Introduction to Interval Study
What is different about Flashcard Wizard?

There are dozens of flashcard programs available on all computing platforms. Indeed, it takes very little more than a database, a user interface, and a little bit of programming to throw a flashcard program together. Elaborate and expensive multimedia packages for language learning almost always include flashcard features together with their dictionaries, sounds, and other materials.

Flashcard Wizard is not attempt to add yet another simple flashcard program to a saturated market of freeware and shareware. Nor is it attempting to compete with the powerful CD-ROM language learning software out today. Rather, this application takes a new approach to Flashcard study and attempt to go one step beyond simply memorizing vocabulary or any other information: Flashcard Wizard was designed primarily to help students retain vocabulary and other information after it is first learned.

In offering advice to students, language instructors and near-native speakers of a foreign language emphasize the importance of using the language one is studying, both while engaged in and long after formal instruction. They argue that after even prolonged formal study of a foreign language, the "Use it or Lose it" principle is always in effect. The sad reality is however, that many of us may not find ourselves continually immersed in the target language environment, nor do we all have the time or the opportunity to continually practice reading or hearing the language through media such as books, news, etc.

Thus, even if we admit that the best way to retain mastery of a language is to use it and study it actively, especially in the target language environment, it is not always realistic given time constraints. Simple memorization of words and patterns is not enough to communicate and cannot even pretend to match active language study and practice. While not a sufficient condition for mastery however, memorization of words and patterns will always be a necessary component of study. Flashcard Wizard tries to assist in the retention of memorized material by relying on some common sense principles of human memory.

When we memorize a word, a phrase, a date, or any other information, it is unfortunately often forgotten soon after. Only those things which have a strong impact on us, or which recurr continually in our life stand a chance of long-term retention. Review, of course, is the most important means of retention; it is the meat of every student's test preparation, and every language learner's vocabulary study.

The problem with review is that, especially in test preparation or any other situation which involves a demonstration of proficiency, it is often performed only shortly before an anticipated use. We often say that it is reviewed only for the purpose of "regurgitation". Most of us, though, would really prefer to retain what we learn, indefinately. The questions to ask, then, are: What to review? When to review it? and How often?

When you memorize some fragment of information the first time, it is forgotten soon after. However, even after "forgetting" a fragment of information, we often feel it is easier to memorize it a second time. Fortunately, this is why mastery of a language is not completely lost with the passage of time and may be regained far quicker when returned to. There is a better way to retain memorized information: if one was to review a small fragment of information shortly before they would otherwise forget it, the amount of time between the second review and the "forgetting" of it increases. In most cases, with each additional review of the fragment of information, especially when timed correctly, there is an increase in the time to "forgetting".

This "Time to Forget" or TTF as I call it, varies from person to person. Many of us are jealous of colleagues and classmates who seem to have the magical ability to hear or see something once and never forget it. These people simply have a very long initial TTF. I am not aware of any simple or exact way of measuring one's TTF, and it varies not only from person to person but from informational fragment to fragment. Most of us, however, can roughly guess how long it will be before they forget the average fragment of information (if the number of forgotten appointments, birthdays, and lost personal items are any measure, I have a very very short initial TTF) If we knew approximately how long it would take for us to forget something, we could plan to review it just before this TTF is reached.

I first realized this almost obvious fact when studying in Japan in 1997. I thought about ways of putting this piece of common sense into practical use as the amount of vocabulary in advanced study was multiplying fast and I constantly found words and Kanji (sino-Japanese) characters that I had studied before but could no longer remember. I was beginning to wonder if the hundreds of hours of memorization were really just wasted since it was only a matter of time before I forgot what I learnt. Even in a formal language program, daily reading and use of the language was not enough to retain the host of technical vocabulary and more uncommon characters that I really wanted to remember.

When I turned to full-time study of Chinese that summer, I resolved to keep track of all my flashcards in a new system. I kept track of when they were studied, how many I got "correct" and according to a "TTF Schedule" I would place each reviewed card in a box corresponding to some future date on my TTF schedule for that individual word.

A TTF Schedule is nothing more than a rough guess of how long one thinks they can retain a fragment of information after studying it the first, second, third time and so on. In the case of my own very weak memory, the TTF Schedule I used was 1,1,3,7,10,14,25. This series of numbers means that after the initial study, I would review it again the following day, and if I got it correct I would review it a second time the following day. After the second review I could wait 3 days before reviewing it again; then 7 days and then 10 days, and so on. These numbers may seem arbitrary, and perhaps they are to some extent they are when they pass 10 days, but with a little experimentation I found it to accurately reflect the average time it took for me to forget words, characters, and grammatical patterns in its earlier stages.

To finish this personal account quickly, the end result after a few months of testing was that the system was highly effective. I retained vocabulary far longer than ever before. However, there were significant problems with this system of Interval Study, the biggest one being that I was spending almost as much time keeping track of my cards as I did studying them, even to the point of receiving ridicule from other students. Other problems included deciding what to do with cards that never seemed to get passed stage 3 in the TTF schedule, which seemed to be an important stage in study. Finally, there was the problem of deciding what to do if the day's alloted words for study were too much to handle (if I learned more than about 50 new words a day, this often became a problem). I found that about three hundred words were all I could comfortably review a day without getting too bored and tired - and this only if I broke it up into two or more study sessions.

The biggest problem in Interval Study, that of keeping track of the cards, inspired me to design Flashcard Wizard, a computer program which not only allows users to review words as sets, but which can also individually track performance on entries in a set according to a user's TTF Schedule. Problematic words can be dealt with flexibly and when the daily allotment of entries exceeds a certain number, users may use a dynamic filtering engine to choose a reasonable number of entries to review. I earlier designed a computer program for a Japanese language text called Kanji in Context from the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies but with Flashcard Wizard I wanted to start with something completely new, this time with a far better flashcard engine, user features, and most importantly interval study.

Flashcard Wizard does not make the actual process of memorization or review any easier than other programs available. In fact, there are several superior products on the market which help students study with a variety of media such as sounds and images, all of which help us in memorization. However, Flashcard Wizard's powerful Interval Study feature can help language learners and anyone who wants to retain fragments of information in memory time their reviews according to a logical schedule. If you are honest with yourself in estimating a rate of "Times to Forget" set entries which are solidly committed to memory slide almost effortlessly through the TTF schedule. However, during Interval Study, users will constantly be prompted to review stubborn entries until they finally pass the earliest TTF stages and thereby begin the journey towards long-term retention. In Interval Study, the biggest challenge becomes not the review itself, but resisting the temptation to allow a few entries to "slip through" to the next stage. I can report from experience that when you return to them a week or more later you'll regret you did.

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