MasterHowToLearn

MasterHowToLearn

Hypothetical Situations: Should I Use Anki, SuperMemo or Both?

2018-11-26 2018-12-01 2020-12-26

I consider this part II of This Guide Will Help You Decide Whether to Use Anki or SuperMemo and I recommend you read that first.

Disclaimer: The content here is partial and completely opinionated (it’s my blog after all), so please take it with a grain of salt. For a more generic (and hence less opinionated) comparison, please read the Comparison Matrix in SuperMemo: First Steps.

Both Anki and SuperMemo are two equally amazing pieces of software. The best tool is the one that suits you the best. I don’t know your particular needs and hence, which SRS will suit you the best. I could only speculate. I’ve envisioned these hypothetical situations to help you decide. Make do with the generalizability. The criteria I have in mind when deciding:

1. Goals (long-term vs. short-term; types of knowledge)

2. Education level (High school vs. College and beyond)

3. Previous SRS background

Quick Terminology Recap

SRS = Spaced Repetition Software

SM = SuperMemo from super-memo.com; NOT the courses, mobile app, application from supermemo.com. They are different.

Items in SuperMemo = Cards in Anki; IR = Incremental Reading

Overview of the 7 Hypothetical Situations

1. If you’ve just stumbled upon this blog and have never heard of Spaced Repetition Software (SRS)…

2. If you’re using SuperMemo…

3. If you’re considering moving away from Anki and switching to SuperMemo…

4. If you’ve decided to stick to Anki…

5. If you are a high school/college student who just wants to get through school…

6. If you are a high school student who wants to be the best of the best, or a college student who aspires to graduate with a 4.0 GPA…

7. If you’re a medical student…

#1 If you’ve just stumbled upon this blog and have never heard of Spaced Repetition Software (SRS)…

tl;dr: I recommend Anki.

This is a tough one. My first thought is that “SM is too difficult for beginners”. Maybe it’s true as from personal observation, more people struggle with how to use SM than Anki. But also, maybe my frustration with SM was due to my prior 5-year experience with Anki. My expectation for SM was based on Anki. I had a preconceived notion of what a SRS should be. When it turned out that SM has a total different ecosystem and UI, it bought me a lot of frustration because of that expectation gap. Just because SM is different from Anki doesn’t mean SM is harder to use per se. Maybe if I had only used SM, I would not have been so frustrated.

But… it would be a huge tragedy and disastrous loss if the idiosyncrasies of SM put you off, making you abandon SRS altogether.

Besides, the “dedication deposit” with Anki is smaller:

1. More convenient. With either Anki or Supermemo, you have to dedicate time to do your reps every day. However, with Anki, you can do so on the go, during commute with Ankidroid/Ankimobile. On the other hand, with SuperMemo, you have to sit down in front of a laptop/desktop to do it.

2. More user friendly. The initial learning curve is not as steep, and you can get your hands on the basics quickly. In Anki, most of the time would be, “Hmm… This properly does this.” In SuperMemo, most of the time would be, “What the hell is this? How do I do what I want?”

3. Reap results faster. The rewards of using either SRS is latent, meaning that you will reap the benefits of your effort in the future, say, the exam 3 weeks later. But you can see results faster with Anki. It is easier to cram with Anki than with SM.

Therefore, it is easier to get “hooked” with Anki. I consider Anki as a gateway drug. If you have experienced the power of spaced repetition and then, are truly hooked, you may decide to try SuperMemo. Even though I consider SM a superior and more advanced SRS, Anki is definitely more suitable to SRS beginners. For example, if you have an exam 3 weeks later and just heard of SRS, I would definitely recommend Anki for its cram-mability, synchronization and user-friendliness.

However, if you’re feeling adventurous, don’t want Anki to color your first impression of “SRS”, then trying SuperMemo isn’t a bad idea. If you’re thinking of giving SM a try, please do so. I did and I’m eternally grateful that I did.

#2 If you’re using SuperMemo…

tl;dr: Stick to SuperMemo.

If you’ve used SM long enough and don’t feel the compulsive need to switch to Anki, then clearly, you’ve adopted to the SM ecosystem. You’re fine with no synchronization across devices; you’ve survived the initial learning curve; you’ve probably have tasted the power of Incremental Reading. However, you might be wondering, “Should I try Anki? Maybe Anki is even better?”

Generally speaking, SuperMemo has features that Anki couldn’t substitute. Two of the most prominent features are a superior algorithm and Incremental Reading. Anki will not have the algorithm SuperMemo 17 uses. There is no workaround for that in Anki. You just have to accept that Anki uses a modified SM-2 and SuperMemo uses SM-17. There is an Incremental Reading addon but the experience will not be the same as in SM.

On the other hand, Anki has features that SuperMemo doesn’t have, but there are workarounds and solutions for substitution. For example:

The addon Power Format Pack is amazing. However, I could use syntax to HTML converter to achieve the same result in SM.

