New model shows how often to review material for flashcard programs

January 26, 2012 By Bill Steele

( -- A challenge for students and teachers -- and today, for designers of educational software: How often should material be reviewed for best learning? Wait too long to review and it fades away; review too soon and the effort is wasted.

Tim Novikoff, Cornell graduate student in the field of applied mathematics, faced that problem when he created Flash of Genius, a smartphone app that displays vocabulary flashcards for SAT preparation. So he developed a for . The results are described in the online early edition of the the week of Jan. 23. Co-authors are Jon Kleinberg, the Tisch University Professor of Computer Science, and Steven Strogatz, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics.

The paper describes "how to schedule the introduction of new material and the review of material given a set of parameters that describe the student," Novikoff said. Most educational software, he explained, uses an arbitrary review schedule and just hopes it will be convenient for the user.

"The model is based on what the psychologists have been finding out about the process of learning, and we're hoping it can provide a language for new kinds of educational software," Kleinberg added.

Psychologists report that each time an item is reviewed, the learner can go longer before needing to review it again. So a new item might be repeated four steps later, then eight steps after that, and so on. The "spacing constraints" will be different for each student. Ideally, software should observe how well each student retains lessons and develop rules to fit. But as the number of cards increases, this becomes harder to schedule -- even for a computer.

As more and more cards are in line for review, "There will be time steps where more than one card has to show up," Novikoff pointed out. "This model gets you around that but also shows that sometimes it's not possible."

The ideal goal defined in the paper is "infinite perfect learning," where new items can be added forever and every item is continually reviewed. An alternative is "cramming," where the student seeks to learn a finite list of items in a specified time period.

The paper suggests three ways of scheduling material for infinite perfect learning: the Recap Method, for fairly fast learning; the Slow Flashcard Method, which is what it sounds like; and Hold-Build, for learners who benefit from quick repetition of new material. But a few "finicky slow students" will require so much review that it becomes impossible to introduce new material. But it is possible to construct a cramming schedule for any student who can be described by the model.

The model is not meant as a cookbook for software developers, Novikoff noted, but rather as a framework that defines the spacing constraints of a theoretical student. Then it's up to the software developer to find the right constraints and plug them into the model. To develop algorithms (the underlying procedures for software, expressed in mathematical terms), a programmer must have a formal mathematical model to start with, Novikoff explained.

Very soon, he suggested, it may be possible to analyze data from students to develop an "average" set of constraints that educational software can use as a starting point from which it adjusts to fit each student.

The work is supported by the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Google and Yahoo.

Explore further: Research team applies mathematical modeling and algorithms to learning process

Related Stories

Students who get stuck look for computer malfunctions

June 5, 2009

When students working with educational software get stymied, they often try to find fault with the computer or the software, rather than look to their own mistakes, according to a new dissertation at the University of Gothenburg, ...

Help is at hand for teachers struggling with technology

December 6, 2011

Innovative software to help teachers stay at the forefront of the digital revolution in education has been developed by researchers funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Engineering and Physical ...

Giving learning a personal touch

July 18, 2008

A learning system that adapts to the abilities and needs of students opens the way to a more personalised approach in delivering education electronically.

Literature review made easy with new software

February 9, 2011

To many, writing is difficult. Researchers lament that running experiment in labs is easy but reporting is hard. Hence, Teoh Sian Hoon created an Integrative Literature Review Software to assist academics and students to ...

Recommended for you

New paper answers causation conundrum

November 17, 2017

In a new paper published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, SFI Professor Jessica Flack offers a practical answer to one of the most significant, and most confused questions in evolutionary ...

Chance discovery of forgotten 1960s 'preprint' experiment

November 16, 2017

For years, scientists have complained that it can take months or even years for a scientific discovery to be published, because of the slowness of peer review. To cut through this problem, researchers in physics and mathematics ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 31, 2012
I suspect some hybrid of all 3 will be found most effective for all categories of learners.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.