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Using SuperMemo without a computer Biedalak K., Murakowski J., Wozniak P.
(source: SuperMemo 6 User's Guide, 1992)
This text will show you how you can use SuperMemo without a computer, and how you can quickly learn languages, sciences, geography, and all other sorts of textbook knowledge without spending an extra penny!

Be ready, however, that you stand a 99% chance of saying: Why should I spend my time on all those dots, tables and numbers? I know how to learn, and I can see no reason why this approach should help me!

If you try it for a month, you should understand why you really need SuperMemo! SuperMemo is the only rational way of scheduling repetitions, and the algorithms described below find an excellent compromise between the exactness with which inter-repetition intervals have to be determined, and procedural simplicity needed in the situation when all the calculations have to be performed by hand (i.e. without a computer).

Paper-and-pencil SuperMemo

Before you start learning, you should choose a textbook, script, dictionary or anything that you wish to be the source of your knowledge. Put the textbook in front of you before you continue reading.

Now, to start using SuperMemo, all you need is: two cross-ruled exercise books, a pen and an hour or two to read carefully the presented text. Afterwards, you can see what SuperMemo can do for you.

1. Write the name DATABOOK on the cover of your first exercise book. Open the databook on the first page and copy the page layout presented in Fig. 1.

Question field Answer field Repetition scores Repetitions
1 2 3 4 5 No Dat U
              1    
              2    
              3    
              4    
              5    
              6    
              7    
              8    
              9    
              10    
              11    
              12    

Figure 1 Page layout in the SuperMemo databook

2. Check if you agree with the following statement:

If you want to learn something from a book, it is always possible to formulate questions such that answering them will be equivalent to mastering the knowledge presented in the book

If, in principle, you agree with the sentence then skip to Step 3, otherwise consider the following:

A very big question used to learn a book might simply ask:

What is the contents of the book?

Answering such a question in full detail is equivalent to knowing the book, isn't it? Obviously, it is much easier to answer questions that require less voluminous answers. For example:

If you want to perfectly master a book on physics which starts with the sentence:

The molecular kinetic theory of matter is based on three facts: (1) a substance consists of particles, (2) these particles move at random, and (3) the particles interact

you might start with asking questions: What are the facts that underlie the molecular kinetic theory of matter?, What is the name of the theory that is based on existence, random movement and interaction of particles?, etc. It would not be difficult, and it would not take many questions to ensure that the person able to understandingly provide answers truly knows and understands the content of the first sentence of the book on physics. In the same way, the whole book may be converted to questions and answers

If you want to learn Esperanto (or any other language) you might start with mastering vocabulary or basic grammar rules, for example:

Question1: river Answer1: rivero
Question2: riverlike Answer2: rivera
Question3: in a riverlike way Answer3: rivere
Question4: to flow like a river Answer4: riveri
Question5: What suffix indicates a verb? Answer5: -i (for example RIVER-I)

If you want to learn poems your questions might consist of the name of the author and the title of the poem

If you want to learn anatomy or geography, perhaps your questions and answers will have to include simple pictures

Certainly, each chapter of any book can be split into smaller and smaller pieces in such a way that knowing them will more or less correspond to knowing the book

3. Now, it is time for the most difficult element of the SuperMemo method: formulating questions. Please fill out the first page of your databook with questions and answers concerning the subject matter you want to learn. Use your textbook (script, dictionary, etc.) to find material for formulating the questions. Put questions and answers in successive, separate lines of the first page.