AwesomeTTS is great for creating TTS inside Anki. However, I can pre-process the audio before importing into SM.

Yes, more hassle and inconvenience, but it doesn’t mean there is no substitution.

However, there’s no harm in trying Anki. If you do, I would recommend Anki 2.0 rather than Anki 2.1. The addon support for Anki 2.0 is much better and Anki 2.1 is still under development.

#3 If you’re considering moving away Anki and switching to SuperMemo…

This is my case as I’ve mentioned it here, it’s helpful to consider the opportunity cost of trying vs. not trying.

Maybe you are like me: you’re focusing more on reading and less on reviewing fact-based cards. In this case, Incremental Reading is highly desirable and valuable. For whatever reasons, switching from one SRS to another is a big leap. Consider how much time you spend with one SRS and how much changes your decision will bring. My decision to do so was rash. I got lucky as SM turned out to be a better option for me.

Therefore, don’t make it an all-or-nothing decision. If you’re dissatisfied with Anki, try SuperMemo without abandoning Anki. Keep doing your reps in Anki. Make some extra cards (items) for SM; import some reading materials to use Incremental Reading for at least a month. Then after trying out both ecosystems, you may decide whether to stick to Anki or switch to SM.

Pros:

1. Superior algorithm

2. Incremental Reading

3. Macro-interleaved practice as explained here

Cons:

1. No on-the-go review: no more reviewing during commute. Unless you are hard core enough to buy a Windows tablet such as the Surface Go to use SM on the go.

2. Ecosystem adaptation: If you’re on Mac/Linux, think about the hassle of using a virtual machine. Whenever you want to use SM, you have start the virtual machine just to use it.

3. Giving up your usual Anki addons. You can either find substitutions, make compromises, or completely forget about that feature you used to use in Anki. For example, if you’re learning Japanese, the Japanese support for Anki is amazing. Now you have to find substitution or solutions.

4. Prepare for a lot frustration at the beginning:

- Frustration with the interface and navigation

- Could not see the points of Incremental Reading

This is me 2 weeks after started using SM:

Frustration - Copy

You will experience many of these frustration cycles and want to abandon SM. DON’T. If you can get through the initial learning curve, you will come out on the other side to SuperMemo-Wonderland (also called SuperLand) and hopefully, you’ll love SuperMemo as much as I do.

#4 If you’ve decided to stick to Anki…

Screw SuperMemo. The UI sucks. No Mac version? What a deal breaker. What is the point of Incremental Reading anyway.

Pros:

- Enjoy all the pros of Anki

- No need to learn to use another SRS.

- No need to figure out how to use a virtual machine if you’re on Mac/Linux

- No need to go through the pain of migrating your collection like I did

Cons:

- Missing out Incremental Reading

- Inferior algorithm. See my comparison here

This may come off as harsh but, sticking to Anki without trying SuperMemo first is an unwise choice. I don’t mean everybody has to use SuperMemo. There are definitely situations that one will prioritize Anki over SuperMemo. For example, if you could only spare a few minutes here and there throughout the day, then obviously the Anki ecosystem (desktop Anki and Ankimobile/Ankidroid) is your best shot. Consistency is more important than any SRS choice. I would rather choose doing my reps in Ankidroid 5 minutes every day than doing them in SM for 35 min once a week.

Generally speaking, after weighing everything, the pros of using Anki could not outweigh the cons. The price of an inferior algorithm and missing Incremental Reading over the long-run is astronomical. Missing out Incremental Reading limits a lot of potential and returns from your time invested in learning.

If you’re serious about your learning, you should try refining your tool sets. This is like a dead-lifter training in the local gym, where the maximum weight stack is 300lb and his max is 350lb. The environment limits his potential for growth and improvement. This is why I branched out and I use both Anki and SuperMemo for different purposes.

What is the worst-case scenario of trying SuperMemo? After using SM for some time, it turns out that SM is really not for you and Anki is more suitable. The cost is wasted time exploring SM. The upshot? Discovering something you’ve never imagined like I did.

#5 If you are a high school/college student who just wants to get through school…

tl;dr: I suggest Anki.

For whatever reasons, if you want to just go through your formal education, you may use Anki to cram through it. The time saved can be spent on other crafts.

Although I think SuperMemo is superior than Anki, in this regard, given your goal, Anki is good enough. By “good enough” I mean that it will help yield a good enough return for your time and effort invested. Yes, SuperMemo will yield a maximum return but the initial learning might put you off. Like the 80/20 rule, spending 20% effort in learning how to use Anki and reviewing will yield 80% of your desired results and it’s a good deal.

#6 If you are a high school student who wants to be the best of the best, or a college student who aspires to graduate with a 4.0 GPA…

tl;dr: I’d suggest SuperMemo.

The sophistication and versatility of your tool should reflect and match your ambition.

