play/read time: 20 minutes
by nicky case · oct 2018
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory... ...was the mother of the Muses, the goddesses of inspiration. music theatre weird fanfic So, how's Memory and Inspiration doing in schools? bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla Yeah. Not only are common practices like lectures, cramming, and re-reading boring, science has shown they don't even work well.* * all sources and links will be at the end of this comic! But what if I said there's a way to learn that's evidence-based and fun? What if I said there's a memory card game you can play, for 20 minutes a day, to store anything you choose into long-term memory, forever?* * until you die And it's awesome. I started using Spaced Repetition earlier this year to learn French. In two months, I learnt more words than I did in two years of high school French classes. Since then, I've used Spaced Repetition to remember all sorts of things... ukulele chords computer code friends' birthdays anything interesting i find in books, talks, articles, etc! ...and this lil' memory card game became a core part of my life. In short, Spaced Repetition = testing + time. You test yourself on a fact repeatedly, spacing out your repetitions over time. (But won't this take forever? Ah, as we'll see later, there's a trick...) Spaced Repetition is free, evidence-based, and so simple you can do it with a shoebox. nicky shut up So, what's the catch? Why isn't everyone already doing Spaced Repetition? Well, the catch is that making any new habit is hard – especially a weird habit like Spaced Repetition. teacher's coming That's why I made this badly-drawn interactive comic. In this comic on Spaced Repetition, I'll show you WHY it works, HOW it works... ...and help you get started with it TODAY. Also, throughout this comic, you can test yourself on what you've learnt, at spaced-out intervals. That is: you'll use Spaced Repetition to learn about Spaced Repetition.