What follows presents an exemplary page of questions about American history. This is how a fragment of your book on American history might look like:

The early 1600s saw the beginning of a great tide of emigration from Europe to North America when the first English immigrants crossed the Atlantic. During their six- to 12-week voyages they lived on meager rations. Many of them died of disease. The colonists' first glimpse of the new land was a vista of dense woods. True, the woods were inhabited by Indians, many of whom were hostile, and the threat of Indian attack would add to the hardships of daily life. But the vast, virgin forest, extending nearly 2,100 kilometers along the eastern seaboard would prove to be a treasure-house. The first permanent English settlement in America was a trading post founded in 1607 at Jamestown, in the Old Dominion of Virginia. This region was soon to develop a flourishing economy from its tobacco crop, which found a ready market in England. By 1620, when women were recruited in England to come to Virginia, marry, and make their homes, great plantations had already risen along the James River, and the population had increased to a thousand settlers. In contrast to the colonization policies of other countries and other periods, the emigration from England was not sponsored by the government but by private groups of individuals whose chief motive was profit. The colony of New Netherlands, founded in 1621 by the Dutch, came under English rule in 1664 and was renamed New York.

And this is how the same knowledge would look in your databook in the question-answer form:

Q1: When did the great tide of emigration from Europe to North America start?
A1: Early 1600s.

Q2: How long did voyages of early travelers last?
A2: Over 6 weeks.

Q3: Why did many early travelers die?
A3: Because of long voyages and meager rations.

Q4: Why did Indians add to the hardships of life of early settlers?
A4: Many of them were hostile.

Q5: What seemed to be the greatest treasure of early settlers?
A5: Virgin forests.

Q6: What was the first permanent English settlement in America?
A6: Jamestown

Q7: When was the Jamestown trading post founded?
A7: 1607

Q8: In what today's state was Jamestown located?
A8: Virginia

Q9: What was the most successful trading commodity of Jamestown?
A9: Tobacco

Q10: What was the population of Jamestown by 1620?
A10: About one thousand.

Q11: What factors discouraged early settlement beyond the coastal plain?
A11: Dense forests and mountains.

Q12: How was the emigration from England sponsored?
A12: By private groups.

Q13: When was the colony of New Netherlands established?
A13: 1621

Q14: When did New Netherlands come under English rule?
A14: 1664

Q15: What was the new name given to New Netherlands?
A15: New York

4. Consider the following declaration: the SuperMemo method guarantees that you can learn the set of questions formulated by you in Step 3 at a close-to-optimum rate. However, the quality of your knowledge will depend on the quality of your questions. Responsibility for formulating questions rests entirely with you!

5. Now, you will learn answers to questions from your first SuperMemo page. Use a sheet of paper to cover the answer field. Try to respond to the first question without looking at the answer. Compare your response with the answer field of the databook page. If you answered correctly then go to the second question, if not, then put a dot in the first field of repetition scores in the line corresponding to the first question-answer pair (the field marked by number 1 in Fig. 1). Decision concerning which answer is correct and which is not is entirely up to you. If you want to learn fast with a lower degree of precision, you can be lenient in judging your performance. On the other hand, if you have high answer accuracy requirements, your learning may be slightly slower. Repeat the same procedure for all remaining questions. Put dots in the first field of repetitions scores for all questions that were not answered correctly. Now, in the same way as previously, try to answer all questions that have a dot in the first field of repetitions scores. Do not repeat questions that are not marked by a dot. In case you again not manage to answer some of the questions, put a second dot in the first field of repetition scores corresponding to these questions. Now, repeat again all questions that had two dots in their repetition scores and add a third dot in case of a repeated failure. Repeat the whole process of answering questions until you manage to answer all questions in a given pass (i.e. questions marked by two dots for the third pass or three dots for the fourth pass, etc.). Now, we can assume that in all likelihood you are able to answer all questions from the first page. The first repetition of the first page has been made

6. Write the following information in the repetition dates field (the first row only):

No - number of the repetition (in this case 1)

Date - today's date

U - number of unknown answers in the first pass of the repetition, i.e. the number of questions that have one or more dots in their first column of the repetition scores field

In subsequent repetitions, you will fill out the remaining rows

7. The next thing to do is to determine when you should repeat the newly learned page of questions in order to comply with the SuperMemo schedule. Write the name SCHEDULE BOOK on the cover of your second exercise book. Open the schedule book on the first page and copy the table from Fig. 2.

