SuperMemo: Learn Fast And Forget About Forgetting

What Is SuperMemo And How It Works 

For more than 20 years I have been using an IT solution which was invented to optimize the repetition process. It is called SuperMemo and was designed in Poland about 25 years ago. There is a strong research process behind it, based on the science of the forgetting curve. There are basically two elements of the solution: An engine which calculates repetition intervals for every single learning item (small chunk of information) and databases which contain learning materials consisting of such learning items.

The learning engine adapts the process to personal learning abilities and the learning context (difficulty of learning material, base knowledge, etc.) so every single learner could be using every single database with a different learning pattern.

But how SuperMemo works?

Well – basically the model is very simple:

  1. We divide the information into small chunks called learning items (the smaller, the better – that is why such a learning model is the best for learning foreign vocabulary).
  2. We present learning items to the learner one by one (first: question/stimulus than: answer/response).
  3. The learner makes self-assessment and provides to the system information whether he/she knew the answer or not.
  4. If the learner knew the answer, the interval for next repetition would increase; if the learner didn’t know the answer, the interval would be reset for the initial period (which is around 2 days).

Of course – the engine is much more complicated than that, but still it corresponds with this concept.

In the long run (after gaining information about personal learning patterns) the learning engine is capable to provide to the learner a learning item on the edge of forgetting of this particular chunk of information. This way, one doesn’t have to repeat learning items that are still well remembered.

A Short History Of SuperMemo From My Perspective

Here is the SuperMemo development story from my own perspective:

1. PC version. 

I first met with SuperMemo in about 1993. Those days only the PC (Windows) version was available and a company of mine signed an agreement with SuperMemo World company to design, develop,  and publish an Amiga version of this application. Both PC and Amiga versions were being sold in bundles with specific databases (mostly for learning foreign languages). As far as I know the PC version is still on the market, but in the age of the cloud it becomes a declining solution.

2. Mobile version.

An interesting part of the SuperMemo development story is that the idea of building the mobile version of the solution came earlier than the idea of building its web version. In 1999 it came to my mind as a way of utilizing WAP - the new mobile technology which became available more or less those days. It seemed to be a very bright idea because of 3 facts:

  1. SuperMemo requires to be used hyper-regularly (in an ideal world every day).
  2. You always have your mobile phone with you, so you can have constant access to the application (use it on the go, learn meanwhile, etc.).
  3. SuperMemo can use push techniques to stimulate the learner in day-to-day basis.

In 2000 a mock-up of the mobile version was prepared as an initiative of one of the Polish technology incubators, but we realized that WAP and mobile technologies available, as well as patterns of mobile phones usage, were too limited to make this project successful those days.

The idea of a mobile version of SuperMemo returned after several years. Now you can find SuperMemo apps in all app-stores.

3. Web.

While working on the mobile version we started to build the web version of SuperMemo idea. In the year 2000 we launched the Supermemo.net (you can reach it here: www.supermemo.net) web application which was utilizing the same algorithm and the same databases as the PC version did. At the beginning we were thinking about this solution as a system for corporate implementation – kind of a specialized Learning Management System. We tried to position it on the market in that way for about a year, but with no success.

4. Email.

Working on the web application we also designed an email version of the solution. I was a very bright idea and very clever implementation. Every day the web application was sending an email to the learner with all learning items scheduled for repetition on that day. The format of thr email let you make all repetitions within your Outlook (responses were hidden, navigation through the email was provided, etc.). At the end of the repetition session, the response email was automatically prepared with all necessary data required to calculate next repetition dates). I left this initiative in 2001, deciding to make a major shift in my professional career. I am happy, however, seeing that both the company and the idea dynamically grow. I know that, in certain circumstances (regular use, chunking of knowledge, long run – these three are the most important), this way of learning is extremely effective. After many years of observing how this solution and market are developing I realized that the web solution was invented and developed about 5 years too late, and the mobile one about 8-10 years too early…

5. OliveGreen.

Olive Green is the new product of SuperMemo World company which brings a new kind of engagement to the table. The biggest weakness of older solutions was the learner; one has to have big motivation for day-by-day use of SuperMemo on a long-run basis. If you were motivated you had great results, but if you were losing it your results went down. Such a negative feedback loop generated even worse motivation, which, eventually, made learners quit. Olive Green is an interactive movie. It engages you, let’s you play a role, immerses you in an action. This is not a Hollywood production, but as long as the educational market is concerned, it is definitely a high-end product; not only from a story/script perspective, but also from all educational aspects. Olive Green won several prizes – Gold Dolphin Award at the Cannes Festival, Gold Camera Award, and the Grand Prix for the best film of the festival in the category of Entertainment in the US International Film & Video Festival to mention only a few. You can reach for all accolades of this product on the Olive Green webpage here:  https://olivegreenthemovie.com/about/start/. You can also try and test the solution there.

Pros And Cons Of SuperMemo

What are the pros and cons of SuperMemo method (in fact – these correspond with all solutions based on spacing repetition algorithms)?

  • Cons: 
    • If you are not regular, you will see poor results.
    • Information is split into small chunks – it is hard to build a broader context (that is why SuperMemo is mainly used to learn foreign vocabulary or facts).
    • The database must be prepared with great care – e.g. if there are learning items asking the same or a similar question with different answers, it will lead to confusion in learners’ minds and problems with memorization of this chunk.
    • You have to be patient – you will see amazing results no sooner than after 3-4 weeks of regular (i.e. daily) use.
  • Pros: 
    • It is extremely efficient - if the database is well-prepared and you are regular in using SuperMemo solution.
    • It consumes as little of your time as possible to hold all learning items introduced to the learning process in your memory; well, this is what SuperMemo method was invented for.
    • It creates automatic responses in your mind – it builds in your brain strong bonds based on stimulus-answer effect.
    • It motivates you to regular learning – regular stimulation of our brain is very important for us.
    • You can build your own databases and learn what is important for you – and this is for free on supermemo.net.

My opinion? If you want to learn foreign languages or facts, you should definitely give SuperMemo a try.

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