SuperMemo + Anki

In high school, I tried to learn Spanish, and failed. In college, I tried again, and failed again. Then, in my thirties, I discovered SuperMemo, and within a year I had memorized thousands of Spanish words and phrases and was finally on my way to speaking Spanish.

SuperMemo is software premised on the idea that there is an ideal time to practice any item you are trying to remember. You want to practice when you have almost forgotten it. Too soon, and you waste your time, and even interfere with long term memory formation. Too late, and you’ve lost the trace, and have struggle to learn it again. There is a simple equation that describes the shape of the forgetting curve, but the exact curve is different for every item and for every person. There is no single “best pace” for memorizing all things.

However, your ideal time to practice can be predicted from your history of attempted recall. The inventor and memory expert Piotr Wozniak reduced this practice to software many years ago, and his technique, called “spaced repetition,” is now available in quite a few learning products, including Wozniak’s own SuperMemo, and an open source version called Anki. None of them are perfect from a usability point of view. But any of them will work far, far better than random study of flashcards. These tools will not give you all the pieces of the learning puzzle, obviously. Memorization is only one step. But it is a crucial, difficult, first step, and it is wonderful to get a boost.

I recommend SuperMemo or Anki to every student who needs to memorize: vocabulary, science and medical terms, names and faces, musical chords, technical specs — anything that can be reduced to a flash card.

SuperMemo for Windows (its main version) has a famously slow-to-evolve interface that will irritate anybody used to the convenience of modern UX, but it contains many wonderful features, including “incremental reading,” which is a way to save and remember passages from books and articles. Anki is quite primitive in terms of features, but has an up-to-date interface and is available on most platforms, including an iOS and free Android app.

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-- Gary Wolf  

SuperMemo (Windows)
$60

Anki
Free, donations welcome

SuperMemo iPhone app
Free, with in-app purchases for language courses