Like so:
Still, isn't "rote memorization" bad? Can't we look everything up these days? Shouldn't we learn creativity & critical thinking instead? There is no "instead". Cognitive science shows you need memorization for creativity & critical thinking. (Imagine writing an essay if you know no words!) MEMORY art science Spaced Repetition isn't a "study trick". It isn't a "life hack". It's a way to take back control of your mind. To make long-term memory a choice. To develop a lifelong love of learning... mother your own, inner Muse. Tony Stark nearly gasped as a gloved hand trailed down his spine. The steady pressure was smooth and almost reassuring. Obama chuckled. “You mean, the– Let's begin.
In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus performed an act of scientific masochism. The German psychologist memorized thousands of nonsense words, recorded how much he forgot over time, and discovered... THE FORGETTING CURVE He found that you forget most of what you learn in the first 24 hours, then – if you don’t practice recall – your remaining memories decay exponentially.* * technically the curve isn't exactly
exponential, but, eh, close enough.
Philosophers have debated about memory for millennia, but Ebbinghaus was the first to do actual experiments. (which have been replicated) plz... kill... me... For that reason, Hermann Ebbinghaus is known as the pioneer of the science of memory. Here’s a playable simulation of the Forgetting Curve. Change the rate of memory decay. What happens to the curve? As you can see, the less the decay, the flatter the curve – that is, the longer the memory lasts. How fast a person’s memory decays depends on the person and the memory... hi! sorry, what's your name again? haha. it's susan. But in general, a memory’s “rate of decay” slows down each time you actively recall it. (versus passively re-reading it) susan. susan. susan. susan. susan. (although, when you stop practicing, it still decays.) okay bye sarah! susan. bye sandy! SUSAN. Here’s the simulation again, with a single active recall session.
(grey line: what memory would've been without the recall)
Change the recall timing to see how it affects the curve:
A single recall boosts memory for a bit... but in the long run, due to exponential decay of memory, a single recall changes nothing. Is there a better way to learn? There is! The trick to remembering... to almost forget. To understand this, think about training your muscles. You’ll gain nothing with a weight that’s too easy... ...nor one that’s too hard. The same’s true of training your brain. You need desirable difficulty: the sweet spot of just-hard-enough. comfort discomfort too easy just right too hard Therefore: to best learn something, you need to recall it... ...just as you’re about to forget it. Same simulation as before, but now it shows the sweet spot – where you’ve forgotten just a little bit. Put the recall in the middle of the sweet spot. What happens? See? If you time a recall just right, you can slow down the decay by a bit! Now, what about multiple recalls? Let’s say you’re lazy time-efficient, so you’re only doing 4 recall sessions. Question: what’s the best way to spread out your recalls? susan Should you have evenly spaced gaps? Gaps of increasing length? Gaps of decreasing length? Or make it unpredictable, to keep you on your toes? = recall time even gaps: increasing gaps: decreasing gaps: random gaps: Give it your best guess, then when you’re ready, flip the card over ↓ Which is very counter-intuitive! You can prove to yourself this is true, by playing with the sim below. Get all recalls into the middle of the sweet spot. What spacing do you get? (To prove this isn't a fluke, here’s a sim where you can change the initial memory decay & sweet spot. Note how, in all but the extreme cases, the best schedule is still “increasing gaps”!) Why must the gaps increase? Because: each time you do a recall at the sweet spot of forgetting, the memory’s decay slows down... it's SUSAN! –the fu ...meaning it’ll take longer to hit the sweet spot next time! But you know what’s sweeter? This also means if you time your recalls just right... can easily keep any number of things in your long-term memory, FOREVER. And speaking of doing active recall in order to learn, let's do some active recall on what we just learnt: Well that's nice, but actually finding a good Spaced Repetition schedule must be hard, right? Au contraire! It’s actually so simple, you can even create your own automatic scheduler... ...using a shoebox.
You don't have to use a shoebox for Spaced Repetition, but it's funnier if you do. and this is my private tutor ??? they're TRAINERS we're not friends anymore (Later, we'll look at some Spaced Repetition apps, like Anki & Tinycards) This setup is called The Leitner Box. It's like a card game you play against yourself! First, divide your box up into seven "Levels". (You can have more or fewer if you like!) All new flashcards start at Level 1. (If you're new to Spaced Repetition, I recommend starting with 5 new cards a day.) When you review a card, and get it right, it moves up one Level. (If you're at the final Level, congrats! Your card retires. Off it goes, to card heaven.) But if you review a card, and get it wrong... it has to go all the way back down to Level 1. (If it's already at Level 1, good news: you can keep testing yourself on it until you get it right, and move it up to Level 2) But when do we review cards? That's the trick. In the Leitner Box, we review Level 1 cards every day, Level 2 every two days, Level 3 every FOUR days, Level 4 every EIGHT days, etc... The pattern is: we double the gap (# of days between reviews) for each Level! Here's what the looping 64-day game calendar looks like: (Note: the reason we review Level 1 at the end is so you'll see your new cards and the cards you forgot from higher Levels.) (At the end of a daily game of Spaced Repetition, leave no cards in Level 1. Test yourself until you can get them all right, and move them up to Level 2!) (Note #2: Spaced Repetition apps like Anki use a more sophisticated algorithm...) (...but at its core, they work on the same principles as the Leitner Box) (Note #3: Oh, and with a few index cards & tape, you can make your own foldable, looping calendar!) (at the end, I'll link to a video tutorial for crafting