how to improve our memory while acquiring new vocabulary

Sorry for this but I have to start his entry with a significant amount of theory. I really consider it necessary for understanding the whole thing altogether.

First question, what is the ‘Spaced repetition’ learning technique? (The following explanation i directly extracted from Wikipedia).

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. So, what is this so called spacing effect?

In the field of psychology, the spacing effect is the phenomenon whereby animals (including humans) more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span (“spaced presentation”) rather than repeatedly studied in a short span of time (“massed presentation“). Practically, this effect suggests that “cramming” (intense, last-minute studying) the night before an exam is not likely to be as effective as studying at intervals in a longer time frame. Important to note, however, is that the benefit of spaced presentations does not appear at short retention intervals, in which massed presentations tend to lead to better memory performance.

Back to spaced repetition the principle is useful in many contexts, although it is commonly applied in contexts in which a learner must acquire a large number of items and retain them indefinitely in memory. It is therefore well suited for the problem of vocabulary acquisition in the course of second language learning, due to the size of the target language’s inventory of open-class words. Alternative names include spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced retrieval and expanded retrieval and SRS, which is the one I’m going to use from now on.

So, long story short, does this means that SRS is another learning method…?

NOOO!!!! And here comes the main error most of the people which use SRS do. THE SRS IN NOT A LEARNING METHOD. I know, I know, even Wikipedia calls it like that. But believe me, it is not. SRS is not a learning method, it’s just a tool that help us to retain the info in our long term memory.

Ok, SRS is out of the question, but… If it’s not through SRS in which way do we learn?

There is a thing called learning style. In short this references the personal way in which each of us learns better (in other words, the learning method which works better for us). All of us have met in some moment of our past someone who stated that he or she learned better with audios, another one who stated that grammar books were very helpful for him/her, and so on. In fact, each of us is like that. Each of us have our personal preferences while studying something (*1).I for example learn better if I represent the info which I want to learn in pictures (mindmaps). This preference for a method or another is what helps us to understand the info and ths learn it.

There is abig mistake we make when we start to learn something new, particularly languages. Usually we surf the net looking for other people advice about how we should focus our learning process. The problem comes when we find somebody which states that X learning style is the best one and helped him/her learning in the blink of an eye. The newbie learner believes blindly in the blogger’s words and tries to emulate the blogger’s experience. The issue comes when the results for him/her are not the same as those which the blogger stated they would be. Why does this happen? The answer is quite simple. What if in reality X learning style isn’t the most suited for the newbie learner? Maybe the learning style more suited for the newbie learner is the Y learning style, the same that ‘X learning style’s blogger’ marked as shit. Do you see the trick there?

I do believe that one of the biggest achievements which we can make in our whole lives is to find which is the method most suited for each of us (of course this is 100% a personal opinion). The main conclusion we have to extract from this is that learning is not the same as remembering.


Hey! Hey! Wait a moment! What about schools then? Don’t they use the same methods over and over again for years and decades? If all this was true wouldn’t it mean that they should adapt their system to each of their students -which of course they don’t-?

Don’t make me talk.

Let’s just say for now that if you are one of those kids who learn better through a language/mathematical system you can consider yourself lucky. If not, I’m sorry to say this to you, but you are screwed. Kind of.

Video games to explain nowadays education system paradigm.

Back in my college days I met a certain guy, a japanese language student in his senior year. That guy had been studying japanese for four years already. But as he said to me, he felt he didn’t learn that much. It was just a certain feeling but he couldn’t explain it. So I helped him to shed more light upon this matter. I compared his situation with Catherine gameplay system. Catherine is a PS3/XBOX360. As explained in Wikipedia Catherine is a puzzle-platformer psychological horror adventure game in which players control Vincent Brooks, who begins having strange nightmares after his girlfriend, Katherine, begins to talk about marriage and commitment. […] The main gameplay takes place in the Nightmare stages. In a nightmarish dreamworld […], Vincent must climb up giant staircases that are slowly collapsing underneath him and safely reach the top. When I used this explanation as a metaphor to describe his situation he totally agreed with me. Then he proceed to explain himself with a more clear insight. He felt that he had learnt a lot of stuff every year that passed, but that new knowledge was always taking the place of old knowledge and this one at the same time was falling apart, mostly due the lack of proper review of it in the degree’s main curriculum (*1)

Have the bell ringed while reading the last paragraph? Do you think that it was the same for you (or still it is) in your college/high school/other years even if your degree wasn’t about languages? Well I believe this is something quite common among student no matter their age or field are. We learn a lot of things but we forgive most part of them before even finishing our degree/high school year/other. In other words, everybody knows that the high school/college/other student life is based is memorizing halfway and forgiving full way. One of the reason for this is the lack of a proper method of maintaining all that info in our memory. Yes, we indeed need a SRS.