If you want to be not just merely among the top 10% but the absolutely very best, the 1 in 1000, then you should use SuperMemo. You want to squeeze as much effectiveness and efficiency out of your learning time and your tool. Like the 80/20 rule, you want to spend extra 80% of effort to yield the remaining 20% results in order to reach your goals.

Typically for a college course, you probably don’t have weekly tests: only mid-term test and one final exam. To excel at group projects, you need to work with others and that’s a whole new skill set that no SRS will help. Unlike #5, you would want to read the recommended reading for your college courses. Incremental Reading helps tremendously here.

However, if you want to, you can use Anki to cram the night before tests to ensure maximum recall.

#7: If you’re a medical student…

Disclaimer: I’m not a medical student. As far as I know, the academic pressure is high and schedules are hectic, with weekly tests and monthly tests. I think this “combination of Anki and SuperMemo” could also be applied to majors such as law school where the frequency and quantity of tests are high.

tl;dr: I’d suggest BOTH Anki and SuperMemo

Anki: Review your cards for the weekly tests intensively and on the go.

SuperMemo: Use Incremental Reading to go through PDFs and lecture notes simultaneously; for long-term retention and maintenance of knowledge.

This way, Anki acts as a subsidiary and compliment to SuperMemo.

If I were a medical student…

I would put two sets of identical materials in both Anki and SuperMemo.

In Anki:

One deck for cards that are highly isolated and fact-based, such as anatomy, terminology and basic facts. The Image Occlusion in Anki is a wonderful tool. I would review these daily during commute, or whenever I have to kill or without access to my laptop.

Another deck deals with the weekly tests. I will specifically cram this deck the night before the test and during commute to maximize recall. After the weekly test, I will delete this deck in Anki (except those anatomy image occlusion cards).

SuperMemo doesn’t fare well for cramming and “short-term” review. The nature of the intervals is scheduled far and wide. The items (cards) you created may be scheduled to, say, 2 weeks later. By the time, you’ll already have finished the weekly test before getting the chance to review the materials for the first time.

I will not review both sets in Anki and SuperMemo simultaneously. Too many reviews in a short period of time will reduce the effectiveness of each review. When the retrievability of an item is at its maximum, any subsequent review will not yield much gains in storage strength.

After the weekly test, with the Anki deck deleted, I will un-dismiss the identical information in SM, and re-learn them. During the initial learning schedule, you can be more lenient will the grading, as you’ve already reviewed them in Anki. The macro-interleaved practice in SuperMemo helps condense everything into a coherent whole, so hopefully, not only will have get the details down, but also the big picture.

SM is mainly for long-term retention (I mean really really long, not just 1-month long) and maintenance of knowledge. Since the materials from weekly tests will also be included and tested for the half-yearly or yearly big examinations, you will need to maintain those knowledge in SuperMemo.

Anki: weekly tests

SuperMemo: half-yearly or yearly big exams

You get the best of both worlds: review on the go and cram the night before the weekly tests; have SuperMemo to maintain the knowledge for the half-yearly or yearly examination. This way will consume your life. I think it is what it takes to go through residency. I can’t guarantee you will be the best. But I can guarantee you will reap what you sowed. Your effort will be well rewarded.

“I aced through medical school with Anki alone.”

Yes, I’m aware that some have gone through medical school “easily” or ace through residency with Anki alone. That’s terrific. I am only suggesting what I would do, as I believe there is always room for improvement to your learning methods.

From personal observation, most medical students prefer Anki over SuperMemo (I doubt everyone knows SM). I believe Anki itself is suffice even for getting into and through medical school. By “suffice” I mean it will be a lot easier comparing with not using any SRS, but not easier than with SM.

Here’s a then-medical student’s YouTube video on ”Supermemo Thoughts and slight comparison with Anki 2.0” (start with 17:48)

If you’re a medical student, I believe it’s easier to make your way through residency with BOTH SuperMemo Anki than any either one alone. I suggest investing the time to learn and use SuperMemo, on top of Anki. The dividends will pay off handsomely.

Closing Remarks

I know there are always exceptions to every hypothetical situations:

“I used Anki to ace through med school!”

“I switched to SuperMemo and now I’m at the bottom of my class!”

“I didn’t use any SRS and I got through law school just fine!”

Both Anki and SuperMemo are tools, the medium. How you use them, how much you use them and other million more factors will determine how well it “works”. It’s arbitrary how you define “work”. Either will work if you use it every day instead of once every week.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou

I focus on the efficiency and effectiveness. They are subjective and relative so there are no universal truths.

“Anki/SuperMemo works well for me.” How do you know another SRS will not work as well, or even better than the other? You haven’t tried it. You can’t form a more objective judgement if you haven’t tried both.

Anki 2.0

Free SuperMemo 15

With My Comparison Between Anki and SuperMemo, This Guide Will Help You Decide Whether to Use Anki or SuperMemo and this post, this trilogy is all I have to say about Anki and SuperMemo. I hope they are useful.