Frequently asked questions about formulating knowledge in SuperMemo

You can learn spelling with SuperMemo
You can learn to recognize diseases by their symptoms

Keep your items as simple as possible

You can memorize long sequences (e.g. Tai Chi)

Keep only one deletion in cloze deletions

You can learn programming with SuperMemo

It is recommended that you keep all your knowledge in one collection

Only items are used in learning (topics are only for material review)

You do not need to interrupt repetitions to edit items

Do not create follow-up questions in your items. Use cloze deletion

(John Meritt, UK, Nov 26, 1999)
How can I best learn programming with SuperMemo?

  1. You could start from reading SuperMemo as a new tool increasing the productivity of a programmer. Please review the examples of simple items related to programmer's ABC
  2. You will probably have the documentation of the programming language available in electronic form. You could process it using the reading list mechanism, i.e. extract manageable portions of knowledge and reformulate them using cloze deletions. This will save you lots of time on retyping; however, you must be sure you make a good selection and memorize only the most important facts and rules
  3. Do not forget about combining practical sessions with your SuperMemo repetitions. Only practical training will make you truly understand the importance of individual elements of knowledge 

(John Meritt, UK, Nov 26, 1999)
How can I best learn spelling with SuperMemo?

You should create a template in which the answer will be a Spell-Pad (i.e. text input component). In the question part you should ask about the word that is to be spelled. Because many spelling problems come from the use of double letters (e.g. traveling vs. travelling), you do not need to define the word. It is enough you ask to choose a correct variant. For example, your question might look like this: traveling/travelling or better yet trave(l/ll)ing.
It is very important to focus on one problem at a time. This is why instead of o(c/cc)a(s/ss)ion, you should create two items: 

  1. o(c/cc)asion
  2. occa(s/ss)ion

Occasionally, you can make an exception to this rule. For example, you might ask Mi(s/ss)i(s/ss)i(p/pp)i as a request to spell Mississippi. In this case, it is easy to remember that all questionable consonants in this word must appear in double. Once you realize that, you may never experience problems with recalling how to spell Mississippi

(Luis Gustavo da Silva, Brazil, Nov 9, 1999)
What is your view on the formulation of items in which the question lists the symptoms of a disease and the answer provides the name of the disease?

This sound like knowledge that should not cause much trouble in learning:

  1. symptom enumeration concerns the question and as such should not be a problem (unlike enumerations in answers)
  2. this is based on active recall. The list of symptoms will be reviewed passively but the answer will have to be recalled
  3. simplicity of wording may be critical for success here!
  4. the worst problem may arise from the confusion of similar symptom sets but ... resolving such minor differences might be an important skill of a physician. In other words, there is no point in avoiding difficulty in cases of knowledge that has to be mastered one way or another
  5. the best way to figure out the effectiveness of formulation is to use the leech catcher to periodically sift through the hardest items (to find out which might be reformulated)

(Jim Ivy, USA, June 4, 1997)
What is the difference between a topic and an item?
Topics are used to present knowledge (like chapters in a book), while items are used to test knowledge by means of repetitions (e.g. they have the question-and-answer structure). The main difference is that topics do not take part in repetitions but are only presented before learning a sequence of items. This helps to approach the subject as a whole before repetitions begin. See also: Topics vs. items

(Noel Clary, USA, Sep 6, 1998)

Item reviewed:

Q: a rod-and-tube element temperature sensor consists of:
A: a high expansion metal tube containing a low expansion rod. The rod & tube are attached on one end. The tube changes length with changes in temperature, causing the free end of the rod to move


This is a typical case of combining a number of items in one with detriment to the ability to recall the combined item. The suggestion here is to split the item into a number of simpler items that reproduce the same information in student's memory:

Q: What are the two parts of a rod-and-tube temperature sensor?
A: rod and tube

Q: What is the expandability of the tube in rod-and-tube sensor?
A: high

Q: What is the expandability of the rod in rod-and-tube sensor?
A: low

Q: How is temperature indicated in the rod-and-tube sensor?
A: tube moves relative to the rod

Q: Where are rod and tube connected?

etc. etc.

(Noel Clary, USA, Sep 6, 1998)

Item reviewed:

Q: Step 5 HVAC duct design: Size ducts by the selected design method. Calculate system ..., then select ...


Cloze deletions (i.e. questions with blanks) are generally a good learning tool; however, in most cases it is better to keep a single deletion per question

(Deron Isaac, USA, May 21, 1997)
How can I edit texts of items during repetitions without backing out of the test mode?
Choose Q to edit the question, A to edit the answer, or E to edit all text components. You can also edit all properties of all components by using pop-up menus available with right button click on a component in question.

