Incremental learning


What is incremental learning?

This article describes the fastest avenue towards rock-solid lifetime knowledge: Incremental Learning.

Incremental learning is the fastest and the most comprehensive way of learning available to students at the moment of writing (2013).

Incremental learning is a consolidation of computer-based techniques that accelerate and optimize the process of learning from all conceivable material available in electronic form, and not only.

Currently, SuperMemo is the only software that implements incremental learning. In SuperMemo, the student feeds the program with all forms of learning material and/or data (texts, pictures, videos, sounds, etc.). Those learning materials are then gradually converted into durable knowledge that can last a lifetime.

Incremental learning helps the student convert all forms of learning material into durable and lasting memories.

In incremental learning, the student usually remembers 95% of his or her top priority material. That knowledge is relatively stable and lasts in student's memory as long as the process continues, and well beyond.

Incremental learning easily ensures 95% recall of top-priority learning material for lifetime (as long as the student ensures a regular review along the prescription provided by the program).

The cost of high knowledge retention is very small when compared with various traditional learning methods. For example, in learning a language, the vocabulary of an educated native speaker can be retained in SuperMemo at the cost of 20 minutes per day in the first years of the process, and mere minutes in later years (assuming the original set is acquired in portions spread over 4 years in 30-50 min. sessions).

Incremental learning ensures high recall at a fraction of the cost in time (as compared to textbook learning).

The incremental learning derives its name from the incremental nature of the learning process. In incremental learning, all facets of knowledge receive a regular treatment, and there is a regular inflow of new knowledge that builds upon the past knowledge. In incremental learning, the student sits in the driving seat and determines which knowledge should be mastered. He or she determines when this happens, with what degree of detail, at what priority, and at what desired degree of recall/retention. For example, in a single session, the student may learn a few facts of geography, discover a few rules of healthy lifestyle, figure out a few statistical formulas, read a couple of paragraphs from a friend's blog, process a few minutes of his home video collection, annotate a few family pictures, watch a few pieces from his YouTube video collection, and read a few articles in subjects related to a forthcoming exam. In other words, all areas of knowledge keep growing in parallel in proportion to interests and importance.

Typical learning at school puts an emphasis on a few areas of knowledge and neglects all the remaining areas. A medical student may spend a few months mastering anatomy, while gradually forgetting his biochemistry material in the meantime (or the other way round). At the same time, he or she will not find time to study important issues of the day that will always depend on a given person in a given context. With blinkers imposed by the heavy load of school material, the student may never find time, for example, to figure out what incremental learning is. Narrow horizons and narrow perspectives only make it harder to further rationalize the selection of the learning material.

Incremental learning is the opposite of the irrational school system learning in which a heavy focus is put on just a few areas of knowledge in a semester (at the cost of other, equally important, areas of learning).

Note: This article spans a number of sub-articles that discuss individual components of incremental learning. If you would like to read it all incrementally or would just like to print it out, see the Full Version.

General outline of incremental learning

In incremental learning, you acquire and maintain knowledge using the following steps:

With incremental learning, you can consolidate all sources of knowledge, and convert information into lifetime memories at the chosen cost in time, and along strictly defined goals and priorities.

Components of incremental learning

Incremental learning tools differ substantially for various forms of learning material, media, and goals. Here are the main components of incremental learning:

With the rich toolset offered by incremental learning, all reading, learning, viewing, archiving, and annotation functions can be delegated to SuperMemo. This goes far beyond standard learning and includes personal notes, home videos, lectures available in audio and video formats, YouTube material, family photo-albums, diaries, audio files, scanned paper materials, etc.

The oldest, most popular, and the most mature component of incremental learning is incremental reading. You can use incremental reading as the comprehensive introduction to other forms of incremental learning.

The value of interruption in learning

In incremental learning, we often quickly move from one subject to another. Such interruptions may occur many times during a single learning day. When people first learn about this incremental methodology they immediately ask "Why interrupt? Aren't these the prime principles of human endeavour to be thorough, persist, and do things right to the end?"

The 3 main advantages of interruption in learning are:

As for the disadvantages ... there are none! Simply put: interruption is optional! It is true that incremental learning may lead to "learning impatience" and "craving interruption", however, these have never been proven detrimental beyond showing that once you employ incremental learning, you may never want to go back to traditional "book at a time" learning. Nevertheless, you should not forget that schools are incremental too. Just on a slightly moderate scale. Schools employ interruption when kids move from geography to physics, or when they close the books for the day.

Once the art of incremental learning is mastered, the advantages go far beyond the advantages of the interruption or spaced repetition. Here is a shortlist (for a detailed discussion see: Advantages of incremental learning).

