-time student or learning on your own, the challenge of actually retaining what you’ve studied and putting it to use can be formidable.
Reviewing, over and over again, is the traditional way we have studied since learning and the written word came together. For most people, the flashcard is about as sophisticated as study systems get.
Damien Elmes developed one popular program, Anki, after becoming frustrated with forgetting material while studying Japanese.
The Australian computer science graduate, who teaches English in Kumamoto, Japan, says a friend introduced him to the concepts behind the open-source program.
“I was just blown away by the idea of being able to work around all the times of forgetting things and having some kind of assurance that things I studied would actually stay in my head,” he says.
Research into human memory suggests that people forget what they study in predictable patterns. Recalling something when you’re about to forget it gives the greatest boost to a memory’s longevity.
Programs like Anki use algorithms to try to predict that exact moment by looking at how well you’ve remembered something in the past.
They resemble flashcard programs but use predictions to schedule when you’ll review each item next. After several successful reviews of an item, the time until its next review can grow to months or even years.
As the main developer of Anki, Elmes has worked on the interface and tools to help users manage what they’re studying.
“Basically, my goal was just to put something out there that was free and easy to use for my own benefit and for the benefit of other people.”
Software that uses memory research to try to predict the best time to review material is not new. Anki’s algorithm is based on a public domain one from SuperMemo, a program that originated in the 1980s and is available today in free and commercial versions. But the applications have gained popularity online with language learners in the past few years and may be attracting more interest among those studying other subjects.
“Over the past year or so I’ve tried to make it a bit more content-agnostic,” Elmes says of Anki’s origins as an aid to learning a foreign language.
“You get the occasional reports of people using it to study for medical exams and bar exams and things like that.”
Like Anki, Smart.fm began with algorithms to improve language study. It started as a system to help Japanese students learn English for standardized tests and has since expanded its scope.
“In the beginning of this year we moved beyond languages to any sort of fact-based information,” says Andrew Smith Lewis, the chairman and founder of Cerego Japan.
“So right now though the majority of the content originated with languages, right now there are people learning everything from heart murmurs, to famous historical paintings, to the names of the galaxies — any kind of fact-based structured data.”
Members of Smart.fm can create and study their own learning materials or they can use content from Cerego and other members.
“Our big bet, so to speak, is that the system can be utilized by people learning anything,” says Lewis.
Dr. Colin MacLeod, a University of Waterloo psychology professor with expertise in the areas of attention and memory, says these systems can benefit those who use them consistently because they implement well-established memory principles.
Users review material by actively trying to recall it, rather than simply rereading it, and the systems spread out the reviews of each item over time, rather than encouraging cramming.
“But the idea that you can predict the exact point, which is optimal, for refreshing a given memory, that’s more questionable,” MacLeod says of claims about the systems’ algorithms.
He adds that it’s important to study and understand facts in context, using the systems to augment learning rather than being dependent upon them.
Elmes says that while he has encouraged his students to use Anki, they also need to expose themselves to content where the vocabulary they’re learning is being used naturally, such as books and TV shows aimed at native English speakers.
“I think that Anki is one tool in the kind of toolset that exists out there,” he says.
At the same time, he says the concept could be a great help to many learners.
“Certainly I would love to see it used more because many people discover it and say ‘Wow, my learning has improved so much since this’ or ‘I wish I had this when I was young’.”
“I’d love to put that feeling onto more people and basically make it more widespread and more widely known.”