a Leitner Box) Now, to show the game in action! Here's a step-by-step simulation of the Leitner Box: (we'll see a month-by-month sim later) Each daily review takes 20-30 minutes. Instead of watching a TV episode, you could play a card game – and remember anything you want for life. However, habits are hard. If you start big, you won't get the ball rolling... But if you start small, you can gain momentum, and roll your snowball bigger and bigger. That's why I recommend starting with 5 new cards a day. Once you're comfortable with that, you can do 10 new cards/day. Then 15. Then 20, 25, 30. And at 30 new cards a day, you can learn 10,000+ new facts/words/etc a year. na na na na na na na na na katamari damacy Now, here's the month-by-month simulation. Use this to calculate in advance how much you can learn with Spaced Repetition! That's it. That's how you can make long-term memory a choice. Let's let that sink in. Take a break, and recall what we just learnt: Spaced Repetition almost seems too good to be true.
And it is... IF you fall for some very common pitfalls.
Memory isn't a bookshelf where you collect random giant tomes to impress others. a bunch of crap you'll never get around to reading That's to say: Spaced Repetition will fail if your cards feel bloated, disconnected or meaningless. Instead, memory is like a jigsaw puzzle: full of small, connected pieces. (This is also how neurons work: lots of small, connected things) It's not about collection, it's about connection. Thus, to get the most out of Spaced Repetition, you must make your cards... SMALL CONNECTED & MEANINGFUL Let's see how. SMALL This card sucks: It's too big. Too much information. Let's cut it up into smaller, connected pieces! As a rule of thumb, each flashcard should have one & only one idea. Like so: Facts connect to facts. But there's other, more playful ways for cards to be... CONNECTED This card is... alright. It's an English word on the front, French word on the back. It's the standard for most language-learning flashcards: But you know what would make it stick in memory better? If you connected it to pictures, sounds, context, and/or personal details! Like so: The front now has a drawing of a cat (picture) with a fill-in-the-blank French sentence (context: grammar) about my childhood cat, Stripes. (personal) The back now has a symbol of the noun's gender (picture), its pronunciation (sound*), and a warning about the female version of the noun. (context: slang) * Obviously, paper cards can't play sounds. But apps like Anki/Tinycards can! But the most important connection of all, is to connect your learning to something that is... MEANINGFUL Personally, here's how I've learnt best: First, I try (emphasis on try) to do something. play the ukulele read french comics make a web game Inevitably, I'll get stuck. In that moment, I'll look up what I need, and learn something. how do you play F#? what's "attraper" mean? why is javascript such a piece of sh– And so on. That, I believe, is the best way to keep yourself motivated while learning: By making sure your learning is in service of doing something you care about. Speaking of learning, let's practice recalling what we've learnt: (this will be the second-last time!) The consensus in the Spaced Repetition community is, after a while, you should make your own cards. This way, you can connect facts to what you know, what you love. That's why, in the final part of this interactive comic, you're going to make your own cards! And those cards will be about... YOU
To help you get started with Spaced Repetition today, you need to answer four questions: WHAT? WHY? HOW? WHEN? You'll answer these questions by making flashcards! So, here's the front of our first flashcard, our first question: For example, you could use Spaced Repetition to help you learn... a new language a new instrument computer programming details of friends' lives anything interesting you find, anywhere! all the pokémon Now, you write your answer on the back: (note: you can scroll back here & change your answer later) However, recall that for Spaced Repetition to work, you need to connect it to something you care about. So our next question is: That may be too philosophical, so here's some concrete examples of a why behind a what: WHAT: a new language
WHY: to speak to friends, family, lovers in their native tongue
WHAT: computer programming
WHY: to make money so you can eat
WHAT: anything interesting
WHY: curiosity, for its own sake!
So... what's your why?
You now have your what and why... but we still need to pick a how! That is, what tool/app do you want to use? Our next card asks: I currently use The Leitner Box, but my friends use Anki, and for a while I used TinyCards. (links open in new tabs) Here's how they compare: Leitner Box
Pros: arts-and-craftsy, easy to use
Cons: not as portable as an app
Anki (app)
Pros: huge community, open-source, lots of powerful features
Cons: kinda ugly
TinyCards (app)
Pros: beautiful design, easy to use
Cons: max 150 cards per deck, doesn't let you decide if you got a card right
(Want something else? Here's a few other tools: SuperMemo, NimbleNotes, Mnemosyne) * anti-disclaimer: i am not affiliated with any of these. i just think they're cool & helpful!
So, what's it gonna be? Just one card left! Now: doing Spaced Repetition is actually quite easy... however, doing it as a daily habit is hard. Why? Because getting the ball rolling on any new habit is hard. Hard, but straightforward. The science of habits shows that if you do the same thing, given the same cue, over and over... have a nice day! thanks, you too! happy holidays! thanks, you too! here's your change! thanks, you too!'ll become a habit, for better or worse. So for a Spaced Repetition habit, our question is: For example, you could play the Spaced Repetition game... after you wake up on your commute before sleeping It doesn't really matter when you do it, as long as you do it daily and consistently (more or less - you can skip a day once in a while). (Tip: whenever I try to create a new habit, I draw a circle on a calendar for each day I successfully do it) (It's a game I play with myself! The goal is to try not break my streak, and build the longest chain I can.) Now, let's fill out that final flashcard: Et voilà, here's all four of your flashcards, all about you!

