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Mnemosyne: The Spaced Repetition Underdog

Did You Know There Was Life Beyond Anki, and a Fairly Fun One at That?

Mnemosyne sports a barebones interface and makes for a distraction-free learning

Photo credit: Michael Bentley licensed cc by 2.0

HomeBlogMnemosyne: The Spaced Repetition Underdog

I like flashcards. They are a handy way to reinforce memory. But don’t take this as an endorsement for mad repetitions as a memorization technique. No, reviews and repetitions are not the same thing. You repeat words a thousand times in a row to force them into your brain which is what makes it so inefficient. But you review words at a certain frequency to ensure your brain doesn’t forget what it already knows. See the difference?

Mankind has used flashcards as a review tool every since the dawn of civilization. Alright, that one might be a stretch but they’ve certainly been in use for centuries. But decks of flashcards become less than portable once you go beyond a certain number of cards. And this is how SRS, their digital avatar, was born.

Meet the Underdog

SRS apps score big over conventional dead-tree flashcards or even plain-vanilla flashcard apps. Wait a minute, are SRS apps different from flashcard apps? In a small but significant way. While digital flashcards (flashcard apps) just emulate flashcards, SRS apps go one step further. SRS apps also handle the scheduling of those virtual cards. That means an SRS app takes care of which card gets reviewed when and how often. In a previous article we discussed one such app called Anki®. In this one we’ll do another. It’s called Mnemosyne®.

The app gets its name from Ancient Greek. Back in the day, Mnemosyne was the name of a deity – the goddess of memory, to be precise. How appropriate. As a piece of software, though, its history is relatively short. The app was first seen only around 2003 and Peter Bienstman is the guy who made it.

Along with Anki, Mnemosyne is one of the very few platform-agnostic SRS programs out there. What this means is that you have a Mnemosyne for Mac® and you have one for Windows®. You also have one for Linux® and, if that weren’t enough, another for Android®! Windows Phone® users (do they still exist?) have a third-party solution called ColibriM® which is not free. ColibriM is not developed by the Mnemosyne folks but a reference to it exist on the latter’s website. Sorry iPhone® users, I don’t know what to say to you.

Did I tell you Mnemosyne is free? And open-source. Isn’t that exciting? Because it’s open-source, you can always count on some altruistic soul constantly tweaking it. You never know who could be toiling away on what new feature that’ll make Mnemosyne the next big thing!

Features at a Glance

Mnemosyne, in itself, is pretty spartan – lean, if you will. There’s no fancy plugins, snazzy options, or hidden features. Everything you need is right there in the open. That being said, the app offers a strong focus on what it’s supposed to do – spaced repetition. Here’s all its features that matter:

  1. Custom grouping: Mnemosyne lets you categorize your cards in groups. This is not very different from the concept of decks in, say, Anki. You might like this feature if you are obsessed with staying organized. My personal experience, though, is that the more unorganized you are here, the better.
  2. Support for plugins: Now this is the biggest perk of playing in an open-source world. Open-source means plugins galore because every smart-ass is free to try a hand at coding them in. But like I said, the app itself is completely barebones and doesn’t come with any. You are free to extend its functionality using plugins should you wish to.
  3. Portability: So long as you’re on a desktop, you don’t even have to install Mnemosyne on your system. You could easily run it directly off a pen-drive. This feature comes in handy in case you juggle between more than one computer. The fact that there is an Android version too makes it all the more portable. That said, Anki still trumps it when it comes to iOS® as Mnemosyne doesn’t exist in that world. Not at least for now.
  4. Synchronization: When you use an assortment of devices, it’s important that they all stay on the same page. Anki does this by storing your progress and decks in the cloud. And that’s what Mnemosyne does as well. So no matter where you are, Mnemosyne’s synchronization ensures you stay current. This, of course, is not a big deal if you run the app on a single device, but who does that these days anyway?
  5. Progress stats: I personally never cared much about stats but your mileage may vary. Let’s face it, stats give a good endorphin rush to most of us. Who wouldn’t find motivation boost in seeing the graph progress? Quantifying progress is a very important endeavor when it comes to learning something new. And Mnemosyne’s way of handling this bit is not only robust but also quite simplistic.
  6. Multimedia support: Mnemosyne, just like Anki, fully supports multimedia. What this means is that you are free to add not only text but also pictures and audio-clips on your cards. Now this is big, especially when it comes to learning a new language. Think visual cues, pronunciation guides, illustrations, accents – you can do so much. As if this weren’t enough, you can even add videos! Now that’s a game-changer. Think adding fun Spanish-language Vines® to your cards. You have no idea how quick you learn new words once you introduce videos to the mix.