So what are you proposing a new learning style or a SRS?
I propose to apply in our learning process SRS plus a new midle step called massed presentation.


Massed what?

Basically, massed presentation means to repeat a information multiples times (following a methodical pattern) in a short period of time in order to be able to remember it easily in the near future. If you do a quick Google search you will see that very often this concept is treated as the opposite of SRS.

I still don’t get it. So does it means that we have to choose between massed presentation or SRS?

Far from the truth. As I said what I propose is to complement both of them in the learning process(*2).

So…. Massed presentation= cramming?

No, mainly because of two reasons. The first reason is that massed presentation doesn’t require an intense and stressful tempo while reviewing the material (I am going to explain more about this a bit later in this same entry). The second reason is that cramming isn’t followed by a methodical use of SRS.

Ok…… buuuuut, What are exactly the benefits of massed presentation?

Let me put it this way: is like giving steroids to your short-term memory; at least this is the way I feel every day while doing it. Do you see now the difference between massed presentation and SRS? The former helps us to retain the knowledge in our short-term memory, while the last helps us to retain it in our long-term memory.

Wait a moment! Why are you speaking about short-term, long-term memory and stuff like that? Does this means there is more than one type of memory?
If you check Wikipedia’s article about memory you will see this is quite an extensive topic. For now let’s just get the idea that sensory memory is the kind of memory which holds sensory information for a few seconds or less after an item is perceived, short-term memory(*3) allows recall for a period of several seconds to a minute without rehearsal and long-term memory which can store much larger quantities of information for potentially unlimited duration (sometimes a whole life span)(all of this stracted from Wikipedia). I understand the three of them as different rooms in the same house. But in order to enter the main room, long-term memory room, we must first enter the previous rooms, sensory memory room and short-term room respectively.


I am sorry but I am an experienced user of SRS and I know for sure it is not suited for me…

When any of us say that we have tried a SRS, exactly for how much time have we been doing it in a methodical way (=/= only a few dispersed days if I feel like it)? Usually an error that most of the ‘casual SRS users’ do is trying to amass in their long term memory through SRS a lot of knowledge which they haven’t reinforced in previous memory stages (mainly the short-term memory).
Of course we also can find some people’s experiences which shows that in the end SRS works anyways. The problem is that few times they speak about how much difficulties they had while learning new info in any stages of their learning process while using SRS (beginner, intermediate or upper stages). Most of the times the knowledge is acquired after doing many UNNECESSARY errors(*4).

So to learn any kind of information I have to repeat it multiple at first and then more spaced?
Not quite.

Understanding before memorizing

As I said the SRS is not a method of learning by itself. As SuperMemo’s author himself states in his articles ‘Formulating knowledge. Twenty rules’, the first step for memorizing something is to understand it. If we do this posterior memorization would be more easy.

In case of vocabulary acquisition things differ a little. Here we have ‘more memorizing work to do and less understanding work tod do’. This is the point where we have to decide the kind of flashcards/any other kind of knowledge formulating system we want to review through massed presentation and SRS. We have to decide if we do better listening to audio or do we prefer reading and doing some kind of mnemotechnics (among hundreds of other different options). The article ‘Formulating knowledge. Twenty rule’ is a main key required to have success at this point. After deciding this point we can start the massed presentation reviews.

So is this something you discovered?

No at all, in fact the idea has been around for awhile. I do believe that the Pimsleur system is in fact a mix of massed presentation(in a very little dosis) and SRS. The main handicaps I notice about it are: first the kind of material they commercialize. It is in fact a massed presentation system but it doesn’t have any kind of continuity in more large periods of time. Of course the second main handicap is the prize. RosettaStone would be another example of massed presentation system with the same handicaps as Pimsleur System. Finally I do interpret the TPR storytelling method as something very similar to this idea too.

So what’s the point then about this ‘tutorial’?