But like I said, I want to help you take control of your memory today. Not "eventually", not "tomorrow", TODAY. so to help... let's download some COOL GOODIES FIRST: to remind you to play the Spaced Repetition game daily!

(click to download ↓)
SECOND: And finally, THIRD: a .zip of all the flashcards you've been practicing in this interactive comic! (These can be your first few days' worth of Spaced Repetition cards, to help you get started! And as a plus, you'll get to remember everything you learnt here today, forever-ish.) Which reminds me... one last goodbye, for old time's sake, the final swan song! ...let's review our flashcards, all of them: Sniff... It's always so hard to say goodbye... HONK I'll miss the time we had together... ...but I hope we live on in each others' memories! If you're a student, I hope Spaced Repetition helps you be more confident, and take learning into your own hands. If you're a teacher, please oh please tell your students about Spaced Repetition (& other evidence-based study habits) early on. But whether you're in or out of school, I hope Spaced Repetition helps you develop your memory, your mind, your Muse... "no!" screamed the mitochondria, as she slid down the cell's warm, wet throat. "i don't– ...and learn one of life's greatest loves: a lifelong love of learning. (Want to learn/play more? Further reading & credits below!)
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
Written, drawn, and programmed by
Nicky Case

Also, this interactive comic is PUBLIC DOMAIN meaning you can freely use this thing for educational, personal, or even commercial purposes. You already have my permission! (Download the code) (Translate this comic)

However, I'm only able to do this thanks to my 1,000+ Patreon supporters. They let me keep doing what I love. Thank you! 💖 (Wanna chip in too? Click here!)

Further Reading

Something something shoulders of giants. Here are the reads that made Spaced Repetition a part of my daily life:

And my favorite reads on the science of learning:

And if you want to learn-by-playing more stuff, check out Explorable Explanations! 🕹️

More Thanks

👀 Thank you to all my playtesters for making this project not suck: Aatish Bhatia, Adam Filinovich, Aimee Jarboe, Alex Jaffe, Amit Patel, Andy Matuschak, B Cavello, Chris Walker, Frank Lantz, Gal Green, Glen Chiacchieri, Hamish Todd, Henry Reich, Jacque Goupil, James Lytle, Jez Swanson, Josh Comeau, Kayle Sawyer, Levi Robertson, Marcelo Gallardo, Martyna Wasiluk, Michael Nielsen, Mikayla Hutchinson, Mike Gifford, Monica Srivastava, Owen Landgren, Paul Butler, Paul Simeon, Philipp Wacker, Pontus Granström, Rowan, Sebastian Morr, SpacieCat, Tanya Short, Tim & Alexandra Swast, Tom Hermans, Toph Tucker, Will Harris-Braun, Zeno Rogue

📹 Thank you Chris Walker for making the Leitner Box crafting video! (P.S: Chris makes interactive stuff, too!)

🐞 Thank you Omar Rizwan for helping me figure out Mobile Safari's endless pit of bugs

🔊 This project was made with Creative Commons assets from Wikimedia Commons and FreeSounds. (See full credits)

💖 And again, huge thanks to all my Patreon supporters who made this possible:

🙏 And finally, thank you for being the kind of person who sits through the credits! You can play more of my stuff, follow me on Twitter, or support me on Patreon. I sincerely hope this comic could help you, in whatever small way.

