How to do spaced repetition without flashcards?

If you have ever encountered any article or video on spaced repetition – most of them encourage you to use flashcards. But what if you do not want to use flashcards?

To do spaced repetition without flashcards one should space out their study sessions by using a method like a spaced repetition table. Then during each study session instead of using flashcards, one could use a different way to study such as:

  1. Writing down questions and answers in different columns
  2. Using toggles (for questions and answers)
  3. Blurting
  4. Answering out loud
  5. Teaching (Feynman technique)
  6. Solving problem sets
  7. Filling in the blanks (occlusion)
  8. Mindmaps

Read on to learn exactly how to study without flashcards.

How to space out study sessions without flashcards

It is important to note that flashcards and spaced repetition are not the same. Spaced repetition is when you space out your study sessions. Flashcards are just a way to capture and recall information.

So you can use flashcards without using spaced repetition if you do not space out your study sessions.

The reason why flashcards are closely associated with spaced repetition is that many spaced repetition apps like Anki, use flashcards as a mechanism for information storage. Similarly, there are spaced repetition methods such as the Leitner system that use flashcards as well.

However, there are multiple other ways for spacing out study sessions without using flashcard apps. The one that I think is the best is just using a spaced repetition table to plan out your study sessions.

It is relatively simple, just make a table where each line stands for a certain topic or sub-topic that you are learning (it is primarily based on Ali Abdaal’s spaced repetition table). You want to make sure that each line or each knowledge unit in that table is:

  1. not too large (e.g. larger than 1000 words) as it might be too overwhelming
  2. cohesive – represents a single concept or idea

For example, you could make the following table:

Spaced repetition table in Notion that I use, you can get my template here for free
Spaced repetition table in Google sheets that I use, you can get my template here for free

Each topic can be then further grouped into parent topics and subjects. For example, I grouped integrals and derivatives fundamentals under advanced math, and then further grouped advanced and basic math parent topics under the math subject.

Once you make your table, after each study session mark the date when you studied and use a color or an emoji to mark how well did you do – did you recall everything very well (green emoji), did you struggle a bit (yellow emoji), or did very poorly (red emoji)?

Depending on how well you did, you should plan your next session. If you did badly then your next session should be the next day, if you did well, then you can push your next study session for this topic to a later time.

But you might ask – how to plan out your study sessions in advance? Well, we recommend using the intervals below (see this article to learn why these are the optimal intervals), and if you make a major mistake in any of your study sessions then reset the intervals for that subject.

  1. 1 hour after the first learning or on your next study session
  2. 1 day after the previous learning
  3. 2 days after the previous learning
  4. 5 days after the previous learning
  5. 10 days after the previous learning
  6. 30 days after the previous learning or the day before the test

For example, if you study fundamentals of integrals on the 11th May morning, then your next study sessions could be:

  1. 11th of May evening
  2. 12th of May
  3. 14 of May
  4. 19 of May
  5. 29 of May
  6. 28 of June

And if you make a mistake during one of these sessions, then the intervals for that topic reset:

  1. 11th of May evening
  2. 12th of May
  3. 13 of May morning (made a major mistake)
  4. 13 of May evening
  5. 14 of May
  6. 15 of May
  7. etc.

Of course, you should treat these suggestions just as a set of rough guidelines. You might not always be able to study the topic twice a day or you might have some sort of a commitment and might have to push your study session to another day. Or you might want to push some sessions closer because the exam is sooner and you feel weak in some topics.

Furthermore, you should consider how important the topic is. You might not always have the time to go through all of the topics you have planned out – so you should prioritize the ones that are the most relevant and will give you the most points in the exam or test.

So in summary, you will be fine as long as you follow these general principles:

  1. List out all of your topics and group them
  2. Plan out your study sessions based on the suggested intervals
  3. Mark down the real-time of each study session and how well you did
  4. Based on how well you remember each topic and how important it is, adjust your schedule:
    • The stronger you feel about a topic the farther the next learning interval should be
    • The weaker you feel about a topic the closer the next interval should be
    • The less important the topic is the farther the next interval should be
    • The more important the topic is the closer the next interval should be

As long as you stick to these general principles you are fine, you do not need a fancy table or some magic app or algorithms. For example, Ali Abdaal, a successful student at Cambridge University, used this basic google sheet to track and plan his spaced repetition sessions (see picture below).

