Items, topics, concepts, 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 four types:

This is the function of these four types:

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:

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 navigation bar.

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, concepts, and tasks:

Properties Items Topics Concepts 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. an idea) or long (e.g. a Wikipedia article) 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 Does not need to be in the review process. In review, concepts behave in the same way as topics 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 Mark important ideas, e.g. for the purpose of neural review. Organize knowledge into groups 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 Edit : Create a concept (from the main menu) or by converting an already existing topic (Element type : Concept in the Element parameters dialog box (Shift+Ctrl+P)) 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 : Concept on the element menu or Element type : Concept 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) If taking part in the learning process, concepts do not differ from topics 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 are intended for passive review, reading, incremental elaboration and enhancement, etc. incremental reading They await processing in a tasklist
Form Stimulus-response (most often: question and answer) Article (or its fragment) A concept name, or an text relevant to the concept, or an image associated with the concept, etc. 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 concept group Usually as parents of items generated with cloze deletion. By default added to the currently selected concept group Usually as a parent of a group of element, or as a separate concept or concept article Within the concept 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) Usually enter the learning process at the moment of adding, unless they are dismissed as placeholders for concepts or concept groups May not take part in the review process at all. Introduced into review by tasklist priority sequence with Ctrl+M (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) grouped thematically (concepts), see: Building the knowledge tree