In short, with incremental learning you learn fast, you acquire massive loads of knowledge, retain memories for life, remember almost all that you have learned, understand things better, develop harmoniously in all directions, enhance your creativity, and all that while having incredible fun! If that sounds too good to be true, please read more below or just give it a solid try. For a detailed explanation see: Advantages of incremental learning.

Interruption is not a problem

In learning, choosing the right learning sources is the first step to success. A well-written article will get you to the basic idea from its first paragraph or even a sentence. Incremental reading is best suited for articles written in hypertext or in an encyclopedic manner. Ideally, each sentence you read has a contribution to your knowledge and is not useless without the sentences that follow.

Imagine that you would like to learn a few things about Gamal Abdel Nasser. You will, for example, import to SuperMemo an article about Nasser from Wikipedia. In the first sentence you will find out that "Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918 - 1970) was the second President of Egypt". If you are new to Nasser, you may be happy to just know he was the Egyptian president and safely jump to reading other articles. Thus you may delay the encounter with the historic role of Nasser and economize some time to finding out, for example, who Shimon Peres is. When you see the Nasser article for the second time, you might find that "He was followed by after President Muhammad Naguib and can be considered one of the most important Arab leaders in history". This piece of knowledge is also self-contained and you can patiently wait for your third encounter with Nasser. When you return the next time, you may conclude that another piece about Nasser is of lower priority: "Nasser was born in Alexandria". You can schedule the review of that piece in 2-3 years. Perhaps your interest in Nasser or in Alexandria will grow to the point that this knowledge will become relevant. If not, you can always dismiss or delete such an extract. Alternatively, you can skip a few paragraphs and extract a more important sentence: "In 1952, Nasser led the military coup against King Farouk I of Egypt". Even if your read individual sentences about Nasser in intervals lasting months, your knowledge will progressively expand and will become increasingly consolidated (esp. if you employ cloze deletions, which are mandatory for longer intervals).

Naturally, not all texts are are so well-suited for incremental reading. For example, a research paper may throw at you a detailed description of methods and leave results and conclusions for the end. In such cases, you may extract the abstract and delay the body of the paper by a period in which you believe the abstract will have been sufficiently processed. Then, if you are still interested in the article, you can schedule the methods well into the future (you will or will not read the methods depending on the conclusions of the article). You can schedule the results and the discussion into a less remote point in time, and proceed with reading the conclusions.

The hardest texts may not be suitable to reading in increments. For example, a piece of software code may need to be analyzed in its entirety before it reveals any useful meaning. In such cases, when the text (here the code) comes up in the incremental reading process, analyze it and verbalize your conclusions. The conclusions can then be processed incrementally. You will generate individual questions depending on which pieces of knowledge you consider important and which become volatile. The original computer code can be still retained in your collection as reference only.

When learning at the university, you do many courses in parallel. That's a macro version of incremental reading. Many people love to zap TV channels and play a chaotic version of incremental video with their TV set. Zapping may not be a recommended way of learning, but it won't leave your mind blank. Another example can be seen in people who have a habit of reading a few novels in parallel. Their limit on the number of novels comes from the limits of human memory. There is a breaking point beyond which a novel, if read in bursts separated by longer intervals, cannot be followed due to fading memories. Incremental reading is based on SuperMemo, and by definition is far less limited by your forgetful memory. The number of articles in the process can reach a hundred thousands, and given basic skills, you won't get confused.

Complexity of incremental learning

Unlike classic SuperMemo, incremental learning requires quite a lot of experience and training before it becomes effective. However, your investment will be returned manifold once you become proficient with the method.

Incremental learning is a consolidation of technologies that have been in development for nearly 3 decades. It is still in the process of maturing and it is still pretty complex. It requires skills that take months to develop. It requires your own strategies that may mature over years. Moreover, incremental learning requires the mastery of SuperMemo, which has been optimized for professional use. As such it is not beginner friendly.

Users complain that SuperMemo has a steep learning curve. They are right. SuperMemo has been optimized to make a life of a pro easy. It makes life of beginners hard because it does not ever compromise the learning efficiency for sleekness or marketing value. Take the priority queue as an example. Nearly everyone asks why the articles of highest value have a priority of 0% rather than the obvious 100%. They ask: "Why is SuperMemo always keeping things upside down?". They got a point. However, no pro user would ever swap the ease of typing 1, 2, 3 for his top priority material as opposed to 99, 98 or 97. Those dilemmas slow down the adoption of SuperMemo. However, once you become a pro, you will appreciate this approach and will more likely become a lifelong devotee.

Incremental reading

Incremental reading is a portion of incremental learning in which you process texts, or texts illustrated with pictures, and other components. In most cases, you import your texts from the web, or from other electronic sources.

See: Incremental reading and Advanced Incremental Reading

Priority queue

In incremental learning, the priority queue helps you keep your learning material well prioritized. It is one of the most essential tools in the learning process if you deal with overwhelming amounts of knowledge.

