Spaced Repetition System

Followers of our science-based blog posts are in for a treat today as we turn our attention to the subject of using spaced repetition intelligently.

We have brought some thoughts from earlier posts by William Hoggarth, our Engineering Manager, in from the cold. 

William Hoggarth
William Hoggarth

William’s collaboration with our Science Consultant, Professor Barry Hymer, and Laurens Goormachtigh, of our Research and Development team, brings our readers a fascinating post on the art of using spaced repetition intelligently.

Getting the Most out of Your Chessable Course:
Using Spaced Repetition Intelligently

By William Hoggarth, Laurens Goormachtigh and Professor Barry Hymer

Underpinning the Chessable platform is a powerful learning tool known as the Spaced Repetition System (or SRS for short). SRS is widely used in many domains – for example, in language learning, to accelerate the learning of new vocabulary.

Though we have referenced the role of SRS in several previous blogs and in several places on the platform, in this guide we will explore:

  • What is SRS?
  • Why it’s such a powerful learning tool
  • How to best make use of SRS in pursuit of chess improvement
  • Common mistakes to avoid

There are other ways of studying too (the Woodpecker Method, for example, and (re)reading material from books) and one might want to focus on pleasure rather than retention if improvement isn’t a key goal. But a good understanding of SRS will help you to understand the Chessable platform better and to make more informed choices about how you choose to study.

How Spaced Repetition Works

The idea behind SRS is based on two simple observations:

1. We forget things over time.

2. the stronger our memory of something, the longer it takes us to forget it.

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.

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 memorise 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 practice. Things you can do easily don’t need much practice, but things that you find hard should be practised more frequently until they become easy.

Tips & Traps

Pace Yourself with the Time Planner

In a rush of enthusiasm it can be all too easy to buy loads of courses, study a lot of material, and then to be swamped by a huge number of reviews. This will be psychologically burdensome and dispiriting.

There are two ways to prevent this from happening. First, try to make sure you do all your reviews before studying new material, and second, 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 learning more new material or doing more reviews.

Spaced Repetition System Planning

It may seem like this slows down your pace of study. Actually, it does! But it also serves to underline the fact that it takes time really to absorb material on an ongoing basis. No-one became a Chess Master in one day (well, OK, AlphaZero did, but you get our point ….) By pressing ahead too quickly you always run the risk of forgetting old things as fast as you are learning new things.

Do Your Reviews Regularly

In the ideal world an item should be reviewed as soon as it becomes due, but that’s not always practical as we also have to work, sleep, watch The Queen’s Gambit, learn how to deal with Zoom cat mask filters and various other matters.

The Queen's Gambit
Beth Harmon in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit | photo: Netflix

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 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.

Spaced Repetition Work

You can improve your understanding by rereading the explanations that accompany the variation and watching the associated video if available. You can also analyse 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. 

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 so 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 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.

Remember the Value of Diversity!

Nature values diversity and resilience more than efficiency, and we’d do well to follow this lead when learning chess too. One practical way we can translate this into our Chessable experience is to aim for a good balance of new learning material.

It is quite acceptable (but of course not essential) to keep more than one Chessable course ‘on the go’ at any one time. In fact learning science would encourage this. But rather than focusing on learning a range of new openings, opt instead for one new opening course, a course on middlegame strategy, and one on rook endings (for example). That way your brain will be being stretched in multiple directions, and the SRS will be supporting you along the way – it’s not just good for the acquisition and retention of long lines of opening theory.

After all, as any good coach will tell her pupils, no-one converts an advantage from the opening into a win without also having a wider range of chess skills to call upon. And show resilience by sticking to the review schedule: remember that if you’re keeping multiple courses in the air, let the pace at which you learn new material reflect this!

Conclusion

We’ve covered the concepts behind spaced repetition, why it’s so effective and how to implement it in practice, but this guide 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!

Barry Hymer Chessable Science
Professor Barry Hymer

We encourage and welcome feedback. Please email [email protected].

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