Spaced repetition: Tips and tricks on how to get the best out of it

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I used spaced repetition to learn Russian as my first foreign language and found it to be an extremely effective tool. I was able to memorize and master things much faster than the average student. I can’t put it down to talent as I was terrible at French when we studied it at school.

When I returned to chess I wanted to use the same powerful study technique so I googled “space repetition chess” and discovered Chessable for the first time. In this article, we will explore what spaced repetition is, why it’s such a powerful learning tool, how to best make use of it and common mistakes to avoid.

Chessable developer William Hoggarth
Chessable developer William Hoggarth

There are other ways of studying too (the woodpecker method for example) and one might want to also optimize for pleasure rather than retention if the improvement isn’t a key goal. But in any case, a good understanding of spaced repetition will help you better understand the Chessable platform and make more informed choices about how you study.

How spaced repetition works

The idea is based on two simple observations – we forget things over time, and the stronger our memory of something the longer it takes us to forget it.

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We don’t want to repeat our study of something we know well, as it will be a waste of effort. Equally, we don’t want to put off reviewing material until we’ve long forgotten it, as we’ll have to learn it all over again.

The ideal approach is to review something just before you are about to forget it, allowing you to strengthen the memory without having to review it too frequently.

Spaced repetition: Chessable uses methods rooted in science to revolutionise chess learning
Spaced repetition: Chessable uses methods rooted in science to revolutionize chess learning

Once something has been reviewed and the memory strengthened, it will be longer until the next point of forgetting is reached. So the gap between reviews will steadily increase.

Using this technique we can memorize the maximum amount of information with the minimum of effort. This makes spaced repetition a really powerful tool.

The concept is not so very far from a common-sense understanding of the practice. Things you can do easily don’t need much practice, but things that you find hard should be practiced more frequently until they become easy.

For more information and the science behind spaced repetition, click here.

Tips and traps

Pace yourself with the Time Planner

In a rush of enthusiasm, it can be all too easy to study a lot of material only then to be promptly swamped a large number of reviews. There are two ways to prevent this from happening. Firstly, make sure you do all your reviews before studying new material, and secondly keep an eye on the Time Planner to see how the reviews are adding up for the future. Find a target number of reviews for the day and use that to determine whether you need to be adding more new material or doing more reviews.

It may seem like this slows down your pace of study, which indeed it does, but it only serves to underline the fact that it takes time to really absorb the material on an ongoing basis. No-one became a chess master in one day. By pressing ahead too quickly you always run the risk of forgetting old things as fast as you are learning new things.

Do your spaced repetition reviews regularly

In the ideal world, an item should be reviewed as soon as it becomes due, but that’s not always practical, we have to work and sleep, etc. However, a good habit is to try to get your reviews down to as close to 0 as possible at least once a day. Consistent daily practice is key.

If you leave reviews for too long, they accumulate, creating a backlog. Equally the longer you leave the spaced repetition review the more likely it is you will go past the point of forgetting and will need to relearn the item from scratch.

Deal with problematic material

Sometimes you may find that you are reviewing an item again and again. For whatever reason, you are not retaining it on a long term basis. If you let too many of these items build up, they’ll take up the majority of your review time and you’ll see little benefit from it. If something is costing you time in this way you must be ruthless in dealing with it. There are several options depending on the root cause of the problem.

If you have a PRO membership you can use the “Difficult Moves” feature to see where you are making the most mistakes and which moves are therefore taking up most of your time. Then you can choose your plan of action.

You can improve your understanding by rereading the explanations that accompany the variation and watching the associated video if available. You can also analyze the position with the computer, trying out different moves with our “Analysis Board” feature. If other people are finding a position challenging there may be helpful comments written by them when you view the variation. Lastly, there is our “Ask a master” feature for when you need the insight that a strong player can bring.

You can also pause variations, this is especially useful if something is too difficult for you or if you feel it’s not that important to learn. Remember that there are many more positions and variations to be mastered, don’t get too attached to something if it’s proving problematic. You can always come back to it later when you’ve improved your knowledge or skill and are ready to learn it.

Don’t archive your courses

If you are steadily working through a course and consistently doing your spaced repetition reviews then over time, due to the increasing intervals between reviews, the workload will get less and less until it’s barely noticeable. However, if you archive the course then slowly over time you will begin to forget the contents.

Conclusion

We’ve covered the concepts behind spaced repetition, why it’s so effective and how to implement it in practice, but this post only scratches the surface of the subject. We’d love to hear your comments, questions, and feedback. Look out for future posts on this topic and other approaches to chess study!

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