How to study vocabulary using spaced repetition

The spaced repetition study method helps students systematically review vocabulary.

Almost any class you take in middle school, high school, and college, will be introducing you to new vocabulary. Sometimes it comes up organically and it just becomes a part of the conversation. I remember a college professor who loved the word “salient” and made it part of my vocabulary by the end of the semester. Other times, you need to make a particular effort to study vocabulary and learn what seems like an endless list of new words. This is especially true in foreign language classes, but it can also be true in science or history classes. So what’s the best way to study vocabulary?

Brain research shows that we learn best when our studying is spread out over time. In fact, forgetting is an important part of the learning process. Your memory for a fact is strongest when you learn it, come close to forgetting it, and relearn it a few times. Through that process of learning and relearning, you are building stronger connections that make the word stick in your memory for longer. The technique for studying this way is called “spaced repetition.” 

Lots of memory experts use spaced repetition to learn new material. There is software to help you do it. 

Setting up spaced repetition

But my favorite tool is a file folder and some envelopes. Here’s how I set it up.

  1. Get a file folder and open it.
  2. Get two or three regular mailing envelopes, seal the flaps and cut them in half.
  3. Glue or tape the flap side of each envelope to the file folder with the open ends facing up. You now have a file folder full of pockets.
  4. Label the pockets
    1. Every Day
    2. Every Other Day
    3. Twice a week (optional)
    4. Once a week
    5. Once a month
    6. Review (optional)
  5. Make flash cards for each word or term. Make sure they fit in the pockets.
    1. Put ONE piece of information on each card. For example, don’t write out all the parts of the face in French on one card. Have one card for nez and another for les yeux
    2. Put the definition of the word and/or a picture clue on the back

How to use a spaced repetition system

Starting out your study system

Day 1: First, don’t try to study too many terms at once. Start going through the pile. If you come to a word and you know everything on the card, put it in the Every Other Day pocket. If you are at all unsure or shaky about it, or if you miss any information, put it in the Every Day pile. Keep going until you have about 5 cards in the Every Day pocket. 

Day 2: First study the cards in the Every Day pocket. If you get them right, move them to Every Other Day. If you get them wrong, they stay in the Every Day pocket. There are lots of things you can do to strengthen your memory for these, like reading them out loud, watching a YouTube video that explains the concept, or drawing a detailed picture to help you remember more. 

Second, study the Every Other Day pocket. If you get the words right, leave them in the Every Other Day pocket (you’ll move them at the end of the week). If you get them wrong, move the card back to Every Day.

Day 3: Study the Every Day pocket. As you move words to Every Other Day, start putting new words in your Every Day pocket so you always have about 5 you are learning.

Day 4: Every Day and Every Other Day pockets. Keep moving the Every Day words to Every Other Day if you get them, and leave the Every Other Day words where they are until the end of the week.

Day 5: Every Day words. Keep adding more as you are ready

Day 6: Every Day and Every Other Day. 

Keep it going!

Day 7: New week! Study your Every Day words. When you study the Every Other Day words, you are ready to move some to Weekly. If you get them right, move them on to the Once a Week pocket. If you get them wrong, they go back in the Every Day pocket. Today, your Every Other Day pocket will be empty except for the ones you added today.

When to stop reviewing

Keep repeating these 7 days. On the first day of each following week, move Every Other Day and Weekly words on to the next pocket when you get them right. 

After 4 weeks, go through all the words in the Once a Month pocket. If you get them right, retire them! Don’t throw them out because you might want to review them before a big exam (or sell them to a less-prepared friend?) but you can take them out of your study system.

To find out more, check out my video on YouTube: How to study vocabulary using spaced repetition.

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