See: Priority queue

Visual learning

In visual learning you work with pictures to master visual knowledge or improve your mnemonic capacity (e.g. by using mind maps or mindmap-like illustrations). Mastering visual learning will dramatically improve your ability to remember things well.

See: Visual learning (note that it does not include Incremental video)

Incremental video

If you would like to effectively watch thousands of YouTube videos, or video files located on your disk, you can employ incremental principles by using incremental video. YouTube videos waste time by adverts, uneven quality/value throughout the video, long introductions, time-wasting credits, long length that makes it hard to economize time for viewing, etc. Valuable pieces are worth re-watching for the sake of memory, but searching and jumping to individual fragments is slow and ineffective. Similarly, local video files may be too long to watch in one go. You need bookmarks. You may have too many files to watch. In such a case you need a priority queue. In short, all your major video watching problems can be solved with Incremental video.

Incremental audio

Incremental audio is analogous to incremental video. You can use it to listen to music, or to learn a language. You can use local files (e.g. mp3 files), or YouTube videos (e.g. language courses, lectures, etc.).

See: Incremental audio

Incremental mail processing

If you have more than 100 messages in your mail Inbox, you must feel the pain of mail overload. If you got more than a few thousand messages, you probably even do not want to go through the old mail and just limit yourself to checking new mail. There are many semi-effective strategies for cleaning your Inbox. However, only incremental processing will ensure you can clean your Inbox in minutes and still answer all the most important mail promptly without never-ending fishing through the Inbox for pieces of value, importance, or urgency.

See: Incremental mail processing

Incremental learning in creativity

It is a little known fact that incremental learning toolset can provide an excellent boost in your creative work, problem solving, and even "slow brainstorming" via e-mail. To enhance your creativity, you will need a high degree of incremental learning mastery. However, have a look at your options now to understand the dormant potential of incremental learning.

See: Incremental learning in creativity

Advantages of incremental learning

You may know by now that incremental learning brings many advantages over traditional learning techniques. You learn fast, you remember well, you have all your knowledge well archived and quantified. However, there is much more to incremental learning that meets the eye. Do you know, for example, that this technology may be an excellent tool used to support creativity (e.g. creative writing) or problem solving. It can help a detective solve a difficult case, or a doctor find an elusive diagnosis.

For a detailed discussion of all advantages and even some disadvantages see: Advantages of incremental learning.

Incremental learning myths

Myths and ignorance stifle the progress and cause untold damage to billions of people. They are inevitable. Ignorance is part of life. Learning can only partly cover the gaps in our ignorance. SuperMemo has collected a bit of its own mythology. Many of those myths prevent wide adoption of SuperMemo, let alone advanced techniques such as incremental learning. Some of those myths are harmless. For example, SuperMemo people themselves are to be blamed for the myth that Hermann Ebbinghaus invented spaced repetition, or that repetitions occur right before the moment of forgetting. We have compiled for you a list of more harmful myths that seriously slow down the adoption of SuperMemo and incremental learning. See: Incremental learning myths

History of incremental learning

Incremental learning might be as important to SuperMemo as the original repetition spacing idea. Incremental learning eliminates a number of bottlenecks that limit various stages of knowledge acquisition.

The name incremental reading first appeared in SuperMemo 2000. However, the concept is not new. It originated from combining our natural reading habits with the demands of spaced repetition (SuperMemo). We rarely pick up a book and read it cover-to-cover in one go. At school we often dig through a number textbooks used for different courses. At home we stop reading a book to read a newspaper and then stop reading the newspaper to watch TV. A combination of needs and interests determines how far we go with the reading of an individual text. SuperMemo drives this concept to an extreme by letting you read just one sentence from one chapter from one book and then go on to reading extracts from a thousand books and/or articles. SuperMemo's contribution here is only the management of this multi-source reading process. As for the creative aspect of incremental reading, Niels Bohr is known to have used the power ofintermitted reading and intermitted thinking to maximize his creative output. He would keep dozens of shelves with outlines of ideas. He would return to individual shelves from time to time, esp. if he was inspired by a conversation, thinking, experiment, or reading. He would then keep reading a single shelf, think and ponder, add new notes, etc. Many of those shelves ended up as scientific publications. In that sense, Niels Bohr employed rudimentary incremental reading in his creative work.

The approach used in incremental reading is widely employed by many creative individuals. Even if it is far less formal that incremental reading or even Bohr's approach. Dr Michael Gazzaniga puts it this way: "I think the creative process is directly related to the amount of time one spends mulling something over. I come back and revisit ideas, data, thoughts, all the time. I think this keeps key semantic networks active and then "bingo" an inconsistency or consistency suddenly presents itself to consciousness and the beginnings of a new idea appear".

Here is a brief history of incremental reading:

The only way SuperMemo supported learning from electronic sources was via Copy and Paste.