This text was written around 1991 at the time of establishing SuperMemo World. It is loosely based on "Strategic prerequisites of effective work with SuperMemo" taken from Dr Wozniak's Master's Thesis: "Optimization of learning" (1990). If effective work with SuperMemo is your concern, you must also peek at later texts that significantly expand on this early experience with "classical" SuperMemo:
SuperMemo helps you organize learning and minimize time needed for repetitions. However, it is not the ultimate formula for success in learning. The mere personality of the student can often render SuperMemo unusable. The main quality needed to succeed is perseverance. Only strongly motivated individuals are able to persist in repetitions. For others, short-term expenditures seem to overshadow long-term benefits. There are many more snags awaiting an unprepared student. The most important ones are discussed in the following sections:
The most frequent reason for the lack of success with SuperMemo is lack of regularity and perseverance. In fact, irregular repetitions fall out of the definition of the SuperMemo method. No wonder then that for those who lack regularity success is not forthcoming. Regular sessions with SuperMemo are among the most demanding factors and require lots of will power and determination. Indeed, SuperMemo is not only a good therapy for poor memory, but it also helps to develop iron will. The importance of regularity comes from the fact that SuperMemo computes optimal intervals that should separate repetitions. You need to repeat when SuperMemo demands it. It should not be interpreted as a shortcoming of the method, but as an inherent property of memory. Every day of delay, not only increases the proportion of forgotten items, but also results in an inevitable accumulation of work that has to be done in the days to come. This imposes additional stress on the student who, with each passing day, is less inclined to return to repetitions. In SuperMemo, the best results are obtained when the student uses the method every day for the same period of time. Working every second day, although less effective, is much better than working every second week, etc. Systematic work with SuperMemo is a sine qua non of success, and those who do not intend to work regularly should not hope the program will make up for their lack of persistence. Treat your repetitions like you treat your daily religious or physiological rituals. Like brushing your teeth. To paraphrase a well-known adage, you might say that SuperMemo is like sex: you cannot leave it to others. You cannot buy knowledge, you have to regularly make it flow into your memory.
Selection of material: you cannot learn all things you would want to
As SuperMemo makes learning easy, you may be tempted to learn more than you really need. Only with time will you discover the true extent of knowledge that you need and are able to master. Although SuperMemo is extremely effective, it is not omnipotent! Immoderation will sooner or later result in your being overwhelmed with the number of repetitions
Working with SuperMemo imposes a strict limitation on the amount of new knowledge that can be learnt in unit time, and requires an accurate selection of material. In choosing facts and rules to remember, you should primarily use the criterion of applicability. Lots of items may seem worth knowing, but because of the limited capacity of memory, only a small fraction of them may actually be remembered, and the choice should favor items of the highest applicability in day-to-day situations. You will not waste much time if you include items that you would remember anyway just because of their regular use. Therefore, you better always err on the safe side and include all important items you are not sure you would remember. Concerning the selection of the material to learn, another general principle is that you should first master the most fundamental aspects of the learned subject and get into details at later stages. Meticulous dismembering of textbooks page by page is bound to produce excess of details at the cost of principal knowledge. An important psychological aspect of the general-to-specialized approach is that you can soon discover great profits coming from the perfect knowledge of the most fundamental facts. With amazement, you will notice how new facts and rules excellently slot in in what you have already learned.
Good foundations make it easier to slot in new knowledge, provide additional encouragement to work, and free you from the unhealthy impression that you are acquiring knowledge for the knowledge's sake.
For an extensive discussion of knowledge selection and prioritizing see: Flow of knowledge in SuperMemo
It is a frequent case that a SuperMemo beginner, amazed with results obtained by a friend who used the method, embarks on an exceedingly ambitious program of gaining new knowledge. The thing (s)he usually overestimates is his or her own learning ability and perseverance. SuperMemo does not guarantee an immediate success. It requires some skills and strategy that develop over a longer period of time. The fact that a student can memorize a myriad of items in a short time does not necessarily mean that the same student will have enough perseverance to continue repetitions of the newly memorized material. Nor does it indicate that the learned items are properly structured and will be kept in memory as easily as they have been memorized.