How to Use Mnemosyne

1. Creating Your First Card

Like I said, Mnemosyne offers a very no-frills interface which makes it a cinch to use. Upon loading, it comes up with a window showing the last card you reviewed or created. If this is your first time, this window is obviously gonna be empty.

Mnemosyne sports a barebones interface and makes for a distraction-free learning Mnemosyne sports a barebones interface and makes for a distraction-free learning
Michael Bentley licensed cc by 2.0

On top of this window, you’ll find a drop-down field labelled Card type. This field offers you three options:

  1. Front-to-back only: This is the most basic of all card types. As the name suggests, this option lets you enter values for the front face and the back face. When done, you’ll have one card with the values exactly as you entered them. This card type is perhaps the closest you can get to emulating a real-world flashcard.
  2. Front-to-back and back-to-front: This card type is exactly the same as the previous one. With one key difference that it allows you to review your stuff both ways. The most efficient way to learn foreign words is to learn them either way. Say, you’re trying to memorize the word libro which means book. The optimal way to do this would be to learn both “libro means book” and “book means libro.” When you use this option, you end up with just one card as with the previous type. However, during your reviews, you’ll get two versions of this card – regular and flipped. This eliminates the need to create two separate cards for each word-pair.
  3. Vocabulary: This card type, as the name implies, is optimized for vocabulary-building. In this option, you get to enter more than two fields. Instead, you get to add the foreign word along with its meaning and pronunciation. Not only that, it also allows you a fourth field in case you have some additional notes to add. Like the previous option, this one too creates two cards for a two-way review. I suggest using this option for all vocabulary needs.

The next option in the Add cards window is Tags. This is where you assign theme-based tags to your cards in order to stay organized, should you wish to. This is a slightly improved way of assorting things compared to categories or decks. Going by my experience, though, unassorted cards work better as they’re more challenging. But you are free to decide for yourself.

What follows is a series of text-boxes where you can enter text or multimedia for your cards. What fields you see would depend on what card type you have selected. Like I said above, it’s best to go with the Vocabulary card type. If that’s what you did, you’ll have the following fields:

  1. Foreign word or phrase: This is where the Spanish word you’re gonna learn goes. As far as possible, try using short phrases or sentences instead of isolated words here. Learning in context is always makes more sense than memorizing words blindly.
  2. Pronunciation: As you’d expect, this field is specifically meant for pronunciation guides. But to make it most effective, try adding an audio-clip of the pronunciation if possible, instead of textual phonetics.
  3. Meaning: If you entered a phrase or sentence in the first field, this is where its translation goes. Try being as curt as possible. In case the figurative translation is different from literal, mention both. That way, you’ll learn a bit of grammar too.
  4. Notes: Got anything additional to learn about the word? This is where it goes. Things like usage notes, dialectical information, colloquialism, etc. make ideal candidates for this field.

The next section asks you to select an initial grade. This is where you tell Mnemosyne how well you already know the word in question. If you don’t know it at all, just select Yet to learn. Otherwise select a number depending on your familiarity with that word. The higher the number, the better you know it. But before you do that, you might want to just preview the card one last time. Just click the Preview button below and it’ll show you the card you’ll see during review.

The preview will show you both versions of the card. The regular will be shown by default and the flipped will come up when you click the Next sister card button. If satisfied, click OK and select the initial grade to finally create the card.

In case you’d like images, videos, or audio on your cards, just right-click on any field. The context menu that pops up has options to add multimedia items to whichever field is in focus. I highly recommend doing this wherever you can for best results.

Once you have your cards in place, you could easily start reviewing them without lifting a finger. Should you need to edit a card, just hit the edit current card option when the card to be edited is in view.

There’s also a browse cards option. This one lets you view all your cards and decks along with their contents in a simple table layout. This is very much like how files are shown in a computer’s file management system.

2. Importing Ready-Made Decks

Mnemosyne offers a tremendously useful feature in the form of import. This is the feature that allows one to straight-up download one of the dozens of freely-available decks off the Internet and add to their app. This can save you a lot of time. In order to use this feature, just hit the Import option in the File menu.

