Spaced repetition software: Effective learning for GCSE science

What is spaced repetition software, and how can it benefit students in their revision? Adam Duhamel takes a deep dive into revision software program, Anki

From GCSE to degree level, qualifications in the UK all rely on memorisation of information as a means to test students on their learning.

Whether or not this is a valid means of proving the value of educational programmes is not relevant for this discussion. Students find themselves in a game where memorisation is the key to winning – and the prize could be very valuable, considering the importance of grades to potential employers and university selectors.

In the absence of work experience, grades become one of the principal indicators of workplace performance. Achieving the highest grades could land you that well paid job, or that sought-after position at a prestigious university.

The question students should ask themselves is: “how can I remember all of the information that my qualification demands?”. This article will address the technological portion of powerful knowledge acquisition strategy spaced repetition software, and more specifically the program Anki.

Spaced repetition software, of which Anki is one example, attempts to act as a practical application of the science behind learning. The principle behind spaced repetition is to repeatedly show the information or concept to an individual at intervals which are determined by an algorithm, with the goal of making the transition from short term to long term storage in the brain.

The idea itself is not at all new – it stems all the way back to 1885, when a revolutionary paper by Ebbinghaus formalised the three main factors which determine our likelihood of remembering something:

  • The number of time we have seen the information.
  • The amount of time between reviews.
  • How recently the last review was.

This process occurs regularly in our everyday experience. A good example is remembering phone numbers – the numbers that we regularly use become fixed in our minds and constantly within reach. You could probably recall several such numbers right now with ease.

We have a similar experiences with other kinds of numbers and letters, such as account numbers or passwords and usernames. These we tend to use more infrequently, particularly with the rise of automated systems and password managers. We have all experienced the frustration of forgetting these numbers, yet if we had simply entered the password each time we would be unable to forget it. We will now explain how students can use this feature of our memory to extract the most out of precious little revision time.

The most basic application of spaced repetition is using flashcards with snippets of information on each card, typically a question on one side and an answer on another. The learner goes through the flashcards, attempting to guess the answer from each card before being shown the correct answer.

The order of the cards would ideally be randomised and possibly even flipped from time to time, depending on the suitability of the content. The learner would then repeat this process as frequently as possible to maximise retention. This can be problematic though, since the cards themselves need to be bought or made, manually prepared, written, and stored.

Additionally, research has shown that the spaced repetition algorithm itself is a major factor in the effectiveness of the strategy. Manual flashcard use is unlikely to be an optimum strategy and increasing the efficiency of learning could dramatically reduce the amount of time required. We therefore need a technological solution to reach this optimum efficiency since a simple shuffle and go technique is suboptimal at best.

We can use the program Anki to handle the spaced repetition algorithm for us and also to store the information we wish to learn in a suitable format. Anki comes as a free piece of software for desktops and laptops and a paid option exists for mobile and tablet usage.

Individual “decks” can be built with “subdecks” in a hierarchical fashion to organise your learnings in an efficient way. Each question-answer pair is known as a “card” or a “note” and there are multiple different types of questions which are designed to match the type of information.

The most simple type of question is called “basic” and is the digital equivalent of a traditional flashcard which may also be flipped if desired. The second type of question that we recommend is the closed deletion “cloze” type which acts as a fill-in-the-blank question.

Between these two question types, most kinds of information can be learned and reinforced on Anki. A final bonus is that we can use the Ankiweb integration in order to save our progress, create backups and synchronise with different devices. 

Now we will explain how the program should be used to pass GCSE science as an example. Note that this process is suitable for other subjects as well as A-Levels and degree level learning. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that Anki is a go to tool for medical students at universities in both the UK and the US. 

The first step is to start early. When a learner starts a GCSE in science they should immediately begin preparing their Anki deck and subdecks – they can name the deck ‘GCSE science’ before making three subdecks for the main fields of biology, chemistry, and physics.

Using a textbook as a guide, the learner can then create separate subdecks for each topic under these three fields. The naming and numbering conventions of the textbook could be followed as a guide to keep things tidy. It is the learner’s choice whether or not they make these decks at the beginning or as they go along. Each week at school they will learn new material and gradually fill in the subdecks with questions and answers. The specification should be used in order to make sure that nothing is missed and that at least one question refers to each point in the specification.

As a quick tip, images should be used wherever possible – they increase the ease of learning as they quickly become associated with concepts in our minds and make them easier to recall. Cloze questions should be used where possible, with suitable words or small sections of text blanked out. Where the cloze type is unsuitable, the basic card type should be used. When the student makes these questions they will be forced to understand the points, which will make learning them much easier. 

The next step is to review the decks at least once per week and more often towards exam season. Anki is a very powerful tool and it is possible to adjust the settings of the spaced repetition algorithm to suit the student’s preferences, although we would recommend that you use the default settings as they have been designed and optimised to meet most applications.

If they do want to go down the rabbit hole of adjusting the algorithm, we suggest this article on just that, but beware, there is a host of different terminology to learn and trial and error is the name of the game. For most people, the default settings will be more than adequate and quite a dramatic improvement on manual flashcard use. The approach from this point should be to review the new subdecks once a week for a few weeks until they are relatively familiar, moving on to the new subdecks that they can make once those are complete.

Every two weeks the main three subdecks – biology, chemistry, and physics – should be reviewed. These will contain questions from all of their respective subdecks. Once a month, the student should review the entire deck.

The final thing to cover in this article is what to actually do when studying on Anki. The answer is quite simple – the student needs to attempt to answer the questions that they have prepared, without cheating, and they need to be honest with themselves about their performance.

Did they know the answers? Did they understand the concepts? If the answer is yes, they can press the button “Easy”, and the question will return another day.

If they had some understanding but maybe they forgot something or it was difficult to recall, they can press “Good”. This button will send the card to rest for a medium interval and, depending on whether they have pressed it before, may not come back that day.

If the student really struggled to recall then they should press “Hard”, meaning the question will return at a short interval.

Finally, if they get the question wrong, the “Again” button will keep the card in the rotation for that day in order to give the learner another chance to remember the answer. 

This has been a simplification of the software and there are multiple concepts and strategies that we haven’t covered. However, this strategy alone should be enough, paired with some more traditional revision tactics, to lead to a brilliant GCSE result that students can be happy with.

To conclude, it is important to note that this strategy will not work if the student does not understand the material. They need to put the work in and seek help from a tutoring service where necessary. Though it is a powerful strategy, it is not a free lunch. 

If you would like to learn more about how to use anki or would like to find a GCSE tutor, please reach out to Discover Tutoring for more information.

You might also like: Edtech firm SoundbiteLearning presented with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise 2021

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