SRS For the Rest of Us

Top language learners swear by it.

It’s scientifically proven to be the best way to memorize anything.

So why hasn’t spaced repetition learning gone mainstream – in language learning and elsewhere?

How come people are still studying words in the order they wrote them down in their notebooks?

In case you’re unfamiliar with SRS (spaced repetition learning systems), it’s based on the basic premise that there is an ideal time to review anything – right when you’re about to forget it. Too early and you’re over-reviewing something you know. Too late and it’s like you’re starting from scratch. (The problem with studying words in the order they appear in your notebook is that the order is arbitrary; you overstudy some words will understudying other words).

The promise of SRS is that you can memorize more efficiently by letting computers handle the “ordering” part.

So if it’s so good why isn’t everyone using SRS? I think there are a few reasons:

  1. SRS now involves text-based flashcards — not the most engaging content
  2. SRS now often entails creating your own decks — tracking things down and copying and pasting — who has time for that?
  3. SRS programs now are directed toward the power user — typical users can get bogged down by all the functionality
This suggests that anyone without any of the following qualities will have trouble sticking to an SRS regimen:
  1. iron will
  2. technical savvy
  3. organized (some would say “anal”) personality

And this suggests that SRS adoption could be improved by:

  1. Using interesting content (eg. video clips)
  2. Making it easier for users to fill decks
  3. Simplifying the process so that users are hardly aware that they are using SRS

With FluentU, we’re working on an easier, simpler, and more fun way to do SRS.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

Stay tuned!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

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14 Responses to SRS For the Rest of Us

  1. Sara May 10, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    SRS video clips / tv shows / movies sound like an interesting idea. I’m thinking of something like the Chinese Breeze series turned into a tv series, new vocabs coming up often enough in order to remember them.

    It will be interesting to see how you have decided to combine video and SRS in FluentU.

    • Alan May 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for the kind words! I hadn’t heard of Chinese Breeze before, thanks for the tip. Stay tuned… :)

  2. Olle Linge May 12, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    I wrote a term paper about an experiment using SRS in Swedish high school to teach vocabulary for advanced English student. My conclusion was that it sucked, badly. Students were uninterested, didn’t review as they should and generally didn’t care at all wether the method was effiicient or not.

    I think there has to be some major changes before SRS goes mainstream. I’m afraid what you plan will still be for very motivated students, the majority will still be left in the dark (i.e. those who don’t even bother to go on the internet to find anything at all that may help them).

    I believe this cannot be solved entirely by program developers, it has to be done with serious effort from teachers as well (they have to be able to convince students that SRS is great, or, if nothing else works, find creative ways of “forcing” them to use it). I think SRS will grow gradually, but it will take a long, long time before it’s mainstream.

    • Alan May 12, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

      Hi Olle,

      Interesting that you wrote a term paper about this exact topic. Yes I don’t think that it will be easy to make SRS part of every language learner’s regimen. I agree that a lot of it has to do with attitude, belief, and habits. But I also think that anything that can make process a little bit more frictionless and entertaining can make an impact.

      A mystery that remains for me is why so many language learners continue with vocab notebooks and/or flashcards while not using SRS. I’ve been surprised to see a lot of people who fall into that camp.

      Thanks for the comment,

  3. Daniel May 22, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    I guess I fit the bill for being strong willed techy and anal so eventually it was natural that I ended up using Anki. Hehe. I won’t kid you that it is a pain personally finding and splitting up mandarin sound files to make my own audio cards.

    I have seen some other attempts at utilizing SRS principles elsewhere such as skritter (done well) and iKnow (done poorly). Are you taking into account the strengths of other similar projects online?

    A few concerns.

    One – endless billing. SRSing is a long term comittment, but if you stop paying and lose access to your deck it kind of wrecks the whole point. If everything is on your server end, it makes me feel vulnerable. Skritter are cool with this because paying allows adding new cards, but at any point you can stop paying and retain access to what you have studied so far.

