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Case study: Studying Law with SuperMemo Mariusz Zmuda,
Poland, June 2001
Mariusz Zmuda is a 23-year-old student of the last year of law school at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland. He wrote this article in response to a request for help from a new American user of SuperMemo studying law and wondering how effective SuperMemo could be in his field. This text has been reviewed from linguistic standpoint courtesy of Trish Maguder Ward and Monika Morawska

Learning at the university

This article will show you how you can excel at your university with some help from SuperMemo. Even though I am student of law my tips are relevant to all students. I do not subscribe to the CPD idea of "cram, pass or dump" (i.e. cram for exams and forget as soon as you pass). It seems to me that the main problem of students around the world is that they are required to learn more material that it is physically possible. Somehow, this simple fact cannot be understood by our teachers. Over the last couple of years I met many lecturers and almost everyone told students: "You may study many different subjects at school, but remember: the most important subject of all is ... (here comes the lecturer's specialty) ... because ... (here comes a few dozen reasons)", etc. etc. Has not anybody ever measured how much time there is in a day, how much is needed to learn a given book, and how many books we got in each given year? You as a student will have to go through this paranoia. You got to learn to live with it! SuperMemo will partly solve this problem, and your life will be easier; however, you will never truly measure up to your teachers' requirements. They really got no clue what is possible!

Time limitations and your majors

The problem of excess learning material is huge in global terms. SuperMemo may maximize the speed of learning, but it does not solve the problem of the teachers' perceptions. You will be bogged down by tons of books and notes to comply with your teacher's demands. You will have to spend days cramming things that are not only too much but often useless and boring. A year after exams, naturally, you will not remember a fraction of all this memory-mangled material. Pure waste of time and human resources. No wonder you searched the net for something like SuperMemo. However, SuperMemo is not a panacea. Not only will you not jump over the impossible, but you will also have to learn some tricks to make your work effective. Many users of SuperMemo never discover incremental reading (one of SuperMemo techniques). Those who discover it, often give up due to lack of proper skills. I am an example too. It took me long time to recognize the value of this technique. Today, SuperMemo with incremental reading can do twice as the old question-answer SuperMemo

Prioritize your knowledge

It does not take long to realize that even SuperMemo cannot resolve the problem of the excess of the learning material. Conclusion: You need to prioritize! I had to prioritize my study notes in my law collections (i.e. SuperMemo databases that store learning material). To be honest, I would want to put all my books into SuperMemo, but this is obviously impossible. Luckily for me, my girlfriend Magda studies the same law program with me. Helping each other cuts down some of the tedious jobs in half. However, even with doubled output, we could not introduce enough material to SuperMemo.

The next skill we needed to develop was time-management. Our observation was that, strangely, most of our lecturers would test us in knowledge of the last few pages of lecture books. This helped in targeting the material we needed to study. Besides, we chose the material that we could use even in a distant future: civil law. Civil law makes the largest part of our collections (ca 4,500 items).

Finally we decided to learn code paragraphs and some excerpts from notes and textbooks using question, answer, cloze deletions (i.e. elements based on filling the missing gaps), and simple enumerations. (see below).

Example of an enumeration [see Footnote Enumerations]:

Question: Roman law was based on the following rules: ...

Answer: - bonum - aequitas - humanitas

Today, I have separated my learning material into two collections: The first collection includes the courses that will soon end with an exam. The other collection includes only the material for exams that I have already passed. This greatly improves optimization of my work. On one hand I can cram some less useful stuff for exam. On the other, I can weed old material from things that seem useless. For my exams this June [2001], I used incremental reading for the first time.

Searching for materials and the problem of obsolescence 

The greatest problem in learning law is that your study material may quickly become outdated. Law is like a living body that is always in the process of change. Luckily, I was in a good situation because the Polish parliament approved wide reforms of the law, including the new constitution, new penal codes, new commercial codes, etc. So that at the university I have already learnt the new laws (imagine if I started earlier!). Also, the Internet helps me find codes and save invaluable hours. This way, I did not have to write down things by myself. I could import them to SuperMemo directly from the net. Of course, you can memorize only facts and rules that never change, for example, definitions from the law of succession, etc. It is entirely up to you. 

