If SuperMemo/Anki Really is THE BEST Learning Tool, Why Isn't Every Student Using It?

2019-08-03 2020-03-15 2020-11-17

Image by Nikolay Georgiev from Pixabay


1. Learning Cognitive Biases

2. Misconception About Memory: Human Memory is NOT Like Computer Memory

3. Education (Schooling) ≠ Learning

4. Most Don’t Actually Need Real Learning in School

First of all, the assumption that “if something is the best, it has to be popular (most students will use it)” is not necessarily true. Everyone agrees that one should exercise frequently (regardless of how you define “exercise” (HITT or traditional cardio) and “frequently”), but not everyone is doing it. What should is not always what is in reality.

Learning Cognitive Biases

I think this research is indicative of how strong everyone’s cognitive bias is towards learning (I’m not excluded). On the Difficulty of Mending Metacognitive Illusions:

Note: blocking means cramming; interleaving means mixing topics.

Interleaving exemplars—rather than blocking exemplars— typically enhances inductive learning. Learners, however, tend to believe the opposite, even after their own performance has benefited from interleaving.

The authors attempted to uproot learners’ belief in the superiority of blocking through experience-based and theory-based debiasing techniques by

(a) providing detailed theory-based information as to why blocking seems better, but is not

(b) explicitly drawing attention to the link between study schedule and subsequent performance

You may think, “this is enough to get rid of that wrong belief, right?”

…both of which had only modest effects.

Only when the researchers separated the test performance on the 2 schedules did the combination of experience- and theory-based debiasing lead a majority of learners to appreciate interleaving.




Real Learning is against intuition which is hard to disregard

Conclusion from the above study:

Overall, the results indicate that 3 influences combine to make altering learners’ misconceptions difficult:

- The sense of fluency that can accompany nonoptimal modes of instruction

- Pre-existing beliefs learners bring to new tasks

- The willingness, even eagerness, to believe that one is unique as a learner—that what enhances others’ learning differs from what enhances one’s own learning

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

How it feels: Massed practice (cramming) feels more productive than spaced practice, but it is not. Spaced practice feels more difficult, because you have gotten a little rusty and the material is harder to recall. It feels like you’re not really getting on top of it, whereas in fact, quite the opposite is happening: As you reconstruct learning from long-term memory, as awkward as it feels, you are strengthening your mastery as well as the memory.

How it feels: Blocked practice (mastering all of one type of problem before progressing to practice another type) feels (and looks) like you’re getting better mastery as you go, whereas interrupting the study of one type to practice a different type feels disruptive and counterproductive. Even when learners achieve superior mastery from interleaved practice, they persist in feeling that blocked practice serves them better.

One visual example for such counter-intuitiveness: Müller-Lyer illusion (image source)


No matter how many times you look at the figure, your first instinct is always “the top line is longer than the bottom one.” You have to recall what you learned to overcome this intuition. Even though you know it’s an illusion, it will persist regardless.

A host of illusions and biases are working against you: response accuracy, retrieval fluency, encoding fluency, perceptual fluency, illusions of knowing, stability bias. Spacing and interleaving feel very difficult and it won’t give you the “learning high” that massed practice provides, but the former works and the latter doesn’t.

Efficient human learning and memory depends strongly and possibly universally on spreading the input of information over time. That this is not an empty or practically unimportant observation is belied by the fact that common intuition has it the other way around. Students, writers, educators, and advertisers persist in practicing massed practice despite our community of researchers haranguing them endlessly to mend their ways. Distributed Learning and the Size of Memory: A Year Spacing Odyssey

I find the last sentence both hilarious and unfortunate. I could only imagine how frustrated the authors were to come up with “haranguing endlessly”.

Misconception About Memory: Human Memory is NOT Like Computer Memory

The analogy is harmful. First, it assumes that human memory works like computer memory, which is false. Human memory is nothing like the files in your computer:

Human memory: retrieval is a powerful memory modifier. Thinking about something changes it.

Computer memory: Retrieval has no effect on memory. Opening the same file for the 1000th time doesn’t change the content.

The functional architecture of how humans forget, remember, and learn is unlike the corresponding processes in man-made devices […] We think of ourselves as working like computers, we become prone to assuming that exposing ourselves to information and procedures will lead to storage (i.e., recording) of such information or procedures in our memories—that the information will write itself in one’s memory.

If we think of human memory equals to memory in a computer, we are unlikely to appreciate that retrieving information from our memory increases the subsequent accessibility of that information. […] while retrieving information from computer memory leaves the status of that information unperturbed. On the Symbiosis of Remembering, Forgetting, and Learning

Learning cognitive biases and memory misconceptions => away from real learning

Various learning cognitive biases and misconceptions about memory will lead students astray: massed practice (instead of spacing), blocked practice (instead of interleaving). With the wrong ideas about how learning works, their learning methods and tools will be suboptimal as a result:

1. Re-reading (“Because we are like computers, exposing more to the information means remembering”)

Side note: I’ve even watched a “Study With Me” YouTube video claiming “My most effective way of learning information is just by writing it down, again and again:D” (exact words; not linking the source this time).