Two factors contribute to the dangers of immoderation:
- You slow down in the beginning: The speed of learning decreases substantially during the first few months of learning as a result of a pile up of repetitions (the decline is most visible in the first few weeks)
- Badly formulated items show up with time: Learning new material is much easier than retaining the acquired knowledge in memory. Badly structured items usually reveal their intractability only after several repetitions! (see: 20 rules of formulating knowledge in SuperMemo)
Before starting any extensive process of expanding your collection, you must examine your ability to:
- formulate simple and clear items (with hardly any exception, beginners are bound to form a great deal of ill-structured items!)
- work continually for a longer time with SuperMemo (only the most persistent individuals can sustain memorathons lasting more than 1 hour!)
Moderation and a cool estimation of one's needs and abilities are important factors of success with SuperMemo. The recommended time of working with SuperMemo is 5-20 minutes per day for beginners, and no more than 60-90 minutes per day for advanced students!
It is a frequent beginning: an enthusiastic SuperMemo student wastes lots of time on learning complex and wordy items that by no means want to stick to his or her memory
Imagine that you want to remember all European countries by cramming a long list of their names. The typical situation is that you remember most of the names on the list, but usually fail to mention one or two. The net result is that the item is considered forgotten again and again, and that you cannot see any progress in learning. Using mnemonic techniques, you could learn to produce the whole list in a given order, but this is unlikely to accurately reflect knowledge which you actually want to learn. A vast majority of educated people are unable to list all countries in Europe (10% of college seniors in the US cannot even point to a single country in Africa!). A total recall is possible if you use the trick of systematic scanning of the European map in your imagination. You have to know the map first though.
A good SuperMemo student will not attempt storing the whole list in one item. He will use one of the knowledge structuring tricks, and split the list into many items. Depending on what sort of knowledge might be useful, the student will use tricks such as:
- grouping items by geographical locations of particular countries,
- grouping them by their affiliation (e.g., European Union, EEA, EFTA, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, NATO),
- grouping them by natural language family, etc.
These tricks will certainly introduce redundancy, but a clever student will certainly use the redundancy to his or her advantage. Monster items consume more time and produce less effect than the same items split into a number of subitems. To ensure good recall, a multifaceted approach should be taken, i.e. all possible combinations of questions concerning a given relationship should be asked. For example, if you want to remember that the leading cause of death is heart disease, and that it accounts for almost 40% of deaths in western countries, the following question might appear insufficient:
What is the leading cause of death in western countries?
However, the above question does not let you remember the proportion of deaths caused by heart disease, nor does it ensure that the 40% statistic refers to western countries. Instead, a multifaceted set of questions could look as follows:
- What is the leading cause of death in western countries?
- In what group of countries is heart disease a leading cause of death?
- What proportion of deaths in western countries can be attributed to heart disease?
- What disease is responsible for 40% of deaths in western countries?
- Is heart disease a leading cause of death in western countries?
Such a collection of items, although redundant and time-consuming, will be learned faster and will leave a more stable trace in your memory
The problem of properly structuring knowledge in learning is so critical that we strongly recommend that you carefully read: 20 rules of formulating knowledge in learning
The fact that your items are simple, doesn't yet guarantee that they are easy to remember. One of the big obstacles in creating easy collections is the problem of interference, or confusion, coming from the fact that two different items might have similar questions or similar answers. For example, imagine that you want to learn something about SuperMemo, and you create a special collection for that purpose. Consider the following two items:
You need not much experience with SuperMemo to predict that the student who wants to master a collection containing two such items will continually confuse ambiguous items with equivocal items until he discovers that he keeps two items whose questions are semantically identical but answers differ. The simple remedy to the problem is to formulate an item with two optional answers:
Q: What is the name of items which are similar to one another?
A: (a) ambiguous items OR (b) equivocal items
In such a case, providing one of the answers is sufficient to classify the item as remembered (unless the user wishes to remember both terms and replaces OR with AND). The problem of interference is particularly visible in attempts to remember numbers. No simple trick of splitting items into subitems can suffice here. The ages long solution to the problem here is mnemonic techniques. One popular mnemonic technique is to represent numbers as pictures and attempt to remember scenes formed by those pictures instead of remembering numbers. For example, instead of having the item:
Q: What is the value of the constant p?
the student might memorize the universal list of 10 pictures corresponding to 10 digits e.g.:
- harpoon (because 1 looks like a harpoon),
- coin (because a coin has two sides),
- tripod (because a tripod has three legs),
- dog (because a dog has four legs), etc.
and formulate the mnemonic item in the following way:
Q: What is the value of the constant p?
