Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Cramming vs. spaced repetition: When to use which method to learn Chinese

Reviewing is an integral part of learning Chinese, and students who don’t do it will forget most of what they have learnt. The fact that reviewing is important is something most students know, but when it comes to how to review, things become hazier.

Simply looking at or rereading already familiar content is common but very inefficient; active recall in the form of questions is much better at reinforcing long-term memory.

Then there are other ways to review, such as listening to or reading Chinese that is new in composition but contains the same characters, words and expressions you have already learnt. This is what graded readers and podcasts at lower levels than your own are good for.

In this article, we’re going to look at one specific aspect of how to review, namely the timing, or put briefly: when should you review? I don’t mean time of day, even though that’s worth looking into as well, but the distribution over time of each review. This is something that has been researched thoroughly, so if you want to read more, check the references at the end of this article.

Cramming vs. spaced repetition

Reviews of a specific item, such as a Chinese character or word, can either be crammed together in a short period (sometimes called massed repetition in the literature) or spread out over time (usually called spaced repetition or distributed repetition). The first method is common when cramming for exams in school, including for students of Chinese at university.

The second method is not as common as a deliberate study strategy, even though listening and reading will expose students to distributed reviews too (the average student rarely engages in this type of listening or reading anyway). It’s a pity that spaced repetition isn’t used more, because it has been shown over and over to be much more efficient (see for example Zechmeister & Shaughnessy, 1980;  Bahrick, 1993).

This article is not meant to explain what spaced repetition is and how it works, so if you’re new to the idea, please read my old article about spaced repetition software for Chinese students.

Cramming actually works, but not as well as you think

One would think that if spaced repetition works so well, students would gradually adopt it as a superior method. This is not the case, though, there’s even research to support that cramming as a method becomes more widespread the longer the students have studied (see Vacha & McBride, 1993).


There are probably many factors influencing what methods students use to pass exams, but here are some I think are plausible.

  1. Cramming actually works in the short term. Few claim that spaced repetition is very effective for preparing for exams the next day, because there needs to be enough time to space the reviews. Even programs built on the idea of spaced repetition, such as Anki, have cram modes. This is not only because users want it (which I’m sure they do), but because it might be the best method for short-term learning.
  2. Continuing on the notion that cramming works in the short term, cramming is often the optimal method for students, given how the educational system is structured. Even in language courses, exams often focus on new material, including old words and grammar only accidentally. Thus, a strategy based on cramming for exams probably does work, especially if you expect not to be tested again on all those pesky characters soon.
  3. Even if students believed that spaced repetition was the best way to learn (they don’t; see below), they might still be too lazy or undisciplined to make use of it. Everybody knows that doing something when you have to do it, such as cramming for an exam the next day, is easier than preparing a little bit every day for some challenge months away. I mean, I’ve known about the benefits of spaced repetition a long time but still crammed occasionally for exams.
  4. Perhaps most important for you as a reader of this article, students are mistaken about the effectiveness of spaced repetition even after they have tried it and performed better than they would have without it. This is an astonishing finding, so let’s look at it more closely.  In a study by Kornell (2009), it was found that students who used spaced repetition did better than students who used massed repetition, but even after sitting an exam and having their knowledge tested, they still believed that massing was more efficient! This would explain why it’s so hard to convince students to use spaced repetition (believe me, I’ve tried). The reason they are mistaken could be related to several things, such as them mistaking ease of repetition for actual recall (i.e. looking at something you already know feels familiar and you therefore fool yourself into believing that you remembered it better than an exam would show), or it could be that spreading reviews out over time feels less effective because you can’t mentally check a box and say that you’re now done with section 15b after 30 minutes of cramming it.

Learning Chinese is not a short-term project

So, in summary, cramming is a valid method that works for short-term studying. However, learning Chinese is not a short-term project. It takes years. You still need to know all the things you learn as a beginner as an intermediate student, and most of the things you learn as an intermediate student, you will need at an advanced level.

Much of this can be taken care of by huge amounts of exposure, both listening and reading. You will then naturally review what you have learnt, in context. This works well for receptive skills (see my article about extensive reading), but not so well for things like handwriting Chinese characters. As every slightly advanced learner (and indeed native speaker) knows, being able to read is not the same as being able to write.

Cramming vs. spaced repetition: When to use which method to learn Chinese?