You can import more than just one file format. Mnemosyne decks can be available in several formats: .mem, .xml, .cards, and .db. All these file-types can be imported. In addition, you can also import Supermemo® and Cuecard® files along with tab-separated text files. This makes Mnemosyne an incredibly versatile tool!

Right from within the Import window, you can also assign a tag to the imported entries on the fly. This is another quick way to assort your cards without wasting any time.

3. Time to Review!

Given you already have a bunch of cards in your collection, you’re ready to finally begin your study. Now every time you fire up Mnemosyne, it’ll prompt you to begin your reviews. This is the default behavior of this app. The cards you’re asked to review are intelligently chosen by Mnemosyne. In order to do this, Mnemosyne takes your input on how easy or difficult the word was for you. And then it runs that input through an algorithm.

This algorithm is generally referred to as spacing algorithm. Several spacing algorithms are available in the market. The one Mnemosyne uses is based on an early version of SM-2. SM-2 was floated by Supermemo long before Mnemosyne existed. I say “based on” for a reason. Mnemosyne tweaks the original algorithm to handle early and late repetitions efficiently.

How you grade your familiarity with a card is key to how Mnemosyne handles its reviews. This is on a scale of zero through five. Zero, as you’d expect, means you don’t know the word at all. Five, on the other hand, means you know it thoroughly. During each review cycle, Mnemosyne repeats a card until you assign it a higher grade value. This is called cycle elimination and it allows the most thorough review possible.

4. Spacing and Stats

Mnemosyne employs a highly efficient spacing algorithm similar to Anki and Supermemo. Cards carry a grade on a scale of zero through five which determines how often you’d get to review them. This sounds as simple as it gets but behind the scenes, a whole lot of intelligence is employed.

The only problem here, some might argue, is that the process is not very transparent. I mean Mnemosyne exercises complete control over this algorithm and you don’t get to tweak it. Your review cycles are beyond your control. This might not be an issue for those who believe in the just-let-Mnemosyne-handle-it approach. But those who want to customize the process are going to be disappointed. For example, you don’t get to change the sort order, or even reset it. Such flexibility could come in handy once your card count starts to bloat up.

But this lack of flexibility does not render Mnemosyne any worse than its competitors. That’s because neither Anki nor Supermemo offers anything like that either.

The app also offers some basic stats to help you keep track of your reviews. In fact, it’s comprehensive enough for someone like me to be honest. You have graphical representation of number of cards scheduled over the next seven days. Other crazy intervals are available too, e.g., next 30 days, next 90 days, next 6 months, and even next year!

Stats are also available for cards added and learned for any interval you might be interested in. My only gripe is that it shows everything as a graph. Personally, I find tabular data easier to read than graphs but that could be just me.

Minor Bug in the OS X Version

I haven’t used Mnemosyne on Windows so not sure how it works there but the Mac version seems to have a couple of issues. These might be ironed out in future versions but as of now, they exist. The version I am testing is the latest as of today, version 2.3.5.

The first issue is with the default Tip of the day popup. Every time you boot up the app, this window shows up and refuses to leave. Even after you click the Close button. In fact, once you click the Close button, all other buttons go unresponsive rendering the app unusable. When that happens, all you can do is restart the app.

However, if you click the Next or Previous buttons before clicking Close, it works! So the bug is not exactly a deal-breaker, you see. Just a minor nuisance. If you don’t want to ever see this window, just uncheck the box that asks you to stay opted-in for it and click Close.

Concluding Thoughts

Honestly, I would give Mnemosyne a big thumbs up for its simplicity and efficiency. I am still not sure why it scores so low against Anki in terms of popularity. In my opinion, it trumps its competitors when it comes to interface.

Anki does multi-field cards too. But the way Mnemosyne handles them is way more noob-friendly than the former. You learn to use the app within seconds. And that’s important because you want to spend time learning words, not the app. Coupled with memory hooks and mnemonics, SRS programs like Mnemosyne can be a formidable addition to your vocabulary arsenal. But only if you manage your time optimally.

The only way Mnemosyne seems to be a bit of a bummer is probably its lack of support for iOS. Given the ubiquity of Apple® devices, this could be a major issue for many learners. People spend more time on their phones than they do on their desktops. And people prefer flipping through their flashcards while on the go. Hopefully, Mnemosyne overlords will eventually consider the need to satisfy this segment and bring out an iOS edition.

What do you think? Have you given it a shot yet? Have you tried any other app for the job? I am eager to know what app has worked best for you. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below!


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