SRS has been for some time already in the spotlight (for the good and for the bad) among the language learners virtual community. I would like to put in its own deserved spotlight the massed presentation system. I would love to read about people developing new and more effective ways than mine to applicate it in the general learning process and in language acquisition process.

Can you explain your personal experience?

Yes I can.

First I made a deck in any flashcard system of my preference with 20 new korean words I want to learn (aprox., the mainpoint is to not feel stressed while doing it). It’s better if they are not in an alphabetical order because if so we avoid unnecessary confusion. Then I proceed to review it for the first time. Usually this first review takes me about 10 min. In this time I try to memorize the words by making mnemotechnics annotations or things like that. But of course I also memorize some of them just by heart if I don’t come along a strong enough mnemotechnic.

After this first review I wait for 1 minute and review it again. Usually this second time the review only takes 5 or less minutes and the wrong answers percentage is minimal.
After the second review I wait for 3 minutes and review it again.
After that I wait for 10 minutes and review it again.
After this last review I put the timer at 1 hour and proceed to make another deck if I have enough time. The timetable for reviewing is always the same.
Finally after the 1 hour timer I do the review again and set the timer at 5 hours.

So the timetable for the first day would be:

First review.
1 minute review
3 minutes review
10 minutes review
1 hour review
5 hours review

The following day I make new decks while reviewing the past day’s decks following this pattern:

Yesterday’s deck first review.
Yesterday’s deck 10 minutes review
Yesterday’s deck 1 hour review
Yesterday’s deck 5 hours review

As I said every review only takes a few minutes. If you use a flashcard system with a mobile application it would be like if you were checking your e-mail or your main instant-communication app.
After these first two days of applying massed presentation I proceed to introduce the new acquired knowledge in my main SRS (in my case SuperMemo) and start to review the new knowledge through it. But here comes the main problem which I still have to solve and it’s how the SRS interprets the answers for the first time. The first day you review the info with your SRS the answer is probably going to be 100% accurate. This will cause that the next review will be scheduled for a time longer than desirable. The SRS interprets that the new data is already established in our long term-memory, which it’s not true at all. The whole situation makes that consequent reviews have a bigger error percentage (around 20%). Of course this doesn’t mean world’s end or anything like. We have to have a positive view about things always. From every 100 new words we will remember 80 straight, and those 20 we failed are going to be reviewed in a more short period of time thus helping us to remember them in a few days. This way I have been learning an average amount of 70 new words (kanji included) in the last two weeks.

Maybe if we only want to larn 50 words or so for a incoming test the whole method is not worth the effort. But I see it more as a way of constant learning a with in a long-term setting.

Final thoughts.

I consider that I still have to fix a lot of things in this system in order it fits my personal needs. As I said a few times already everyone has his/her own style which works better for him/her. In any case I do believe that memory working principles are something more restrained and common among average people, or at least I hope so (that would mean that massed presentation and SRS can be used by anyone).
For now I will rearrange the timetables. I think some of the review times are unnecessary or could be better adjusted. Also there is the problem with SuperMemo’s scheduling which I have already commented. And of course I still have a lot to learn about memory working principles, massed presentation and other multiple topics related to general learning.
If you have an opinion in favor or against all that have been said here please share it with me. Help me to learn more through your opinions and ideas 😉


(*1) Please don’t say to me that test have this purpose…. All of us know the truth behind them, at least in college level. Recently I heard that when we feel in danger our brain blocks our learning ability. As they said, this fact produces that usually tests (considered as threatening situations for most of us) are far from being a learning process/simulation process/whatever you may call it.

(*2) It seems an obvious fact, but for some reason people usually argues all the time regarding X matter about what option (A, or B. or C, or…) is the best. For example if you have been learning languages for some time already and have been surfing the net looking for other people’s experiences you would have find a lot of times the discussion about what it’s the best method among the one represented by the Input Theory or the one represented by the Output Theory. Usually people sticks with one of them, and for some reason which I don’t understand, almost nobody proposes a mix of them. Another popular discussion among language learners is if learning words lists is useful or not. Again we are going to find those who are in favor of it and those who are against it. Why everything has to be black or white? Why people always have to choose sides? Can’t we just take the best from all the sources (in concordance with or personal needs) and mix it?

(*3) Maybe it would be more appropriate to call this stage working memory but I don’t want to focus on this point right now.

(*4) All errors all necessary, of course. We have thousand of PD books which speaks about the value of them so lets skip this necessary but tedious point explanation.

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