Happy learning!
~ Nicky Case

Intro · The Science · The Art · Get Started! · Credits try to recall ↑ then flip ↻ (cards left: [N]) did you remember this? nah, try again yup, onwards! done for now! keep scrolling
that's all, folks!
strength of memory → time → decay: sweet spot: timing of recall: timing of recalls: auto-optimize! On Day [N]... review Levels [N] (in that order) (and then loop back to Day 1!) Day [N] to review: Level review Level [N] add [N] new cards total: [N] cards! ([N] retired) next step next day next week next month [N] new cards a day recall [N]% of cards wrong RESET Q: type your answer here or pick one of these suggestions:
  • Anything interesting!
  • A language
  • Music
  • Coding
  • Personal
  • (other)
  • For people I love
  • For my own sake
  • For curiosity's sake
  • (other)
  • Leitner Box
  • Anki
  • TinyCards
  • (other)
  • In the morning
  • On my commute
  • In the evening
  • (other)
  • WHAT: WHY: DO ME! wallpaper a wallpaper for your desktop, a lock-screen wallpaper for your phone, a video, by my dear friend Chris Walker, on how to craft your very own Leitner Box!

    (And here's a similar tutorial, in IKEA form:)

    click to download PDF
    a link to download Anki! And here's a video tutorial on how to use it:

    a link to TinyCards! (i recommend checking out their geography decks) links to tutorials on crafting a Leitner Box [video] [pdf], the Anki app, and TinyCards! DOWNLOAD ALL CARDS DOWNLOADING... DONE! Check your Downloads folder. How To Remember Anything Forever-ish an interactive comic on the art & science of memory
    and the name of this game is...
    Spaced Repetition = ____ + ____
    testing + time
    3 common but ineffective learning/teaching practices are...
    ...lectures, cramming, and re-reading
    In Greek Mythology, the goddess of ____ was the mother of the goddesses of ________
    Memory is the mother of Inspiration
    the best way to space out your recalls is...
    ...with increasing gaps!
    The pioneer of the experimental science of memory was...
    Hermann Ebbinghaus
    The Forgetting Curve (without any recalls) looks like...
    (note: it decays quickly, then slowly - "exponential decay")
    The Forgetting Curve (with well-spaced recalls) looks like...
    (note: the gaps between recalls increase in length)
    In the Leitner Box, we ______ the gap (# of days between reviews) for each Level
    double the gap
    The Leitner Box game:
    when you get a card right, you move it ______ .
    up one Level
    The Leitner Box game:
    when you get a card wrong, you move it ______ .
    back to Level 1!
    According to some random comic-game on the internet, my Spaced Repetition flashcards should be ______ , ______ , and ______ .
    small, connected & meaningful
    What's this?
    This organelle is called "mitochondria". Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. They're found in almost all eukaryotic (nucleus-having) organisms. The most widely-accepted hypothesis for the origin of mitochondria is Endosymbiotic Theory: around ~1.5 billion years ago, a prokaryotic (nucleus-lacking) cell that was "eaten" by another cell, somehow survived, and has continued to live inside them ever since.
    What's this?
    Mitochondria is the _______ of the cell
    powerhouse // bonus note: seriously though, we'd all be dead without 'em.
    Mitochondria is found in almost all ____ organisms.
    Eukaryotes are cells that...
    have a nucleus // bonus note: "eu"=good, "karyon"=kernel
    Prokaryotes are cells that...
    DON'T have a nucleus // bonus note: "pro"=before, "karyon"=kernel
    The most widely-accepted hypothesis for the origin of mitochondria is...
    Endosymbiotic Theory // bonus note: "endo"=inner, "sym"=together, "bio"=living
    According to Endosymbiotic Theory, mitochondria arose around ____ years ago
    ~1.5 billion years ago
    According to Endosymbiotic Theory, mitochondria first arose when...
    when a prokaryote was eaten by another cell
    then back to doing... ↻
    then back to learning... ↻
    WHAT do you want to learn?
    Anything interesting!
    WHY do you want to learn?
    For curiosity's sake
    HOW do you want to do Spaced Repetition?
    Leitner Box
    WHEN do you want to do Spaced Repetition?
    In the evening