Ben Rachbach: 3 Mini-Reviews of "Memory Software"

Mike here. Joanne Jacobs recently blogged a New Yorker article about memorizing poetry.

Leithauser adds: “You take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

Made me think about memorizing facts. This is typically a smart part of a teacher's arsenal, but it can be important.

Today we have a guest blog by Ben Rachbach. He is a Match Corps tutor. He also spent two years as a researcher developing software to help Chinese children learn to read, write, and do math.

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Ben writes:

There is now a better way to memorize than flashcards: memory software.

Why learn and review facts on a computerized device?

Before I go into the specific software products, I want to explain what specifically computers can do to make students much more likely to learn and remember facts. Computers can precisely implement algorithms designed to maximize learning and remembering for minimum student time.

Psychological research shows that over time, we can go for longer and longer before having to review a given fact. So if I learned yesterday that the terminal velocity of a cat is 60 MPH, I’ll need to review it again today or I’ll forget it. But the next review can be a week later, then a month, then half a year...

The memorizing technique that takes advantage of this phenomenon is called spaced repetition. The idea is to review the item right when you are about to forget. Spaced repetition software neurotically tracks your performance on every single fact that you’re trying to learn and remember. It adjusts those spaced repetition intervals to be exactly right for the difficulty of each fact and your memorizing abilities. That way, you’re not wasting any time reviewing an item that is solid in your memory, but you’re also not forgetting what you’ve learned.

A bonus is that such software keeps an extremely precise and detailed database on learner mastery of each fact, so if you’re a teacher you can check in on your students’ mastery and intervene if he or she is falling behind. Though, as long as your students keep up with their reviews of the facts, the software should take care of the problem for you.

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Ben continues:

So, what’s the easy-to-use, intuitive, beautiful software product that seamlessly manages spaced repetition for your class of students?

Well, there isn’t one. All of the software that I’ve found is geared towards individual learners working on their own time. On the other hand, it’s not too hard to retool it to meet the needs of a class.

To find the best of what’s out there, I tried to review all relevant software in wide use. If I missed something, please let me know in the comments.

1. Memrise

a. Overview

I’ll lead with what’s probably the best option for most teachers and tutors: Memrise.

When you’re learning a new set of facts, Memrise starts with a learning session that shows term and defintion shown together. A crucial 3rd component here is the “mem,” (mnemonic) a cue to connect the term and definition and make the fact stick in your brain; say, a picture of a cat flying past a 60 MPH speed limit sign. My experience working on Chinese characters has taught me that mnemonics are incredibly important, but they get short shrift in some of the other software out there—bonus points for Memrise.

Once you have learned the items, the software generates multiple choice and fill in the blank questions to test your knowledge. Crucially, Memrise implements memory algorithms to figure out what to test you on when. Though, I’m a little bit skeptical of the Memrise algorithms, because they allow you to overpractice facts such that you’re wasting time on them when you wouldn’t forget them anyway. My sense is that you have to be careful and only study when it tells you to rather than trying to get ahead if you want maximum efficiency.

Memrise does all this in a pretty sleek package. You grow your own garden of memory flowers, kind of like Farmville but growing your plants through reviewing facts rather than mindless repetitive clicking. Also like Farmville, you can see how others online are doing and compete with them if you so choose. I think that these features would be motivating for most students. All this data on progress (which is also available in the form of bar graphs) could also be accessible to a teacher, though there’s no convenient way to summarize the data across your entire class or to sync it with gradebook software.

b. Time and $ Cost?

What are the costs of setting up Memrise for your students if you are a teacher of tutor? People have already posted a huge number of courses on the Memrise website, but very few are aligned to relevant standards. So my guess is that no-excuses educators will mostly create their own courses. The course creation software is very easy to use, but somebody still needs to input the terms and definitions, and come up with the mems.

Comitting to Memrise or any other remembering software also means that your students will need to keep investing time over the long run to maintain the items in memory. For a given set of facts, the time demand decreases exponentially over time as the intervals between reviews get longer and longer. An additional cost is that if students get distracted by the fun features of Memrise like the garden, they might end up spending extra time beyond their reviews.

As for fiancial costs, Memrise is currently free and plans to continue to offer a free option for folks who want to create their own courses. Memrise is currently only available on the web, so it’s best on a computer. I can attest that it is usable but difficult on a smartphone.

c. Examples

What it would look like to do Memrise "right" in school:

The chem teacher finds a course on the Memrise site teaching the correspondence between the element symbols and the names, which is exactly what she needs her students to learn and remember. She creates accounts for all of her students and enrolls them in the course. During independent work time, students rotate in and out of a computer station, doing however much practice Memrise instructs them to do for that day, week, or month. This is all they do on the computer; logging on Facebook earns a detenetion. The frequency of computer time in class decreases throughout the year as fact repetition intervals increase. The teacher logs into the student accounts to track their progress, which is part of their grade in her course.

What it would look like to do Memrise "wrong":

The Spanish teacher found a lot of fun Spanish courses on the Memrise website, although though most of them aren’t aligned to her curriculum and goals. She sets up computers in the classroom and encrouages her students to create Memrise accounts and join the courses. Some students pick high-quality Spanish courses, while others pick low-quality ones or ones totally unaligned to the curriculum. Yet other students just surf the net during their computer time. Since the students all made their own logins, the teacher can’t check in to see what they’re really doing on Memrise. After two months of wasting time like this, she removes the computers, so now even the students who were using Memrise the right way can no longer keep up with their reviews.

Quick note: there’s another promising website similar to Memrise called Cerego, but it’s still in invite-only beta. Something to look out for soon.

2. Anki

I’ve been using Anki myself for three years to learn Chinese, Spanish, and statistics.

Anki is spaced repetition software (SRS), plain and simple. It uses a version of the tried and true SuperMemo algorithm for spacing, long the gold standard for SRS. Instead of a multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank test, Anki looks like traditional flashcards; question on the front, answer on the back. Rather than inputting an answer into the program to check if it’s correct, the learner looks for herself on the back of the card and rates whether she got it right.

The upside is that you are no longer restricted to things that can be multiple choice options and inputted via computer keyboard to be checked by the software. You can review handwritting Chinese characters, or even playing songs from heart. The downside is that your student can trick himself, or even intentionally trick you, into believing he knows the answer when he doesn’t.

The other downside is that there’s no learning phase distinct from review; it’s all flashcards all the time. That’s one disadvantage compared to Memrise. Also, although Anki strongly encourages mnemonics in the documentation, they aren’t required by the software like they are in Memrise.

On the plus side, Anki uses a tested memory algorithm and is much more flexible when it comes to designing flashcards. Also, it’s open source, which means that users will never get locked out of it, and theoretically someone could code up a version to be used with classes of students (wouldn’t that be wonderful!). Finally, there are versions for offline computer, online computer, Android, and iOS.

Other than that, Anki is pretty similar to Memrise: free, some content available online but probably not much that no-excuses educators will want to use. I think it will appeal to educators who want the flexibility, or who need something that works offline or across multiple platforms.

3. StudyBlue

I am NOT a fan of STUDYBLUE, a popular website for studying facts. That’s because, for all its bells and whistles, it doesn’t use a strong memory algorithm. In fact, it encourages learners to replicate many of the problems of traditional flashcards and studying from wordlists, like simply studying every word in the list regardless of level of mastery and when it will be forgotten.

-Guestblogger Ben Rachbach