2. Blocked practice (“Let me finish all the cube problem sets before spheres”)

Using SuperMemo/Anki Requires Un-conditioning: Education (Schooling) ≠ Learning

Most students equate education (schooling) with learning (i.e., education = schooling = learning). They are not necessarily the same, and more often than not, the opposite. Operating under this “schooling = learning” paradigm means:

“If I want to learn something, the only way is to take courses or attend classes; I need a teacher in order to learn.”

“Tests are assessments for what I’ve learned. If I failed a test I need to attend make-up classes.”

“I need to take extra classes or hire private tutors for better grades.”

Problems when equating schooling with learning:

1. Promoting and perpetuating wrong ideas about learning:

I. School to you is what the sun is to flowers: Only teachers can nurture you.

II. Multimedia resources and interactive classes: You need the fanciest charts, 3D 4k anatomy figures, detailed animation for step-by-step solutions in order to learn. (icing on the cake)

III. Tests are only for assessments.

IV. Consider a mathematics textbook: all problem sets are blocked practice. It’s natural to solve all cube volumes before moving onto cones then spheres and so on. No student is encouraged or would jump back and forth interleaving between different shapes.

2. Wrong focus:

Learning is deeply personal. External sources like teachers and tutors are subsidiary; they’re never the main focus. When students look for solutions they look outwards (better tutors or resources) instead of inwards (examining learning methods, time management, habits). Better tutors or resources are just icing on the cake: it’s nice to have but not necessary. Focusing on the icing distracts you from what truly matters: the cake. Education (schooling) is a system. Learning, on the other hand, is personal. There’s no one-size-fit-all. Or the exact opposite: no size will fit at all.

Thinking under this “schooling = learning” mentality will not lead to SuperMemo/Anki. Besides, when you equate learning to the same formats/methods in school, you’ll likely to develop a (strong) aversion towards learning:

“High-stakes (pass-or-die) tests? Not again!”

“More listening to someone talking in front of me for two hours straight? Not again!”

“More expenses on tuition and private lessons? Not again!”

Caveat: Do I mean schools/classes are completely useless? No. Face-to-face discussions can be illuminating and having someone as your target for [Self-explanation/Explain Like I’m Five] is valuable. I just think it’s detrimental for “outsourcing” (i.e., dependent on external factors) your learning, i.e. “If I failed a test it means the teachers did a terrible job.”, “If I can’t go to school I can’t learn.”

Most Don’t Actually Need Real Learning in School

Good Enough

This is very evident in college. In college, especially in the humanities, the material and courses are rather easy to get by. (I’m just speaking from personal experience). With a few “good enough” habits in place, like writing your papers a few days instead of a few hours before the deadline, take notes in class (even though it doesn’t mean much), don’t ghost your presentation and you’ll get a decent grade.

… Unless you’re a medical or law student

The importance and urgency to know how to learn

It’s extremely rare that you’re a medical or law student. The sheer amount of learning material and burden of success will force you to confront your learning methods, hence, increasing the probability of using Anki/SuperMemo. Imagine a test that cover material you learned two or three years ago. And these are high stakes. Can you afford failing them? No and you’ll have high motivation to learn how memory and learning actually work.

Only when the stakes of failure are high, examinations cumulative and difficult, learning deeply personal (e.g., I want to become a doctor) will you take learning seriously. Then you may discover how to learn and what real learning requires: a long-term commitment far outside the normal imagination of what learning and studying look like.

Therefore, unless you’re a medical or law student that requires tremendous amount of (real) learning, you’re unlikely to need to know how to learn effectively and efficiently. There’s the thriving r/Medical School Anki; YouTube channels like Med School Insiders, Ali Abdaal, The AnKing. My interpretation is that unless you’re a medical student you don’t need such “drastic measures” like Anki. Even that, not all medical students use Anki/SuperMemo.

Closing Remarks

1. Most students are wrong about how to learn because of various cognitive biases: real learning is counter-intuitive and feels counter-productive.

2. Wrong learning ideas and memory misconceptions lead to wrong implementation and more importantly, away from the tools for real learning: SuperMemo/Anki

3. Real learning is not needed for most in school: Getting pass college doesn’t require real learning: you just need to be good enough… unless you’re a medical or law student. So most students don’t need to adopt SuperMemo/Anki.

4. Non-conducive mindset: equating schooling as learning: Primary focus is external: education system (classes/lectures/teaching quality) and content (resources: textbooks/videos) instead of internal: personal (how to approach studying).

Further Reading

1. On the difficulty of mending metacognitive illusions: A priori theories, fluency effects, and misattributions of the interleaving benefit

2. Self-Regulated Learning: Beliefs, Techniques, and Illusions

3. SuperMemo’s creator Piotr Woźniak on Why is incremental reading not popular?