The answer is that ideally, there should be no situation where cramming is the optimal strategy or the best solution for you. It’s only the optimal strategy in the artificially structured world of institutional language learning, which is often assessed with the short term in mind, whereas the real world of communication in a language is long term.

Cramming is only the best solution if you have neglected your studies or for some other reason have to learn a lot very fast (i.e. cramming), without any consideration as to how much you will remember later. Keep in mind that cramming does work, it’s just not the best long-term solution.

Spaced repetition for long-term successful learning

As learners of Chinese, we need spaced repetition to commit characters, words and expressions to long-term memory in an efficient way. Please note that efficiency is important here because the same study I quoted above that said that cramming worked also said cramming took more hours. We don’t want that. We want to use those hours to immerse ourselves in the language more or perhaps learn even more vocabulary.

So, make sure you employ spaced repetition when you learn Chinese, preferably both in the form of extensive listening and reading, as well as flashcards, especially for Chinese characters.

As teachers of Chinese, we need to stop organising our teaching in a way that benefits cramming. Courses and lessons should be designed with the long-term benefit of students in mind, and cramming does not promote that. Assessment should be continuous and not only focus on what has been taught recently. Exams should not only cover the new vocabulary in the last six chapters of the textbook. Students should of course be told about this in advance and they should be given the tools to cope. Spaced repetition is one of them.

Further reading

Bahrick, H. P., Bahrick, L. E., Bahrick, A. S., & Bahrick, P. E. (1993). Maintenance of foreign language vocabulary and the spacing effect. Psychological Science4(5), 316-321.

Bloom, K. C., & Shuell, T. J. (1981). Effects of massed and distributed practice on the learning and retention of second-language vocabulary. The Journal of Educational Research74(4), 245-248.

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: Is spacing the “enemy of induction”?. Psychological science19(6), 585-592.

Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition23(9), 1297-1317.

Vacha, E. F., & McBride, M. J. (1993). Cramming: A barrier to student success, a way to beat the system or an effective learning strategy?. College Student Journal.

Zechmeister, E. B., & Shaughnessy, J. J. (1980). When you know that you know and when you think that you know but you don’t. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society15(1), 41-44.

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  1. Apollys says:

    Was interesting to read, would love if you could proofread and fix up the typos (got in the way of comprehension in some places).

    Always been a fan of spaced repetition, even before I knew it was a thing I was doing it. I’m surprised people think it’s not effective even after trying it.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thanks for pointing this out! I have fixed the errors and updated the article.

      I have also used spaced repetition since the very beginning because it just made sense to me. I was a bit stupid and actually developed my own system without really checking the available tools and research. I ended up with big spreadsheets telling me when to study what (in smaller chunks), which worked okay until I found Anki.

  2. Larry says:

    Hi Olle, I’m heading for China in a month. While I use Anki for space repetition all the time, I do feel the need for some cramming of key words and phrases before seeing the inlaws again (!). Soooo, my question is, how best to cram? I have scraps of paper with word and phrase lists, plus lists on my phone and iPad. How do you go about cramming?

  3. Els Withers says:

    Another cramming scenario: short-term notice for a meeting on a specialized topic (or any specialized event coming up). See here: http://countryoftheblind.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-cramming-case-study.html

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, good point. Any time where short-term retention is the most important thing. I mean, even if you use SRS normally, if you care about the grades enough, cramming will probably add a few points if done addition to SRS too.

  4. 山姆 says:

    Hi Olle

    I’ve been learning Mandadrin for a few years now and have lived in China for just over a year. I’m at the lower intermediate level.

    I spend quite a long time using flash cards, probably more than I need to but actually I prefer it this way because it I can really take the time to study the characters that I haven’t learnt succiently – in detail by looking at the composition of the characters and plenty of example sentences. Doing this, I find that I can recall characters better than when I first started using it. Back then I’d go through it quicker but I wasn’ satisfied with my long-term recall ability.

    Was there ever a time when you had to spend a longer amount time on spaced repition flash cards to remember characters?

    Also, I very very rarely finish a set of flash cards in a day so I can’t even compare the amount of time I spend to you but I can say it’s over 40mins, probably just over an hr every day.

    BTW, I’ve followed HC on and off for a few years and I love the work your doing. Best of all you have greatly influenced the way I study so thank you.

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