SRS Flashcards: Pros and Cons

The “SRS” in “SRS flashcards” stands for Space Repetition System (or Software). While SRS is the technical term which harkens back to the algorithm used by legendary developer Piotr Woźniak for Supermemo, nowadays many language learning systems/platforms incorporate some form of SRS, usually just calling it “intelligent flashcards,” “smart review,” or something like that.

In the 15 or so years I’ve been watching SRS evolve, I’ve seen its status go from “emerging exciting technology” to “over-hyped, over-used cliche.” And yet it’s still got a lot to offer, if you don’t treat it like a panacea of language learning. So, time to get right to the point and discuss: pros and cons of SRS (specifically, SRS flashcards for language learning).

Flashcards: that's not how it works!

Pro: You have a list of everything you’re learning

  • It may be easy to add everything (one-click download and add?).
  • Nothing falls through the cracks if your system is solid.
  • Many study programs over-emphasize new content and don’t provide enough review. SRS is one way to make sure that the older material you learned doesn’t fade away but rather gets cemented into your long-term memory as you move through the course.

Con: You have to make a list of everything you’re learning

  • It’s some work to build a list, especially if you’re learning entirely on your own. (For example, if you’re using Anki, you might not even know about the Pinyin Toolkit plugin, which is essential for Chinese.)
  • As a beginner, you may have a hard time knowing what to add now and what to leave alone for now. To get really good results you have to choose the right words to add, and knowing what to add is a skill.
  • The DIY factor: the more effort you put into making flashcards (or any learning activity), the better you’re going to remember it. Another way to put it is: “easy come, easy go.”

Pro: Regular review is all prepared for you

  • Regular review is prepared, on a schedule that you choose!
  • You can set the number of words in each review.

Con: Regular review is always prepared for you

  • If you have a ton of flashcards, the amount of reps you need to do every day can be a burden.
  • Setting the number of words you review every day may not work well if you’re adding way more words than you’re reviewing.
  • If daily flashcard reviews become a chore that you dread (and the majority of the time that you spend “studying”), it can sap your motivation for learning.

Pro: You never forget anything

  • ‘Nuff said! Never forgetting has quite an appeal.
  • Some people even go so far as to think of their SRS vocabulary as an extension of their own memory. (Is that a pro? Not sure!)

Con: You’re not allowed to forget anything

  • If you’ve added words of questionable usefulness, they will become “leeches,” showing up in your reviews again and again, but never showing up in your studies, conversations, or readings. (This can be obvious, in which case you might just delete it, but it can also be very subtle, and hard to determine if you should keep the word or not.)
  • Not all words have equal value, and SRS doesn’t (normally) make any kind of value determination; it assumes that you need to master every single word, and each word is treated equally.

SRS Appeals to Certain Types of Learners

Over the years of working with lots of different learners of Chinese through AllSet Learning, I have noticed a very clear trend: analytical, programmer-types loooove SRS. It’s the efficiency of it, having the “checklist” where nothing gets omitted. These types of learners can find SRS a Godsend which changes their studies completely, and they often evangelize for SRS quite a bit.

However, learners much more interested in talking in Chinese, or reading in Chinese, may find the preoccupation with flashcards a bit off-putting and unnecessary. If you really are speaking Chinese all day, or reading for hours and hours every week, you may not need SRS flashcards as much.

Which type of learner are you? How useful have SRS flashcards been in your own studies?

Podcast Discussion

Jared and I covered this exact topic in the You Can Learn Chinese podcast, episode #55. The main discussion on SRS takes place 07:00~31:50 (about 25 minutes).


Here are some of my past posts about SRS:

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. John, like most people who talk about Flashcards, you give the credit to the wrong person (Leidner, Wozniak, …),. Actually, the whole idea about the benefits of distributed learning goes back to Ebbinghaus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgetting_curve), and the work of Jost (google “law of Jost”), i.e., research carried out at the end of the 19th century (http://amygdala.psychdept.arizona.edu/Jclub/Alin-Memory_Laws_Jost.pdf). Apart from that, I fully share your insights and conclusions concerning language learning. (http://pageperso.lif.univ-mrs.fr/~michael.zock/)

    • Thank you for pointing that out! I don’t mean to deny anyone credit.

      But Woźniak’s Supermemo was still the first implementation of the modern “SRS” concept, even if it built upon others’ research, correct?

  2. I find SRS incredibly boring, but I’m still sticking to it. I can’t deny how much it’s helped my reading abilities, and recognizing a word that I hadn’t encountered outside of SRS for months while reading native material is a thrill. It’s not as useful for speaking, listening, etc., but I have other ways to improve those.

    The key to successful SRS for me has been to only add words I’ve already previously encountered. Adding set lists of words with no prior context is a trap. Also, I use Pleco’s in-built SRS, so I don’t spend too much time customizing flashcards, but if I feel that the dictionary definition of a new word doesn’t quite get at what that word actually means, then I’ll supplement the flashcard with the sentence I encountered that word in.

  3. For those interested in another spacing method to remember foreign vocabulary items then I suggest The Gold List by Uncle Davey. It’s very low tech. All you need is a pen and exercise book with a hardback cover. The space intervals recommended are vastly different to the Anki default mode – or for that matter Pimsleur. The spaces are much longer. The argument is the harder it is to retrieve a memory then the better it will transfer to long term memory. In fact, the space intervals recommended appear to defy conventions. Uncle Davey does make it clear the method is for building passive vocabulary.

    Speaking of passive vocabulary, I believe Wozniak also makes it clear on his site anti-moon: you do more reading of comprehensible input than SRSing. Half an hour a day of SRS is more than enough.

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