Learning is a subject often fraught with frustration, angst, and pressure. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. The traditional school system, conceived long before the advent of computers and modern learning methodologies, isn’t really the best way to learn. There are many tools and methods that improve on what’s available in most schools today, but in this post I’d like to introduce you to one specific contender called Cerego.
Cerego is currently in closed Beta, but we’ve got invites to give out to 500 lucky readers. Read on to find out more about the service, and if you want to take it for a spin, you’ll find those invites at the end of the post.
Cerego’s Claim to Fame
To understand what Cerego is all about, check out this quick video promoting the service:
In a nutshell, Cerego uses the spaced repetition to help you better memorize collections of items, ranging from dog breeds to US state flags to the prefectures of Japan. The service employs an algorithm that helps it detect when you’re about to forget a piece of information, and tries to present that datum for review at just the right moment (i.e, before it slips your mind).
If this concept sounds familiar, then perhaps you’re thinking of Anki, which we reviewed back in 2009 (I reviewed its Android version in 2011), or of AnyMemo which Saikat reviewed just a few short months ago.
What I Will (and Won’t) Cover
If you read any review of Cerego that raves about its astounding learning methodology and how well it works, take it with a big grain of salt. It’s not that Cerego isn’t good. It’s that in order to effectively evaluate a tool that’s supposed to help you retain knowledge, you need to use it for months, or maybe a year or two. Cerego hasn’t been around for that long, so quite honestly, there’s no real way to tell how well it works in the long run. You won’t find me extolling the virtues of its method here.
What you will find, however, is a thorough evaluation of its interface, the extent of the material that it offers, and the learning experience. That should be more than enough to help you decide whether or not you want to give it a go yourself.
Cerego’s founder (who doesn’t sound British at all) recorded this video showing what a very quick study session looks like:
The way Cerego deals with your answers is interesting, and very different from Anki. Anki just asks “how hard was this to remember?” and believes you. Cerego asks if you know the answer, and then has you prove that you do by selecting it from a number of options.
Learning Isn’t The Same As Understanding
One very important thing Cerego’s marketing content neglects to mention is that remembering and understanding are not the same thing. If I work hard enough, I’d likely be able to rattle off a whole poem in Basque (or Lojban) without understanding a single word of what I’m saying, much less appreciating its artistic quality. Some people in the spaced repetition industry understand this well – check out Supermemo’s brilliant article The 20 rules of formulating knowledge in learning (a must-read if you’re into spaced repetition).
Rule #1 is “Do not learn if you do not understand”. I just wanted to put this out there so you understand where I’m looking at Cerego from.
Once you log into Cerego, the first thing you’re going to have to decide is what you want to study:
There are currently 28 courses, ranging from US states and statistics terminology, to brain anatomy and dog breeds. A pretty eclectic mix, which is a good thing. For each course, you can see how many items it contains, how many people are studying it, a star rating, and how many people rated it:
I also like that Cerego clearly credits the author of the course, who no doubt put in quite a bit of time creating the content. I’m going to go with this dog breeds course because, well, I like dogs. Cerego doesn’t limit you to one course at a time, but I’m going to start with just this one.
Having decided that, I clicked the Learn button and launched into a study session.
A Study Session
When beginning a study session, you get a quick overview of your progress (0% for me, as it’s my first session). You can also set the length of the session:
I’m going to go with the maximum, a 20-item session. Upon starting the session, I got this:
This is apparently the “learning” stage. First, the photo of the dog flashed onto the screen and disappeared. Then the word Papillon flashed and disappeared. Then, both appeared at once. I’m now supposed to look at the screen and understand that this breed of dog is called a Papillon. Having never heard of this breed before, I click the “I” button and get a rather informative blurb – “The Papillon (from the French word for butterfly) also called the Continental Toy Spaniel, is a breed of dog of the Spaniel type. One of the oldest of the toy spaniels, it derives its name from its characteristic butterfly-like look of the long and fringed hair on the ears.”
Good to know! I like that the creator also included the derivation of the name, as it makes for a good mnemonic device. The image itself was quite small, though, and there was no way to make it larger. Again, this is the responsibility of the content creator.
Moving on, Cerego presented me with a few other dog breeds in this way, until it popped the first question:
Of course I know this, it’s a Papillon! Immensely pleased with myself, I clicked the Yes button.
Cerego now tested me, and wanted me to click on the right answer. This is an interesting twist for me (I’m used to Anki). It then decided I’ve waited too long before answering (I was busy taking the screenshot!) and highlighted the correct answer, which was indeed Papillon. It then had me review the card because I messed it up (said I knew and then failed to answer).
It then asked me about another dog it showed me before, an Afghan Hound. This time I was quick to answer, and was rewarded with a satisfying “Ding!” sound effect, and a great big checkmark:
The system then taught me a number of other breeds, and then asked me my first reversed question. It showed the word Papillon and asked if I knew what it was. Once I said I do, it had me click a photo of a Papillon out of a few possible selections. I got it right.
I did click a beagle instead of a basset hound once. Cerego was quick to correct me and show me what a basset hound really looks like, but it never told me what I clicked was a beagle. The next question had me identify a beagle though.
One thing that was a bit stressful about the process is that once you click “Yes” (I know what this is) you get very little time to pick the right answer from the list. Literally, five seconds or less. Sometimes just reading the names takes as long, so you need to be fast. The material was presented systematically. Cerego introduced me to three new breeds at a time, and then asked a few questions, and then three more breeds, and so on.
As you progress through the session, the progress bar on top of the window slowly fills up. It’s not time-based – it only fills up when you get answers right. This means a session’s actual length could vary based on your performance. My 20-item session took far longer than I thought it would. When I finally completed it, Cerego showed me this overview screen:
That cluster of circles on the top-left of the graph represents the items I’ve worked on in this session. Cerego tells me these 20 items are 35% of the total items in this pack (57 items in all). The main thing that bugged me about this particular pack were the tiny photos – they really were too small.
Cerego also shows individual course items:
So you can review the items at your leisure and read their related notes.
Cerego also allows you to create your own content and share it with the world, which is brilliant, but I won’t go into it here. On the whole, the service feels polished and well thought-out. A lot lies in the hands of the content creator, but Cerego has done its job providing you with a solid framework for spaced-repetition study.
We have a link that’s good for 500 invites, so if you’re quick enough, you’ll get to try it out yourself! If you do (or if you use any spaced repetition system to learn), I’d love to hear about it in the comments.