Mind Hacks

spaced repetition & Darwin’s golden rule

Spaced repetition is a memory hack. We know that spacing out your study is more effective than cramming, but using an app you can tailor your own spaced repetition schedule, allowing you to efficiently create reliable memories for any material you like.

Michael Nielsen, has a nice thread on his use of spaced repetition on twitter:

He covers how he chooses what to put into his review system, what the right amount of information is for each item, and what memory alone won’t give you (understanding of the process which uses the memorised items). Nielsen is pretty enthusiastic about the benefits:

The single biggest change is that memory is no longer a haphazard event, to be left to chance. Rather, I can guarantee I will remember something, with minimal effort: it makes memory a  choice.

There are lots of apps/programmes which can help you run a spaced repetition system, but Nielsen used Anki (ankiweb.net), which is open source, and has desktop and mobile clients (which sync between themselves, which is useful if you want to add information while at a computer, then review it on your mobile while you wait in line for coffee or whatever).

Checking Anki out, it seems pretty nice, and I’ve realised I can use it to overcome a cognitive bias we all suffer from: a tendency to forget facts which are an inconvenient for our beliefs.

Charles Darwin notes this in his autobiography:

“I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.”

(Darwin, 1856/1958, p123).

I have notebooks, and Darwin’s habit of forgetting “unfavourable” facts, but I wonder if my thinking might be improved by not just noting the facts, but being able to keep them in memory – using a spaced repetition system. I’m going to give it a go.

Links & Footnotes:

Anki app (ankiweb.net)

Wikipedia on space repetition systems

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, edited by Nora Barlow. London: Collins

For more on the science, see this recent review for educators: Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 3(1), 2.

I note that Anki-based spaced repetition also does a side serving of retrieval practice and interleaving (other effective learning techniques).