Repetition

Interval

1

4 days

2

7 days

3

12 days

4

20 days

5

1 month

6

2 months

7

3 months

8

5 months

9

9 months

10

16 months

11

2 years

12

4 years

13

6 years

14

11 years

15

18 years

Figure 2 Table of repetition intervals

8. Use the table from Fig. 2, to determine the date of the next repetition. For a selected repetition number, the table of repetition intervals shows after how many days, months or years the next repetition should be made. For example, you have just repeated your first page for the first time; therefore, the next repetition should follow after four days (for Repetition equal to 1 the Interval equals 4 days). After repeating the page in four days, the next repetition will follow in 7 days (for Repetition equal to 2 the Interval equals 7 days)

9. Prepare the repetition calendar. Open the schedule book on the second page and write the present month and year at the top. In following lines, at the left margin write numbers of days: 1,2,3,... up to the last day of the month. Go to the third page of the schedule book and repeat the procedure, this time with the next month at the top. This way you can mark more pages if you wish. Use the subsequent months (and years if necessary)

10. As you are to repeat the first page in four days, look into the calendar prepared in Step 9 and find the corresponding date. Write number 1 in the relevant line (see Fig. 3.).

January 1991
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8 1,
9
...
25
26
27
28
29
30
31

Figure 3 An exemplary first page of the calendar after marking the first page for repetition. Note, that the page no 1 must have been repeated on January 4, 1991 and was scheduled for repetition on January 8

11. You can now prepare more pages of questions and answers and memorize them. All of them will be scheduled for repetition in four days and you will have to repeat them in four days

Your data and schedule exercise books are now ready to assist you in your work with SuperMemo. Before you learn the detailed algorithm of your workouts, let us list the most important principles you should stick to if you want to be truly successful:

  1. Try never to postpone repetitions to the next day. This is an easy way to accumulate a lot of outstanding work, and in consequence, give up working before seeing the results. Moreover, the repetition time-table should be obeyed carefully, as it was computed to suit exactly the requirements of human memory. Every postponement reduces the effectiveness of your work with SuperMemo. Be regular. No pain, no gain
  2. As you should work with SuperMemo every day, it is better to start with 10-15 minute assignments a day, to see if you can economize some time on a regular basis. If you start at a too fast rate, you may be soon overwhelmed by the amount of obligatory work. Don't rush. More haste, less speed
  3. Try to formulate your questions and answers in the simplest possible way. It is easier to learn the same item if it is split to 10 subitems, than to learn it as a single whole. Not only will you have to learn how to work with SuperMemo (which is quite easy as you have noticed), but above all you will have to master the art of splitting questions to smallest possible pieces in order to make learning effective without losing semantic contents. Simple items are the best formula for success with SuperMemo. Small is beautiful

Below, the steps of the paper-and-pencil SuperMemo method are listed. Repeat these steps every day:

1. Open the schedule book on the page corresponding to the today's month and year. Look at the line marked with the today's date. (In case you have failed to make repetitions in previous days, go to the last date on which repetitions were not made)

2. Pick the first uncircled page number from the line corresponding to the today's date (after a repetition, the repeated page is encircled to avoid repeating it for the second time). If there are no (more) pages scheduled for today (i.e., there are no page numbers in the considered line of the schedule book) then go to Step 8

3. Repeat the page chosen in Step 2. Use a sheet of paper to cover the answer field in the databook. Try to respond to the first question without looking at the answer. Compare your response with the answer. If you have answered correctly then go to the second question, if not, then put a dot in the relevant field of repetition scores in the line corresponding to the first question-answer pair (the relevant field of repetition scores is first in the first repetition, second in the second repetition, etc.). Repeat the same procedure for all remaining questions. Put dots in the relevant fields of repetitions scores for all questions that were not answered correctly. Now, in the same way as previously, try to answer all questions that have a dot in the relevant fields of repetitions scores. Do not repeat questions that are not marked by a dot. In case you again did not manage to answer some of the questions, put a second dot in the relevant fields of repetition scores corresponding to these questions. Now, repeat again all questions that had two dots in their repetition scores and add a third dot in case of a repeated failure. Repeat the whole process of answering questions until you manage to answer all questions in a pass (i.e., questions marked by two dots for the third pass or three dots for the fourth pass, etc.).

