Items, topics and tasks

A collection in SuperMemo is made of a set of elements. Each element is a page of information visible on the screen at one time. Elements in SuperMemo can be of three types: items, topics or tasks.

This is the function of these three types:

  • items are simple elements that are used to test your knowledge. They often have a form of a question and an answer. They can also assume other forms. For example, multiple choice test, spelling exercise, picture recognition, etc. One thing is common to all items: in the learning process they are supposed to provide a stimulus (e.g. a question) and you are supposed to respond to this stimulus (e.g. with the recall of a correct answer)
  • topics are pages of new information to learn. They are reviewed passively, i.e. they do not provide a stimulus, do not require a response, and do not expect any feedback from you. Topics may assume one of these exemplary forms:
    1. articles (e.g. imported from the Internet) or their fragments (chapters, sections, paragraphs or single sentences). Topics in the form of articles play a central role in incremental reading, i.e. massive parallel reading of articles imported from the Internet
    2. reference material such as URLs of articles to read, rough notes, pictures to process, etc.
    3. presentation pages created by authors of commercially distributed collections. Presentation pages provide an introduction to a given body of knowledge. For example, a general overview of the history of the Ottoman Empire before individual questions are asked in reference to the same subject
  • tasks describe jobs that should be done. A task may be an article to read, e-mail to respond to, website address to explore, etc. It can also describe jobs that are irrelevant to learning, e.g. a product on your shopping list or a description of a household chore on your to-do list. Tasks are useful in cases where there are more tasks than you can handle. Tasks are therefore used to prioritize your work. They help you start working with the most important tasks and proceed with less important tasks later

The division into items and topics is central to incremental reading. Topics are used to introduce the student to a given subject, while items are used to rehearse the same subject to ensure good recall of individual pieces of knowledge. Typically, you can import an article from the Internet (this will be a topic), extract its most important fragments (which will also become new topics) and then convert them to question-and-answer material. Those questions and answers will be items. Items will ensure you do not forget what you have learnt.


Topics: A topic may contain the following text:

Jimmy Carter, born 1924, US statesman and 39th President (1977-1981), born in Plains, Georgia. He was educated at the US Naval academy, and served in the US Navy until 1953, when he took over the family peanut business and other enterprises. As Governor of Georgia (1970-1974) he expressed enlightened policy towards the rights of colored men and women. In 1976 he won the Democratic presidential nomination, and went on to win a narrow victory over Gerald Ford. He arranged the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (1979), and was much concerned with human rights. His administration ended in difficulties over the taking of US hostages in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election

Items: To rehearse the knowledge of the facts presented in the above text, the following question-answer items might have been used:

Q: Which year was Jimmy Carter born?
A: 1924

Q: Who was 39th President?
A: Jimmy Carter

Q: When did Jimmy Carter become President?
A: 1977

Q: What academy did Jimmy Carter attend?
A: US Naval academy

Q: What kind of family business did Jimmy Carter take over in 1953?
A: peanut business

etc. etc.

Topics and items are presented for review in the learning process in a different way:

  • topics are presented in always increasing intervals. Each new interval equals the old interval multiplied by a constant called A-Factor
  • items are presented in intervals that depend on grades you score in the process of learning. Those intervals are determined by the SuperMemo algorithm. If you grade your answer Pass (3) or more, the interval will increase. Otherwise it will drop back to a few days (i.e. the item will be considered forgotten)

If you generate items from topics in the process of incremental reading, items will usually be children of topics in the knowledge tree. Even if you move items away from their parent topics, you can always jump back to the source topic by using the reference hyperlink button on the element toolbar.

Tasks differ from topics only by the fact that they are kept on one of your tasklists. Tasklists are prioritized lists of tasks. Tasklists which are composed of articles to read are called reading lists. Tasks can also enter the learning process and still remain on the tasklist. For more about tasks see: Break free from work overload.

The following table summarizes the differences between items, topics and tasks:

Properties Items Topics Tasks
Length Must be as short and simple as possible May contain lengthy texts and rich graphics, but can also be made of short extracts or single sentences May be either short (e.g. task description, URL, etc.) or long (e.g. reading list articles)
Repetitions Repeated as many times as it takes to keep them in memory (usually just 7-12 times per lifetime) Presented in always increasing intervals (unless you explicitly choose your own interval). Once fully processed, they are usually deleted May never enter the review process. If they are subject to review, they behave in the same way as topics
Purpose Make sure you do not forget what you have learnt. This is done by regular rehearsal (repetition) Introduction to new knowledge. They provide the source of reading material for generating new items Used to define to-do tasks, e.g. articles to read, jobs to do, e-mail to respond to, etc.
Created Usually by Add new (Alt+A) or by Reading : Remember cloze (Alt+Z) on the component menu in incremental reading Usually by pasting articles from the clipboard with Ctrl+N or by Reading : Remember extract (Alt+X) on the component menu in incremental reading. There are many other methods (e.g. Shift+Ctrl+W to import articles from Wikipedia, etc.) Usually by Add a new task (Alt+F1)
Setting the type Check Type : Item on the element menu or Element type : Item in the element parameters dialog box (Shift+Ctrl+P) Check Type : Topic on the element menu or Element type : Topic in the element parameters dialog box (Shift+Ctrl+P) Check Type : Task on the element menu or Element type : Task in the element parameters dialog box (Shift+Ctrl+P)
Repetition cycle First question components are presented. Answer components are presented only after choosing Show answer Topics are just presented as they are (even if some components are checked as Answer) Rarely do tasks take part in repetitions. If they do, they are just presented "as is" (like topics)
Processing They are intended for active recall of information from memory They are intended for passive review, reading or generating smaller topics taking part in incremental reading They await processing in a tasklist
Form Stimulus-response (most often: question and answer) Article (or its fragment) Depends on the purpose (e.g. URL, e-mail, article, name, job description, etc.)
Location in the knowledge tree Usually as children of the parent topic (if any), or added as children of the current append hook of the current category Usually as parents of items generated with cloze deletion. By default added to the currently selected category Within the category on which the tasklist is built
How they enter the learning process Usually enter the learning process at the moment of being added to the collection (e.g. with Add new or Remember cloze) Usually enter the learning process at the moment of being imported (e.g. with Ctrl+N) or extracted (Remember extract) May not take part in the review process at all. Introduced into review by tasklist priority sequence with Remember (and usually converted to a topic at the same time)

The structure of the knowledge tree will usually be determined by the operations you perform in the process of incremental reading. However, if you create a collection for use by others and would like to build a clear structure of presentation pages (topics) and the testing material (items), see: Building the knowledge tree