This Guide Will Help You Decide Whether to Use Anki or SuperMemo
Quick Terminology Recap
SRS = Spaced Repetition Software
Although Anki and SuperMemo are both Spaced Repetition Software (SRS), they are different in many ways. When you are deciding whether to switch from one SRS to another, or stick to your preferred choice, ask yourself:
What are my goals when using Anki/SuperMemo?
What trade-offs am I willing to make to achieve my goals?
What opportunity cost am I willing to take, either sticking to or switching to another SRS?
Ultimately, you have to ask yourself WHY you’re using SRS.
How far are you willing to go?
Are you satisfied with Anki? Are you curious about SuperMemo? Which SRS to use? It depends on your attitude (how much you treasure and how hungry for knowledge) and how far you’re willing to go about your learning.
For example, if you hate your college major and couldn’t wait to get over it, there is no need to use SM to retain the information forever. You don’t need Incremental Reading to read the recommended reading as you won’t be, since the goal is to yield the maximum returns (grades) with the least amount of effort. Also, as all the lecture notes are pre-digested, you just need to put them into Anki and cram. With this goal, Anki could totally satisfy you and help get you that graduate certificate with minimum effort.
As I suspect these are the most cases, in this regard, Anki should satisfy most SRS users: you need a more effective and efficient way (comparing to traditional studying methods) to get through exams and school. Anki could totally get the job done. However, if you’re wondering how much more effective and efficient you can be with your learning, or not satisfied with what Anki provides, then considering SM is not a bad idea.
If you’re serious about your learning, you should also be serious about the tools and methods in which you do your learning.
I Wished Someone Had Told Me This
The Opportunity Cost of Switching vs. Not Switching
It is helpful to consider the opportunity cost of switching vs. not switching. In this context, I am assuming you’re using Anki and curious about SuperMemo.
Switching is like branching out and venturing into the unknown: a new piece of software, questioning your existing beliefs about Anki or SRS in general, your learning philosophy.
One major advantage of trying out is that the cost-and-reward ratio is highly disproportional: The cost is low but the potential rewards is huge. Incremental Reading and a superior algorithm are the two major rewards I discovered and carved from trying and then switching to SM.
This is similar when you first tried Anki. I bet it’s very different from how you usually studied. But now I’m sure you never regretted trying Anki and would never go back to paper-and-pen flashcards (if you did). Trying SuperMemo is like reliving this experience, with its potential gains and loss.
You might need to spend 40 hours figuring how to make it usable and “work” (excluding the time actually using it to learn and remember), but once you do, the rewards can be astronomical. This is like compound interests: the more you use, the more time it will save you.
But are you willing to go the extra mile? Being in your comfort zone of learning (whether it’s highlighting or copying verbatim, or using Anki) is all and well, and most importantly, comfortable. But the courage to try something new might benefit you a way you’ve never imagined. The compound interests will pay off handsomely.
However, if you ultimately don’t find SuperMemo useful, you can always go back to Anki and regard this as a learning opportunity. The only cost is the time invested. You will know more about your study methods and habits. You will have a stronger faith in Anki. After all, you’ve tried SuperMemo: It’s no longer an unknown, that mysterious SRS some people rave about, something that you have merely heard of.
Do You Want to Read AND Remember, or Just Remember in the SRS?
Before you read this session, I recommend you read The Significance of Incremental Reading in SuperMemo Part I and Part II as this session is about Incremental Reading.
Reading and Remembering vs. Remembering
Do I want to learn new things in SRS, or just want to remember things I’ve learned?
This question is quite a determinant factor deciding which SRS to use.
Learning = reading and understanding new things
Remembering = memorizing what you learned
In Anki, you are only doing the remembering part. You are not reading anything new in Anki. Without SM (Incremental Reading specifically), you would need to learn traditionally (reading with a hard copy, lecture notes, PDFs), then import important parts into Anki.
On the other hand, in SM, learning and remembering are blended into one: you read (learn) and review (remember) at the same time. Incremental Reading is essentially “spaced repetition-ing” your reading, just like any SRS that would “spaced repetition” your reviews.
If you want to read new materials and remember them well, Incremental Reading helps tremendously. In this regard, SuperMemo should be your desirable choice.
If you are only trying to remember the things you learned outside of SRS, then Anki is another viable option. For example, for the lecture notes you’ve already gone through in class, you may use Anki to import the important parts just for reviews.
A: Read an article from start to finish. ONLY THEN do you import parts into Anki for remembering
B: Incremental Reading: interleaving between reading and remembering
The quality of your learning outcome is different. I believe B is superior than A, as I explained in here.
Efficiency and effectiveness: Anki vs. SuperMemo
It all comes down to efficiency and effectiveness, aka productivity. The difference between using either Anki or SuperMemo is not as huge as using and not using any SRS. Using either SRS has already given you a huge edge over not using any SRS:
The difference between using any SRS (whether it’s Anki or SM) and not using is huge, but the difference between Anki or SM is not. Which Algorithm is Better? SuperMemo’s or Anki’s? This is like comparing bike vs. bus vs. taxi. Bus and taxi win thousands of miles ahead of bike. Either bus or taxi is “good enough” when you comparing to bike.
The major difference between Anki and SuperMemo is in the long-run. Compound effect is the main driving force. For example, if I have 9000 elements (cards), and it takes 30s less to “remember” in SM than in Anki, then: 9000 x 30 = 270,000s or 75 hr (arbitrary numbers)
The more cards you have, the more time SM could save you. If you plan to use a SRS for less than a year, in terms of reviewing (excluding Incremental Reading), I don’t think there is much difference. However, if you’re a dedicated life-long learner, like compound interests, it will mean a lot.
I have never had any burnout from SM (hopefully never), but I had 2 burnouts from Anki. If I put everything from SM to Anki, the reps would be impossible to finish. Yes, I know my situation (high school vs. college) and content (high school materials I hated vs. self-selected materials) have changed, but it’s just my speculation (and cognitive biases).
As one long-term SuperMemo member said,
Anki is a tool and SuperMemo is a lifestyle.
From an Anki user:
I think SM is only good for a small minority of learners. But they will probably value it very much.
They are absolutely right. Not all people are willing to put up with SuperMemo’s idiosyncrasies. I am still using IR to learn about how to use SuperMemo and constantly surprised to be learning new things and features about this software.
No matter how many comparison articles you read (which was what I did), other people’s experiences and beliefs could never be substituted as your own. Decide for yourself. I hope this guide could help you decide between these two equally amazing pieces of software.