Optimization of Learning: SuperMemo in the Eyes of Its Users

Piotr Wozniak, 1990

This text was taken from P. A. Wozniak, Optimization of Learning, Master's Thesis, University of Technology in Poznan, 1990 and adapted for publishing as an independent article on the web. (P. A. Wozniak, M. K. Hejwosz, Jul 19, 2010).

For a more up-to-date text see: User Survey 1999.

In those days, nearly all users of SuperMemo were students of the University of Technology in Poznan and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. The survey was a result of a direct contact with those users who were given copies of early SuperMemo, which was then far from becoming a commercial product.

The effectiveness of the SuperMemo method depends to a high degree on the attitude of the student. The nuances of the optimization procedure seem to play lesser role than student's feelings about:

To collect more data concerning the psychology of a SuperMemo student I designed a simple questionnaire and delivered it to some of the SuperMemo users. By June 20, 1990 (the day I am writing these words) I received 18 forms and a short survey of responses is presented below.

It must be stressed at this moment that the questionnaire does not cover a representative group of potential students. There are many people who despite having access to the SuperMemo software never used the method. Therefore the questionnaire represents only opinions of people who more or less acknowledge the value of the method.

The age of the participants ranged from 10 to 31 years (24.4 on average). 4 students used the paper-based variant of the method, 10 students used the SM-2 algorithm (IBM PC in 9 cases, Atari XL in 2 cases) and 4 students used the SM-5 algorithm (IBM PC).

The participants have been using the SuperMemo method for 14 months on average (ranging from 1 week to 5 years). The average number of items memorized amounted to 5800 (ranging from 170 to 46500). The participants spent 45 min. daily working with SuperMemo (from 3 to 120 min.).

The most remarkable achievement consisted in memorizing 9000 items (English vocabulary) in 56 days (NB the result was obtained by one of the colleagues who used the experimental 1.5 univalent OF matrix!!!). The average number of items memorized in one hour was 24 (ranging from 4 to 67). Paradoxically, the paper-based variant yielded 44 items/hour, SM-2 18 items/hour and SM-5 16 items/hour. One must remember, however, that retention parameters are just the opposite, i.e. they are lowest for the paper-based variant. Furthermore, the students using the paper-based method memorized only 1360 items on average and it was shown in simulation experiments (Chapter 5) that the acquisition rate decreases relatively fast in the first year of using the method.

As far as the application domain is concerned, learning languages appeared to be by far the most popular. All of the students applied the SuperMemo method in learning English vocabulary. Other languages included Dutch, Esperanto, French, German and Japanese (1 student in each case).

Non-language domains: molecular biology (4 students), physiology, psychology, pharmacology, computer science, English grammar, general knowledge and traffic regulations.

Below selected answers to the question "How do you assess the effectiveness of the SuperMemo method?" are presented (my comments in parentheses):

Selected answers to the question "What do you like most in the SuperMemo method?":

Selected answers to the question "What do you dislike most in the SuperMemo method?":

Selected answers to the question "If you stopped using the SuperMemo method then describe why" (7 students stopped repetitions for longer than 1 month. All of them resumed working with the method):

From the abovementioned responses it becomes clear that the personality of a SuperMemo student has a great impact on the successful application of the method. All the questioned students acknowledged the usefulness of the method but only few of them seemed to be fully satisfied with the obtained results. The major obstacles on the way to wide popularization of the method that are suggested by the questionnaire can be formulated as follows:

Only two of the mentioned factors are beyond the scope of influence of people involved in further development of the SuperMemo method and its applications: persistence of individuals and availability of computers. Future work should therefore concentrate on developing the theory of item formulation, creation of standard, well-structured databases applicable in particular domains and employment of graphics in the process of learning.

Other aspects of the application of the SuperMemo method in stochastic learning, problem solving, etc. are presented in Chapter 12.