A: 3.14 because: p rhymes with fry and ... on a small tripod a big balloon is being fried (balloon represents the decimal point), suddenly somebody pierces the balloon with a harpoon, and from inside the bursting sphere a big dog jumps on the student
If you do not have problems with remembering the value of p, you should not bother with mnemonic techniques. However, even when formulating the above scene may seem awkward and time consuming, it always results in better remembering (if the mnemonic item is constructed skillfully). The net result is saved time
The problem of knowledge interference is discussed in: 20 rules of formulating knowledge in learning
In the pursuit of more and more knowledge, you may develop a tendency to give careless answers and hastily jump from question to question in order to reduce the repetition time. There are no dangers related to fast repetitions on condition that the speed is achieved by simplicity of items rather than by negligence in providing answers. It is often possible to automatically answer a question without understanding its important implications. Instead of being semantic, i.e., based on the meaning, the repetitions become syntactic or literal, based on the automatic rendition of the item's wording. Not only is the thus acquired knowledge of little value, but what is worse, you may become disillusioned with SuperMemo because of inadequate learning progress. To prevent such an outcome, you must constantly control the learning process by asking the following questions:
- Is this item truly important for the skills I want to develop?
- Does the ability to answer the question truly ensure that I remember exactly what I want to remember?
- If I have any problems with remembering a given item, is it truly formulated in the simplest and most univocal way? (see: 20 rules of formulating knowledge)
- If I have problems with a simple and univocal item, what mnemonic technique could I use to make it easier to remember?
- Are the following elements of the learning process suitably chosen?
- The extent of the subject I want to learn (considering my learning capacity and availability of time)
- The degree to which I want to get into details
- The level of knowledge retention I want to reach (see: Forgetting index)
- The amount of time a day I can afford to spend on SuperMemo
All these questions must recur again and again, and you must constantly maintain the highest level of alertness and concentration. The profits coming from mastering concentration skills are extraordinary! Sloppy work will produce poor results and cause disillusionment. Experience shows that repetitions made early in the morning make it easier to ensure adequate concentration (independent of your circadian rhythm and mentality!) (see: Morning repetitions)
It is highly recommended that you keep all your knowledge in one collection! You will notice that this greatly helps you put equal emphasis on all parts of the material. You should use the tools provided by SuperMemo to emphasize more important subjects (e.g. forgetting index or branch learning)! Splitting your knowledge into many collections will often result in using negligence as your emphasis tool!
It may be useful in the beginning to understand the stages passed by a typical student during the evolution of his understanding and attitude towards SuperMemo. The observations presented below were compiled from hundreds of letters and questionnaires sent to SuperMemo World, as well as from personal contacts with dozens of students at both basic and advanced levels (data compiled in 1994 may differ from figures for 1998 and later when the Internet has changed the profile of users of SuperMemo) (see: SuperMemo User Survey)
90% of students start their affair with SuperMemo because
of good opinions they heard about the program from their colleagues or from press
(recently, more and more customers are attracted to SuperMemo via the Internet).