(John Gibney, Australia, Sep 16, 1998)
In your materials you write that users should avoid memorizing sets (e.g. countries of Europe) or long sequences (e.g. the alphabet). What if I want to remember the sequence of a form of Tai Chi?
Let us consider an example in which you want to memorize the entire sequence of letters in the alphabet. It won't be very effective if you use the following item:

Q: What is the sequence of letters in the alphabet?
A: A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O,P,Q,R,S,T,U,V,W,X,Y,Z

You will notice that you frequently stumble on parts of the sequence and need to stop repetitions just to exercise the entire sequence in the traditional way (like we all learn poems by rote).

However, you can approach this in a way that guarantees quick effects:

Q: What is the sequence of letters in the alphabet between A and E?
A: A,B,C,D,E

Q: What is the sequence of letters in the alphabet between D and H?
A: D,E,F,G,H

Q: What is the sequence of letters in the alphabet between G and K?
A: G,H,I,J,K

etc. etc.

After 2-3 weeks of repetitions, you may take on an extra task of recalling the whole sequence after each repetition of these simplified items. This will make sure you can recite the entire alphabet quickly. You will also frequently rehearse that parts of the sequence that are harder for your memory (e.g. V,W,X,Y,Z) as opposed to those that are much simpler (e.g. A,B,C,D,E)

What is the purpose of the option Tools : Categories?
SuperMemo 98 introduces the concept of a category to help you keep items related to different subjects in different branches of the knowledge tree (contents window). It also makes it possible to give different item groups different appearance (e.g. size of text components, screen layout, font, color, and many more). Read more: Using categories

(Anatolyi Lipatov, Ukraine, Jul 12, 1998)
I am using Advanced English to enhance my English and business English.
Now I am registering for CFA examination (that is Chartered Financial Analyst program of Association of Investment Management and Research). There are several organizations developing and distributing methodological stuff for preparing to the exam. A lot of things should be memorized for passing the exam. What do you think the best way to fit SuperMemo for memorization and what approach should I use to prepare my own knowledge base for memorizing the material. Is special programming knowledge needed for it?
No specialist knowledge is needed to prepare simple knowledge systems in SuperMemo. With Ctrl+A (i.e. Add new item) you get 90% of functionality! All advanced editing options can be worked around by an appropriate questions-and-answer approach. Perhaps it would be useful yet to learn how to add images to your items (see help for details). To learn more about effectively structuring knowledge in SuperMemo you might want to read Knowledge Structuring and Representation; however, nothing works better as learning on one's own mistakes in formulating knowledge for learning with SuperMemo

(David Mckenzie, New Zealand, Apr 8, 1998)
Is there any point in keeping collections separate?

No. Once you master contents categories and templates, there is no point. You gain global search, global registries, global repetitions, global optimization, etc. This would not be advisable back in SuperMemo 7 as item difficulty measure (E-factor) was dependent on the average difficulty of items in the collection. Presently, the item difficulty measure (A-Factor, or absolute difficulty factor) is absolute and does not depend on the context in which an item is placed (see: Algorithm SM-8). Only the length of the first interval will significantly be affected by the average difficulty of items in the collection. However, this shall not bear dramatically on the speed of learning. Especially that variable forgetting index for individual items makes it possible to set different first intervals for whole contents categories or branches of the knowledge tree

What should I use Duplicate for? What for do I need the same item in the same collection?
You can duplicate an item, if you want to add to the another item which is only slightly different. This way you can spare some time by reediting the old item instead of typing in the new one

(Marc de Ruiter, China, Apr 5, 2000)

It is possible to have SuperMemo do follow-up questions like this:

  1. Question
  2. Answer, which is also a question
  3. Answer

I am learning Chinese Characters, so first I have a character which is the Question, then I have to give the answer which is the pronunciation of that character, but then I have to give the meaning in English. So basically there are three things: character - pinyin - translation

This is a case where you
would like to learn three associated things A-B-C, where A is your question, B is the follow up and C is the follow up to B. It is never a good idea to learn more than one thing in a single item! SuperMemo needs to separately understand your difficulties with linking A and B, B and C, as well as A and C. Building a test according to your suggestions is possible, yet it would be better to use cloze deletions here. For example:

Parent template item: 


Items generated with cloze deletion (e.g. using Reading : Remember cloze):

Item 1: 
Q: ... B C
A: A

Item 2:
Q: A ... C
A: B

Item 3:
Q: A B ...
A: C

It is important to know that Item 1 above may make you fail to answer with A to the question C if you only learn to answer Item 1 by understanding the association of B with A. In such cases, you will need even more work by formulating items: A-B (where A is the question and B is the answer), A-C, B-A, B-C, C-A, and C-B. Although you will get six items instead of one, you knowledge is likely to be more solid and you may actually spend less time on repetitions of those multiple items than on repetitions of the conglomerate A-B-C item 

See also: 20 rules of formulating knowledge in learning