A 4-Step Roadmap Towards the Mastery of How to Learn (6 Years of Experience Summarized)


In How to Learn About Meta-Learning: My Resource List I’ve laid out my resource list. This article is another take on meta-learning, but with a roadmap and is mixed with Spaced Repetition Software (SRS). This roadmap is modeled after my experience and this question in mind:

What would I suggest to a person who is, for some reason, highly interested in meta-learning yet completely blank about such topic?

Or simply,

What would I’ve done differently?

1. Read Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques

I consider this research paper to be the golden go-to reference for effective studying methods. Don’t be fooled by the word “students”. Even if you’re not, this paper is immensely valuable and insightful: it forms a solid foundation about the science of learning. “Research paper” may be intimidating if you’re never read one before; but fear not, this one is highly accessible.

2. Read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

This is the ultimate book if you want to learn about meta-learning.

These two resources form the ultimate duo for understanding the basis of the learning science. Then, you’ll understand why Anki and SuperMemo are such indispensable and powerful tools.

3. Use Anki for 3 months

Download the free desktop version. If you’re on Android, download the free Ankidroid; if you’re on iOS, buy AnkiMobile. The $25 is worth every penny. Become a member of the subreddit s/Anki and ask for help if you have any questions. Fellow Anki-ers are eager to help.

During the first month, don’t use any addons. Explore vanilla Anki: learn to make cards on desktop and study on mobile. Explore Anki’s basic interface and functionalities: synchronization, styling cards, how Anki works in general. Preferably, read the documentation.

During this period:

Experience the terror of studying 100 cards in one day when you’re new to Anki and feeling confident, then getting haunted a few days later when you open it and see 300 pending reviews, so you’ll learn how to approach your study.

Experience the regret of not tagging your cards or separating them into decks properly and now you’re sorting them manually.

Experience the surprise of the ability to Quickly Create Audio for your Anki Cards when you’ve been dragging audio files one by one.

After using vanilla Anki for a month, explore different addons

One of the core strengths of Anki is its addon community: vibrant, helpful and most importantly, very useful. Using vanilla Anki without any addons is like getting a $1000 laptop to play Minesweeper: you’re not getting and using to its full potential.

Sort the addon list by the number of ratings to see what most people are using. In my opinion these are essentials: Image Occlusion Enhanced, AwesomeTTS, Power Format Pack, Advanced Browser

Pay attention to the experiment timespan: at least three months, not a few days or a few weeks. First, spaced repetition doesn’t work in short-term; it works in long-term. You won’t experience its magic with mere days or weeks. Second, in the first week or two you’re probably overwhelmed by both Anki itself (Anki ecosystem) and how Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) work in general:

Anki problems: How do I add images to my cards? How do I sync across devices? Why are my cards not showing on mobile?

SRS problems: Why am I not seeing any new cards? What do you mean not seeing them for 3 days? Should I review them manually?

After three months, you should have a good grasp of how Anki works and how SRS works in general. If you’re frustrated with Anki or don’t see the point of SRS, the following #4 and #5 will make zero sense. So, only proceed if you’re comfortable with Anki and would recommend Anki to a friend. If you have the willpower and determination to stick to Anki for three months and faithfully do your reviews daily, then you may proceed…

4. Use SuperMemo and Incremental Reading for 3 months

You may have an inkling that “there is another level to this whole SRS game”, or simply you want to see why that guy (me) keeps raving about SuperMemo. If you do proceed, don’t delete your Anki collection. Keep doing your Anki reps. Preferably take some non-essential learning materials and study them solely in SuperMemo. If there is indeed a lot of frustration ahead, you’ve been warned. If not, I’m wrong (happily). Join r/super_memo and r/SuperMemo and SuperMemo Discord for help.

One big reason for SuperMemo over Anki is its Incremental Reading (IR) feature. IR is so integral and central to the whole SuperMemo philosophy that, using SuperMemo without IR is like using vanilla Anki without any addons, or worse, using Anki only on desktop. Incremental Reading is the second half to the secret of learning. As I mentioned, the secret to learning is Incremental Reading; the secret to remembering is SuperMemo/Anki.

Why Anki before SuperMemo?

As much as I love SuperMemo, I would not recommend it to a person who is, for some reason, highly interested in meta-learning yet completely blank about such topic.

Discarding the use of SRS simply because you don’t like SuperMemo is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Trying SuperMemo before Anki will only increase such possibility. This is a great shame: you’ve glimpsed the possibility of how much more and faster you can learn (principle of spaced retrieval practice), yet barred by the implementation of such principle (i.e., using software to do spaced retrieval practice). There’s no more appropriate phrase than “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

I hope #3 will make you:

  1. Understand the power of spaced retrieval practice

  2. Gain the mentality that “you need to stick with it long enough to see its power.”

  3. Realize how spaced repetition is implemented (in Anki or SuperMemo) is a separate matter from its principles. Just because the car is bad (in your opinion) doesn’t mean its engine is also bad. Just take it to another frame: if you don’t even like Anki, try Quizlet.

Even though I don’t use Anki anymore, the gap between using either Anki or SuperMemo is not as huge as not using either one. So I treat Anki as a safety net: even if you can’t stand SuperMemo, you’ll fall back to using Anki.

Why reading (#1 & #2) precedes using tools (#3 & #4)

This is informed by my own experience. If I understand the value of something, I tend to stick to it in the face of challenges and difficulties. After reading, you’ll, hopefully, know that there’s a whole field about learning (cognitive psychology) and there is a “scientific approach” towards learning, and SuperMemo/Anki isn’t just some useful tools that you can use. THEY ARE THE TOOLS.

This is a common scenario: “I don’t need Anki/SuperMemo because my studying is fine." You won’t look for solutions if you’ve never realized there is a problem in the first place. You either have to fail an important exam miserably (like I did) after “studying” for the whole month (which is already rare) or ask the question “Why do I keep forgetting my foreign language vocabulary?!”

Hypothetical Questions

This roadmap is rigged. The end “prize” is SuperMemo? This article is another sell on SuperMemo.

You are right. At this point I do think the ultimate tool (as far as Spaced Repetition Software is concerned) is SuperMemo. Well, it’s baked into the name, SuperMemo-ry. However, even if you don’t reach #4, finishing the first 3 will already give you an exponential leg-up towards your learning.

Closing Remarks

This Step by Step Guide is in chronological order but you don’t necessarily have to follow it this way. You can read the research paper and “Make It Stick” simultaneously; you can try Anki and SuperMemo at the same time. My basic recommendation is to understand the learning science before using any tools. But you can dive straight into Anki and play around.

The goal afterwards is to stick to Anki, if not SuperMemo. Optimize your setup, further deepening your knowledge about the science of learning. You may explore my resource list for inspiration.