That initial attitude is positive and full of expectation. After studying the basics of
SuperMemo, reactions of students vary greatly, and are highly correlated with the general
level of intelligence and education, especially with respect to sciences. A substantial
group of students become discouraged because of the mechanical and repetitive nature of
SuperMemo. In this group, individuals with no university education, or university
education in humanities strongly prevail. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals
with strong background in mathematics, physics or computing sciences, who seem to
easily accept the philosophy of SuperMemo, and whose first contact with
the method is likely to enhance their positive attitude. From this group, SuperMemo has
recruited the greatest number of enthusiastic supporters. Only 75% of individuals continue
their repetitions beyond one month! The drop-outs provide the following reasons for
cessation of repetitions: (1) they do not believe in SuperMemo (10%)(no university
education or education in humanities prevails), (2) they do not believe in their own learning
powers (5%)(mostly individuals over 45 years of age), (3) they do not have time for
repetitions (25%)(private entrepreneurs, physicians, lawyers, etc.), and (4) they intend
to return to repetitions in the future (60%)(students). Only those who pass the
first month of repetitions can truly testify to the usefulness of the method. Among those
the approval rate is 95%! Most of them consider SuperMemo an excellent aid in learning
(50%) or a useful product (45%); only 5% of those polled did not have a specified opinion
or rated SuperMemo as nothing special. SuperMemo World has not received a single
questionnaire from a student who had tried out SuperMemo for at least one month, and was
generally dissatisfied with the method. However, the attrition rate after the first month
remains still high. Having passed a month of repetitions, almost all students wish they
had used SuperMemo on a permanent basis, but for hundreds of reasons they cannot cope with
busy repetition schedules (introduction of Tools :
Mercy in 1992 reduced the attrition rate at the
cost of the quality of learning!). The most widespread attitude is to hope to resume
repetitions in some unspecified future. Here, the major drawback of SuperMemo becomes
visible: it does not produce amazing results for free! It does produce amazing results
only through hard and systematic work. In busy times of our dynamically growing
civilization, we all too often stick with the principle that better an egg today than a
hen tomorrow. 10 minutes spent on a business call, reading a scientific paper, or writing
a report seem to bring immediate result. The same 10 minutes spent on repetitions with
SuperMemo, can save several hours or even days in lifetime, but the saving is hard to
sense, even for an experienced student. SuperMemo is a gratification delayed!
What is worse, after a longer period of repetitions, the student may easily come to the false conclusion that the knowledge has already been well memorized, and requires no further repetition. This way, even the most enthusiastic students often drop weeks of repetitions. Additionally, abusing Tools : Mercy can easily produce the impression that all is OK with the learning process. For an average user, breaks in repetitions regularly make up 20% of the learning time!!!
Remember that you are not the only one saying: I will do it tomorrow, or next week, or I think I still remember it all right. Forgetting is like radiation: you cannot smell it, you cannot taste it, and when you finally notice the damage, it is already irreversible (i.e. contrary to popular belief, rememorizing will cost you little less than learning for the first time!)
There is a sure way to tell if a given student will be successful in his work with SuperMemo or not. If he finds pleasure in long-lasting sessions with repetitive work, he is bound to do terrific job. Despite what meets the eye at first, SuperMemo repetitions do not have to be monotonous. Here is a couple of examples of extra activities that accompany repetitions and provide a solid ground for making the work with SuperMemo interesting and challenging:
- Editing items that do not seem to comply with the principles of simplicity and univocality
- Dismissing or deleting items that no longer seem worth remembering
- Cross-analysis of the learning material, in order to eliminate discrepancies or redundancy. Note that not all sorts of redundancy are undesirable. For example, having the same foreign word twice in a collection introduces unnecessary noise in the optimization process; however, having the same word in different contexts might increase its semantic associativeness, and make it easier to remember the word
- Adding new items
- Inspecting statistical data used in monitoring one's progress
- Analysis of the repeated items:
- What does a given fact or rule imply? Does it agree with other facts I know?
- In what situations can I use the knowledge I learn? What will the profit or satisfaction be?
- In what situation did I find that I should remember this item? Was I really able to make use of knowing it?
