Learn fast and forget about forgetting

Maciej Bromba Pietras, Bajtek 1/93, Poland, January 1993

This is a translation of an article about SuperMemo 6 for DOS written by Maciej Pietras for Bajtek, Poland, in January 1993. Bajtek was the first Polish computer journal first published in 1995. Translator's comments are placed in square brackets

Application of computers in education becomes more and more popular. Thanks to computers, learning maths, physics, chemistry or foreign languages becomes more interesting and more effective. Most of educational programs for the young attract the attention with graphics and sound, or try to smuggle education wrapped in elements of a computer game.

Very often the student is supposed to master the knowledge presented by means of a computerized textbook, and then to answer a number of questions related to the learned material. Educational programs based on this system are just a computer substitute for a book and a teacher. SuperMemo resembles none of the approaches used in other educational programs.


SuperMemo introduces a completely new quality in computer education. It is not designed to learn any particular domain or skill. With SuperMemo, one can learn any kind of knowledge that can be represented as text [graphics, sound, and not only]. Standardly, the program is shipped with basic databases to learn English, as well as sample databases including a database with knowledge about SuperMemo itself.


The program, and the entire idea of the method of learning, was based on the work of Dr Piotr Wozniak, a biologist from Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan. In 1982, Wozniak embarked on an experimental and theoretical research on memory and learning. After three years, a statistical model of memory formation and forgetting was formulated. SuperMemo, using the model, makes it possible to optimize the spacing of repetitions in the process of learning. The optimization works by computing the optimum timing of repetitions depending on the difficulty of the material, and individual capabilities of the learner. The dates of repetitions are determined by the program.


Computing optimum intervals between repetitions is based on the system of self-assessment. The learner is supposed to verbally or mentally respond to questions displayed on the screen (the response is not keyed into the computer). Upon pressing a key [or clicking the mouse], the correct answer is displayed, and the learner should provide the response grade in the 0-5 grade point scale (5 - excellent response, 4 - good, 3 - pass, 2 - fail, 1 - response hardly recognizable, 0 - blackout). The repetitions are scheduled in such a way that to make sure that the information is statistically on the verge of forgetting.


The method of optimally scheduling repetitions in time is, as for now, the best available. Everything we learn will sooner or later be forgotten; therefore, the only way to sustain memories is to make repetitions. SuperMemo employs the natural qualities of human memory. The maximum use of the learner's brain is independent of intelligence, memory characteristics, or the learned material. The best results are obtained if the knowledge is split into smallest possible pieces called items. Another important element is systematic work with the program. By working 30 minutes a day, one can master 3000 new words of a foreign language a month.


The program is shipped with databases for learning English; however, learning languages is only one of many applications of SuperMemo. The learner can develop his own databases on any imaginable topic. A large selection of databases is offered for extra charge. There is also a fast growing collection of shareware databases.

The program is a powerful learning tool. It comprises a great number of options whose description goes far beyond Bajtek's editorial space. The learning process may be controlled and corrected in tiniest detail owing to a great number of statistical functions, and graphs.


I decided to see for myself how much I could learn using SuperMemo. I started learning English vocabulary from scratch. Soon the program could differentiate between words I knew well and those I had problems with. Thanks to the optimization applied in SuperMemo, I would repeat only those items that I encountered for the first time. If I remembered all the learned vocabulary scheduled for repetition on a given day, the learning session was very short. As I could not work every day, I made an extensive use of the option Mercy, which helps to spread outstanding repetitions in a defined period of time.

The results of learning were amazing: I remembered words which always eluded my memory, and I continually had to look them up in a pocket dictionary. The authors do not exaggerate claiming that with SuperMemo, learning proceeds 10-50 times faster than with conventional techniques. The only condition for retaining the learned knowledge is systematic work with the program.


I had no problems with installing the program. The tested version was designed for DOS, but SuperMemo World is close to completing a Windows version [released March 1993]. The files can be easily converted to display Polish diacritical characters in a chosen standard. If I had any problems, I could always rely on a comprehensive, on-line, context- sensitive help. It is important to set the DOS system date, which is used by the program to schedule repetitions.


SuperMemo is based on a sensational method of learning. Its simplicity and universality make it a perfect learning tool.