    Two – Having to navigate slow functioning online menu systems (ala iKnow) makes it hard to make/add material of your own. I guess there is always going to be a pay off between functionality and ease of use, but learning a language to a high level of proficiency requires huge amounts of input. Allowing users to generate their own content using videos and text from online is the only realistic way for you to hold on to advanced users methinks.

    • Alan May 22, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for the insightful and valuable comments!

      Regarding Skritter: we have a lot of respect for what they’ve made, and we definitely try to learn from what’s out there.

      Endless billing: that’s a great point and I can really understand what you mean. I think it’s very sensible to let people maintain access and it’s something we’ll strongly consider.

      Slow functioning online menu systems: any system we make would be FAST. If it was slow and hard to navigate that would defeat the purpose.

      Allowing users to generate own content: something that we’ll definitely consider (esp. tags) in the future.

      Thanks and please let us know if you have any more suggestions!

      • Alan May 22, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

        By the way, what is it that you like about how Skritter implements SRS?

        • Daniel May 23, 2012 at 10:05 am #

          You’re welcome. ;-)

          Well the interface is quite nice and clean. It might be silly, but I do like the little ka-ching! and woo-hoo! sounds they give you when you clear ten minutes, twenty minutes, etc. Hehe.

          To be honest though, I am not currently using Skritter. This is because with a bit of light teching around I have a 6000 card deck which contains simplified and traditional hanzi (each version on the same card) linked up to my iPhone via their server. Skritter still does not have their own app up and running yet (though I suppose it might be soon). I also find it annoying that I have to build up Hanzi to study via ‘textbooks’ when all I really want is all the Hanzi I could possibly need to know in one big list organized in a rational way (ie Heisig style). I’m a pretty much in the Khatzumoto/Kaufmann camp and even the word ‘textbook’ turns me off.

          A last though. There are some great sites like Lingq and Skritter out there for learning new languages online, any many of them have different goals/cover different areas. Signing up for each of them individually would be quite expensive though. If only there were some kind of membership sharing conglomoration of several cool language learning sites where you sign on and get access to all. You could give people a discount and hence encourage more traffic, while sharing database resources.

          • Daniel May 23, 2012 at 10:06 am #

            “To be honest though, I am not currently using Skritter. This is because with a bit of light teching around I have a 6000 card — ANKI — deck which contains simplified and traditional hanzi (each version on the same card) linked up to my iPhone via their server.”

          • Alan May 27, 2012 at 10:16 am #

            Thanks a lot for the info! We’ll keep that all in mind as we develop FluentU.

          • Nicki August 1, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

            Re: skritter

            That app you mentioned is out now – although only for IOS, which is a bit frustrating for the people on other platforms.

            As for building your vocab through textbook lists: that is totally not necessary. You can take your whole big personal file of vocab and create a custom list, and add all your vocab that way. It may not be obvious you can do that, but that functionality has been there for a long time.

            Re: FluentU SRS

            Does FluentU currently have their SRS up and running? I don’t see it anywhere on the Beta, but I just started using it today, so I may be missing it…

          • Alan August 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

            Yep Skritter’s an awesome app alright!

            FluentU SRS not up yet… but working on it around the clock… :)

  4. Rachel June 22, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    Thank you for the interesting post. I’m looking forward to seeing FluentU in action.

    I’m new to Anki and find it is helping me to remember hanzi but is also pretty tedious to stick at it…and I’m using suboptimal decks I downloaded rather than bothering with the fiddliness of creating my own…an easier way to do this would make this more appealing (so rather than learning random new vocabulary through Anki, I could use new Hanzi I come across in daily life as on normal written flashcards).

    Skritter looks slick but until I know if this type of method works for me, I’m not sure if it’s worth paying for.

    • Alan June 22, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

      Thanks for the encouragement! Hope we can create something that really delivers for you. Let us know if you have any more thoughts and be sure to sign up for the beta at

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