If the repetition process appears to be tedious and monotonous, the student must seriously reconsider all the earlier mentioned prerequisites of success (see also: 20 rules of formulating knowledge). Lack of enthusiasm is the first symptom of misguided use of SuperMemo. On the other hand, if used properly, SuperMemo can be quite addictive. You will easily find it indispensable for your personal and professional success
As in other activities, general health helps you achieve better results in learning. It increasingly becomes a common knowledge how to keep healthy and fit. It may still, however, be useful to list the most important principles that should be remembered by every student:
- Sufficient amount of sleep. It is during sleep that the consolidation of memories takes place. Both the REM and slow-wave sleep components are critical for the consolidation to take place, and only 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep can produce good learning results in most people. Each all-nighter reduces the proportion of REM sleep in the next night. Intense intellectual work may cause increased demand for sleep, and nothing should prevent the student from satisfying it. Anecdotal evidence suggests (customer surveys) that 40 minutes of SuperMemo a day may increase your natural demand for sleep by up to one hour. No one has ever benefited from trying to save time by sleeping less. By trying to emulate Edison, the student is bound to dramatically reduce the effects of learning. Secondly, the tiredness caused by lack of sleep is one of the main factors that can ruin a learning session with SuperMemo. If you did not get enough sleep in the night, a short nap may be an excellent temporary remedy. See: Good sleep, good learning, good life
- Physical exercise is absolutely necessary for every successful student. Without it, the respiratory and circulatory systems cannot adapt easily to increased demand for oxygen in intense intellectual work. An unfit student tends to be drowsy and cannot maintain the sufficient level of alertness in long sessions with SuperMemo. Pains of the back, eye strain, hemorrhoidal problems, gastrointestinal disorders, repetitive strain injury, and many other ailments of a hard-working student are greatly prevented by a high level of fitness in physically active individuals. Sports that result in a long-lasting increase in the heart rate and oxygen consumption, e.g., jogging, inline skating, cycling, swimming, etc. are particularly recommended. Secondly, an anaerobic strength exercise should also be made a part of a student's weekly schedule
- It is a common knowledge that smoking and alcohol are major preventable causes of a great spectrum of disorders that not only interfere with the process of learning, but are also dangerous to health and, in the long run, life. Alcoholism is notorious for its toxic effects to the brain, and is a major environmental cause of senile dementia (loss of memory in old age). It is also known to reduce the number of NMDA receptors in the brain (receptors involved in memory), and to reduce retention in recall memory tests. It affects both short and long-term memory. Moderate drinking may be beneficial for health but you should avoid drinking before repetitions due to possible drowsiness and lost focus. Smoking is most renowned for its contribution to heart disease and cancer; however, even to a student who is not much concerned with his or her own future, it is worth noting that smoking also causes hypertension, increased excitability of the nervous system, cerebral hypoxia (reduced oxygenation of the brain) and many other effects that are highly undesirable in learning. It is worth noting that hypertension is consider the primary factor in aging of the brain. See: How to quit smoking
- Adequate nutrition is indispensable in successful learning. It is difficult to specify particular guidelines except for the fact that the foods consumed should comply with what is generally considered a healthy diet. For example, you may think that a satisfying lunch will be good for your learning, however, research demonstrates that the level of mental alertness drops substantially after a meal. It is also known that a low-fat diet prevents arteriosclerosis and should be considered desirable. However, another research shows that reduced blood levels of lipoproteins (a group of fat components) have a negative influence on the performance in intelligence tests. An average, healthy diet should satisfy all the nutritional needs of a student, so that no supplements shall be necessary
- Tea and coffee are used by many people as stimulants, especially as a remedy for sleep deficit. While having a positive effect on alertness, high levels of caffeine and theophylline (active compounds of coffee and tea) may cause restlessness, problems with concentration and, worst of all, sleep disturbances (see: Good sleep, good learning, good life). Some research has indicated positive impact of coffee on health and longevity. To avoid misguided use, examine your reaction to caffeine. If you use it to speed up your transition from sleep to full wakefulness and experience an immediate boost in intellectual capacity, your learning process may benefit. However, if you abuse caffeine as a result of stress or sleep deficit, you are likely to produce anxiety and problems with concentration. If your mind veers off repetitions all too often, cut down on caffeine and examine your stress levels. Tea, coffee, as well as all sorts of caffeine-containing drinks, should be used with moderation
- In intense intellectual work, the brain may use up 30 or more percent of total oxygen. As you will observe, SuperMemo is a particularly tiring learning method. This comes from the fact that it forces your brain to work at its top gear (repetitions are scheduled at the possibly longest intervals). An average, untrained student will experience drowsiness as soon as after 30 minutes of continuous repetitions. Most of individuals find it impossible to work with SuperMemo for more that 1 hour, and each minute beyond that limit may bring a genuine mental torture. This entails the great importance of the availability of fresh air in the room when the learning takes place. Working in two or even three sessions may also help. Sufficient amount of sleep, fresh air and enthusiasm for work are the best allies of a student who wishes to spend long sessions with SuperMemo and produce fabulous results
- Mental health: You need a happy mind to be an effective student. You need to learn to avoid stress and cope with unavoidable stress. Have a look at The Medical Basis of Stress, Depression, Anxiety, Sleep Problems, and Drug Use for a goldmine of good tips for those who have to struggle with winter blues, addiction, stress or sleep problems