4. In the field of repetition dates on the just repeated page write the number of the repetition, today's date and the number of items that have not been remembered

For example, if you have just repeated the page for the third time, and today's date is March 6, 1993, then for the number of failures is equal to 2, the field of repetition dates could look as follows:

No Date U
1 Feb 23, 1993 23
2 Feb 27, 1993 4
3 Mar 6, 1993 2

5. Using the table of repetition intervals from the first page of the schedule book (see Fig. 2), determine the date of the next repetition of the just repeated page

6. Write down the number of the considered page in the schedule book, on a page and line corresponding to the date of the next repetition

7. Go back to today's date in the schedule book and draw a circle around the number of the just repeated page. Go to Step 2

8. If you do not have any more time allocated for today then stop working with SuperMemo. Otherwise check if you have some pages in the databook that are filled with questions and answers but have not yet been memorized (i.e., fields of repetitions scores and repetitions dates are empty). If you do not have such pages then go to Step 9, otherwise you can learn some of these new pages and put them for the second repetition in four days. In order to do so, repeat the new pages as in Step 3 and write their numbers in the schedule book, on the page and line corresponding to the date of the next repetition coming in four days

9. Create some new pages in the databook. Fill them with questions and answers using the source of your knowledge (e.g. a textbook). When you finish filling out new pages, go to Step 8

Some ways to make your work with paper-and-pencil SuperMemo more effective

Having worked with SuperMemo for some time now, you are certainly aware of its shortcomings. You certainly have some intuitions on what the power of the method is, and why it is not thoroughly used. You must have noticed that repetitions of pages are made in increasing intervals and you suspect that these intervals were computed on the base of the properties of human memory. However, there are more and less capable learners; therefore, the table of repetition intervals should be adapted to a given person and the kind of learned knowledge. Moreover, particular questions may be more or less difficult and require different intervals between repetitions. Below, I list some important ways of circumventing the aforementioned problems.

Using double copies of questions

You can easily observe that if the answer to a question is not remembered in one of the repetitions, it is unlikely to be remembered in following repetitions. This requires that after fourth, fifth or perhaps sixth repetitions you should copy all forgotten questions and answers on a newly created page. Such a page will later take part in routine repetitions as all other pages, i.e., no special repetitions schedule will be used for it. The copied question should not be crossed out from the old page. This way, it will take part in repetitions more often than those that have not yet been forgotten and copied to new pages. The doubled question will not have any special status in future repetitions; therefore, if it is forgotten again, it may be considered for copying again, so that it would appear in the database in triplicate or even in more copies. The modified version of the SuperMemo algorithm would, therefore, look as follows (note that Step 5 deals with making additional copies of questions and answers):

1. Open the schedule book on the page corresponding to the today's month and year. Look at the line marked with the today's date

2. Pick the first uncircled page number from the line corresponding to the today's date. If there are no (more) pages scheduled for today then go to Step 9

3. Repeat the page chosen in Step 2

4. In the field of repetition dates on the just repeated page write the number of the repetition, today's date and the number of items that have not been remembered

5. If the repetition number is greater than four, then copy all forgotten items on a new page which will later be used in standard repetitions

6. Using the table of repetition intervals, determine the date of the next repetition of the just repeated page

7. Write down the number of the considered page in the schedule book on the page and line corresponding to the date of the next repetition

8. Go back to the today's date in the schedule book and draw a circle around the number of the just repeated page. Go to Step 2

9. If you do not have any more time allocated for today then stop working with SuperMemo. Otherwise check if you have some new pages in the databook that could be learned today. If you do not have such pages then go to Step 10, otherwise you can learn some of these new pages and put them for the second repetition tomorrow