8 Alternatives to flashcards

After you space out your study sessions, there are multiple ways how you can capture and study the information for each of the topics you want to learn. The best ways are of course the ones that make you use active recall since research shows that it helps us to learn more efficiently. Here are some of the best ways how you can do this:

1. Writing down questions and answers in different columns

Using an excel sheet, a notion table, or just a plain old good notebook you could create two columns. In the first one write down the question in the second column write down the answer. You could even do this during your class while taking notes as this is very similar to the Cornell notetaking method.

Then group these questions and answers under your spaced repetition topics. During each of your study sessions for a particular topic try to answer the questions without looking at them.

For example, you might have a topic about 9 division rules, and then 9 questions under the topic such as what type of natural numbers are divisible by 2, what type of natural numbers are divisible by 3, etc. Then during your study session for that topic answer those questions – either out loud or by writing the answer down.

Of course, to use spaced repetition, as mentioned, you will need to space out your study sessions based on the suggested intervals and answer those questions again and again until you will fully internalize the answers.

2. Using toggles (for questions and answers)

Another simple approach is to use notion toggles (see picture below) and hide the answer under each question toggle.

Alternatively, you could just write the question above, make a gap and write the answer below, then cover the answer and try to recite the answer without looking.

3. Blurting

Another great way of studying without flashcards is blurting – it just means reading a section of a textbook or your notes (or any other piece of information that you are trying to learn), and then writing down as much information as you can remember (without looking at the textbook or notes).

After this reopen the book or the notes that you were trying to study and check whether you have remembered correctly, if you made some mistakes – then you need to repeat the process, if not you can move on and revise that section only during your next spaced repetition study session.

Of course, you need to use your common sense – focus on memorizing and blurting only important concepts, not every word in the textbook. And use spaced repetition for your blurting sessions.

4. Answering or reciting out loud

Answering or reciting what you have just read in a textbook can be another great to recall information without using flashcards. Every time you read a certain piece of information that you want to remember – try to recite it or say the answer in your own words.

For example, if you want to remember photosynthesis definition, then after you read it, try to recite or say it in your own words without looking at your notes or textbook.

Of course, as mentioned you might not want to always remember everything. Maybe you are reading a novel for your literature class, and if that is the case, then after each chapter of the book, you could try to briefly summarize it, answer who where the characters were, answer why they did what they did, etc. essentially try to answer the questions that you expect in the test.

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.

Make it Stick, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

Lastly, while sometimes you need to recite things verbatim, often it is better to use your own words since that way you will need to think more and as a result, you will learn more effectively.

5. Teaching (Feynman technique)

Teaching others or even imagining that you are teaching someone (without a real person being there) is a great way of ensuring that you learn and internalize the material.

This is the so-called Feynman technique and is a great way to learn since generally if you can explain something clearly to another this means that you have truly learned the information.

The important thing is that you should try to explain the concept in simple and clear language so that it would be easy to understand. If you cannot do it this generally means that you do not understand the material sufficiently well.

Also, you should try to use some examples and any other aids in your explanation to make sure that it is really clear.

6. Solving problem sets

If your subject involves problem sets (e.g. statistics), then solving problem sets will be one of the best ways to actively recall and prepare for the test. All you need to do is to find some problems that are available to you, maybe prior exams or homework, and practice on those.

Of course, you do not want to be solving the same problem over and over – you should focus not on memorizing the answers but on understanding the underlying concepts.

Your goal is to understand how to solve different types of problems and be ready to solve new modified problems in the exam which will use the same concepts.

You could even try to create your own problems as if you were a teacher trying to teach a new concept to a student, which would combine Feynman technique with solving problems and further reinforce your learning.

7. Filling in the blanks (occlusion)

If you need to memorize the names of certain visual objects, for example, country names or river names on the map – a great way of doing so is to take a map without the names on it, only with countries and rivers, and then try to fill in the names from your memory as if you were having a test.

If you wanted to learn the names of EU members you could use the following picture, where the names are hidden, and try to fill in the missing names or just say them out load

8. Mindmaps

Mindmaps are another great way to actively recall information. Firstly, you learn information when you are making the mindmap since you need to process what you are learning and simplify it into a diagram that you understand.

Secondly, once you are done making the mindmap, you could cover it up and try to remake it from your memory on another piece of paper (to further reinforce your learning). Or alternatively, you could hide the names of the different branches in your map and try to recite or input the missing names.

Regardless of how you do it as long as you try to actively recall the information from your mindmap – you will be learning. See the tutorial below on how to make great mindmaps.

Danielius Korsakas

Has a BSc in Economics and currently is pursuing a double master's degree in very fluffy but interesting subjects. Loves learning and building stuff.

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