Technology

Why I No Longer Tell My Friends about Anki/SuperMemo

This article Beware of Other-Optimizing by Eliezer Yudkowsky is highly illuminating. I recommend you read it through the lens of “recommending Anki to a friend.” This article is about the problems of giving advice on how to learn.

Spreading the “gospel” to the world

If you deeply believe something, along the lines of “if everyone did it, the world would be much better off.” and have tried convincing other people to do that thing, then you will realize it’s almost impossible to change others’ opinions or behaviors.

Maybe you’re not that ambitious to convince everyone, so you start small: you share it with your friends, but then discovered nobody actually cares or realizes its significance. A mild version is like showing your favorite TV show and they don’t care:



My faith in evidence-based learning strategies is informed by my personal experience and my meta-learning list. I wholeheartedly believe Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) like SuperMemo and Anki is the key to effective and efficient learning. If you believe education is the future, then the knowledge about evidence-based learning strategies is one big key to unlocking that future, both individually and collectively.

The problems in giving advice on how to learn

#1. Nobody cares, alright?

When I first discovered Anki I was like, “How come no one around me knows this?! I need to share this to everyone!” So I would tell my friends about SRS but nobody was interested. I’ve introduced Anki to people and every time it’s a very frustrating experience. (Surprise surprise, not SuperMemo. The learning curve of Anki is much lower. What chance do I have if I preached SuperMemo when they even think Anki is too hard to use?)

Two years ago I was doing my reps in Anki. One friend glanced over and was interested in what I was doing. I talked very enthusiastically about spaced repetition, basic memory science and Anki operations. She sounded excited about the possibility of finally mastering a second language. I will never forget what she said next,

“Doing this every day seems very tiring.”

I was like “Yeah…” I never followed up on her. I figured if she was truly interested, when she bumped into problem she would ask for my help. As expected, we never talked about it and I never mentioned Anki again.


sadFrog

These has happened countless times. I usually look nonchalant on the outside but dying on the inside. People looked interested (probably due to my enthusiasm and it’s impolite to look otherwise) and then never actually bothered to use it. Some would actually try, make a few cards, do the reps for a few days and then say, “I tried and Anki doesn’t work.”

I never liked following up to people with questions like “So how’s Anki? Have you used it?” It feels like pushing an agenda to them. Also, since most would not even bother downloading the app, their response is usually, “I forgot about it. I’ll do it later.” and the conversation would end in an awkward tone.

I’m probably over my head, but sometimes it feels like I’m personally attacked: what I’m saying is not valuable. I understand it’s not true, but it took me years to study the learning science and to gain the experience with Anki/SuperMemo. The fact that they’re dismissing the software feels like they’re dismissing my knowledge and experience.

#2. I’m not sure if I actually want it, alright?

Sometimes people keep lamenting “I want to learn X or I want to get better grades.” How many times do you hear people say they want to learn a second language? This is like that friend who keeps saying “I want to lose weight”. Probably after all, they’re just lamenting and not yet ready to put in the effort to change.

Trying to convince others to use Anki/SuperMemo is like trying to convince your friends to go to the gym regularly. You can talk about the benefits of exercising/weight-lifting, how good you’ll feel afterwards, how much more productive you’ll be and so on. But nothing will work if they don’t try it in the first place, and it doesn’t help that spaced repetition doesn’t work in the short-term since using SRS is a life-long pursuit (just as learning is).

#3. Why are you so hyped about it?

It’s rare if people could understand and realize the significance and application of SRS on learning in a casual 10-min chat. It’s not about the complexity (it’s not rocket science after all), but rather it’s about awareness: problems with current learning approaches and how Anki/SuperMemo could solve the problems. In other words, if I don’t see the problems, why bother changing?

I have a friend who was learning German. She copied German vocabulary on one side and the equivalent English on the other in a notebook. I showed her my Korean Anki cards: “Take a look at these beautiful images! Gifs! Sentence cards! Audio clips! Mass Immersion Approach! (Former: All Japanese All The Time (AJATT)), Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis!” Then I had another friend who was studying to become a nurse. I told him about Anki: “Image occlusion for anatomy!” These are all exaggerated but you get the point: it’s not possible to convey the significance and application of it all in a casual 10-min chat. Caveat: I’m not saying my learning methods are the best; obviously there are personal preferences and caveats. But I do believe all of my methods are at least worth considering. With the benefit of hindsight, all my attempts could’ve been a lot better:

  • Maybe I was so convinced and have so much faith in SRS that I came off as condescending, giving off the impression like “you don’t know how to study; let me teach you.”
  • Maybe it’s the bold claims: “You’ll get 2x results with half the study time.” (How many are really true whenever you hear such claim?)
  • Maybe it’s the situation: all he or she wants is someone to listen about the difficulty of studying, not some real advice or suggestions.

Here’s the guy from How I Passed the Demanding […] Italian Language Exam Without Going to Italy – Here’s a Hint: the 326,538 Flashcard Reviews Helped a Lot.

Like many language teachers, V. had never heard of Anki (but she did know Reverso Context). I showed her how I studied Italian vocabulary, and some Japanese as well. To her credit, she did download the software and a few decks to try out herself. I’m fairly certain she stopped two days after I left. She claimed conversation is the most important thing for learning a language. While I agree in some aspects, there’s no way conversation can cover all the vocabulary in a language.

I’m not immune to cognitive biases

I don’t usually follow people’s recommendations and advice myself. People sometimes talk and share something they’re passionate about with me. I’m like, “Ok… so…?” Do I follow their advice? Not likely. Do I do that thing they preached? Usually not. So I understand when I was treated the same when I was spreading the gospel of Anki to everyone. A taste of my own medicine indeed. What I want to say is, it’s difficult for anyone to change opinions. If you tell me SuperMemo/Anki is a piece of sh*t I would simply flip out.

Conclusion

Should you stop recommending Anki/SuperMemo to a friend? I don’t know you and your friends so I can’t make any generalization. So what’s the takeaway? If you tell your friends about Anki/SuperMemo, don’t be too zealous or else you’re going to scare them off (Source):


scare

This is one reason why I started this blog: if people realize the value of what I’m saying, they would be naturally attracted to my content, so I’ve decided to share what I know online and potentially, with the world. Maybe some will bump into my site; then a subset will get interested and actually give it a shot; then another subset will discover the joy of learning and experience the true power of SRS.

If you want to know more, check out my article Why 99% People Never Learned How To Learn And How to Become That 1% (I) and (II).

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