10. Create some new pages in the databook. When you finish filling them out, go to Step 9

Spreading pages in the schedule book

As you have certainly noticed, all pages learned on a given day are always repeated together, on the same dates. This may be troublesome. For example, when you learn more pages on weekends you may later on face massive repetitions on days when your time is more limited. A simple remedy to the problem is to disobey the indications of the table of repetition intervals. As you probably guess, for long intervals, the difference of one or two days is not significant. Therefore, if you notice that a repetition should be scheduled on a day that has already been packed with many pages, you can shorten or lengthen the interval by few days. This way you will obtain a more uniform distribution of repetition work

Simplifying particular items

Very often you spot questions that seem to be particularly difficult to answer. Such questions may have to be relearned again and again because of their outstanding reluctance to stick to your memory. As experience shows, in most cases, these questions are ill-formulated. The most important principle you must remember about in formulating items is that they should be as simple as possible. For example, the item:

Q: What is an elephant?

A: A big mammal with thick skin, long trunk, big ears and white tusks

is certainly ill-formulated. Even if you perfectly remember what an elephant is, you will often fail to enumerate one of its features mentioned in the answer. The above item should be split to subitems that are more specific on one hand, and easier to remember on the other:

Q: What is an elephant?

A: A kind of animal

Q: To what group of animals does the elephant belong?

A: Mammals/Vertebrates (both responses are interpreted as correct)

Q: To what group of vertebrates does the elephant belong?

A: Mammals

Q: What is the thickness of the elephant's skin?

A: It is thick

Q: What is the shape of the elephant 'nose'?

A: Long trunk

Q: What is the size of the elephant ears?

A: They are big

Q: What sticks out of the elephants mouth?

A: Tusks

Q: What is the color of the elephant's tusks?

A: White

You might probably believe that it is easier to learn one item than 8 items. Practice shows that nothing could be less true. The above set of questions would be learned much faster, and the acquired knowledge would have a more meaningful place in your memory. It would be more accessible, more coherent and more associative. It is associativeness of knowledge that promotes creativity

Remember: whenever a question seems to be particularly difficult to answer, do not try to cram it. Think intensely how to make it simpler, or whether you really need to remember it. Ill-formulated items are likely to be the main reason for your insufficient progress.

Customized tables of repetition intervals

The table of repetition intervals presented earlier is only a rough estimation of the average learner case. Different schedules should be applied by more and less capable learners, as well as for more and less difficult forms of knowledge. Your ability to formulate well-structured items can also influence the optimum shape of the table. Therefore, it is worth considering whether you should modify your repetition table. If you notice that after a number of repetitions the number of forgotten items rises sharply, you might consider shortening the relevant interval. Similarly, if you notice that your repetitions proceed too smoothly, i.e., they almost always yield a 100% score, then you might think about making intervals longer. To make your individual explorations easier let me only stress that intervals usually increase by the same factor in subsequent repetitions. Note, that first two intervals may not comply with this rule. For example, the table of repetition intervals presented in Fig. 2 used the factor 1.7 to increase subsequent intervals. You can increase this number if repetitions proceed smoothly or decrease it in case of poor scoring. Observe that it is unlikely that you will need a factor lower than 1.4, nor is it possible that your factor will exceed 3. In most cases intervals should increase 1.5-2.0 times after each repetition

More tables of repetition intervals

If you think that your understanding of the principles of SuperMemo is deep enough, you may attempt to construct more than one table of repetition intervals. Each of your tables should have a different interval increase factor (see the previous paragraph) and should be applied to items of varying difficulty. For example, you could start repetitions of items with a table whose factor equals 2.5. Upon forgetting items you could write them off to new pages that would be repeated with a lower factor, e.g., 1.9. By analogy, forgotten items from 1.9-factor pages could be placed on pages with a yet lower interval increase factor (e.g., 1.6), etc. Moreover, you could estimate the difficulty of a given item and place it on a page with a particular factor. Obviously, you will need a lot of experience before you are able to do this