If you are a student of natural sciences, the question of obsolescence is certainly less painful. You can use the Internet to find your materials and commit them to memory almost without change and without worrying that it all will do more damage than good in three years. With things memorized with SuperMemo, you may be tempted not to bother to consult the most recent changes in the law. This way, instead of being a wiser lawyer, you might become an annoyingly "over-smart" lawyer with many out-of-date facts clogging your memory.

I found some materials ready for learning on SuperMemo MegaMix (both in Polish and in English). Naturally, I study many things apart from the law. This made me think that sometimes it is better to search for someone who could have already developed a relevant learning material than to bother by myself [see Footnote Writing One's Own Material]. An example of a web page with free collections is http://akson.sgh.waw.pl/sm/bazy.htm (unfortunately this is all written in Polish).

Incremental reading

Try to use incremental reading with SuperMemo 2000. It helps you collect and organize articles or texts that you are interested in. For texts from your textbooks use a scanner and OCR software. Import your articles to SM2000. Use incremental reading to read and review articles and excerpts. SuperMemo will automatically determine optimum intervals for material review.

Incremental reading is the method that falls between the SuperMemo method and traditional learning. Nothing special you say? If you are hungry for knowledge, it will speed up absorbing it. It is like sex: just try it, and you will never stop.

Remember! I made lots of mistakes during my first four years of learning with SuperMemo. By reading about my mistakes, I hope you will avoid your own. 

These are my Top Ten Hints to combine your college learning with SuperMemo:

  1. Choose majors which can be really useful in your future career or life. Let your collections reflect your priorities
  2. Introduce to SuperMemo as many items from your majors as you can. Do it before exams. If you say "I will complete my collection in this field later". You will certainly never do it
  3. Estimate the daily time you are able to spend with SuperMemo (e.g. 2-6 hours), and the number of items that you are able to memorize each day. Do not exaggerate! If you strictly observe your limits, your knowledge will swell greatly over months and years
  4. Don't stop learning with SuperMemo before exams! I must admit that sometimes I didn't stick to this rule (7-10 days before exams, I gave up to resume SuperMemo learning upon passing exams). SuperMemo 2000 lets you read your university textbooks with incremental reading which makes it easier to reduce the loads in critical time
  5. Find a friend or friends with who you can add new items to SuperMemo and then exchange them. It will save you lots of time
  6. Set a low forgetting index before exams. I set the forgetting index to 3%, and then, after passing exams, I change it to 8-12%. Don't say "I must remember everything". It will result in over-scheduling and ... you will stop learning older collections or branches when new exams increase the pressure. I made such mistakes in the past, and now I am a bit wiser [Footnote Use incremental reading]
  7. Learn leech management. Leeches can damage your learning process and discourage you from learning with SuperMemo!
  8. Learn how to formulate your learning material. See: 20 rules of formulating knowledge
  9. Use mnemonic methods to memorize leeches. For example: "Which are the richest countries in Europe?". If these were "Austria, Sweden, Slovakia" (which is naturally not true), you could just remember the initials. It will stay with you for long. Check it out. It is easy. You will effectively remember such a spicy acronym. Using SuperMemo with mnemonic methods will greatly ease the pain of leeches. Remember: leeches are inevitable 
  10. Do not learn when you are sleepy. This is a total waste of time. Try free running sleep

My Decalogue is slightly different from the one at supermemo.com. Compare: Learning Decalogue


After writing this article, I received an e-mail from Mariano from Spain. I think it can complement this text:

Hi! I am a lawyer who lives in Mallorca Island, Spain. I have discovered SuperMemo recently, and I would appreciate to know about your experience as a law student with this program. I think it is nice, but I am worried about the idea that it helps only to recognize the items while asked, but it does not help if you must write a two hours essay about the family regulation of the Civil Code, for instance. Is it really useful? If yes, is it enough to be used as your only learning tool? How can you link all the small items in order to write an exam which is supposed to last for several hours? Thanks for sharing your experience with me.

Mariano

My response:

Hi Mariano!

I am in my fourth year of law. Law studies last 5 years in Poland. I've been using SuperMemo since 1997. Initially to learn history and then to learn my law majors. Today, SuperMemo is not just an idea of making items (simple question and answers), it was extended with the idea of incremental reading (SM2000).

How to learn Civil Code? 

The old way of learning with SM was to introduce simple legal rules from books e.g.:

Say, you must write a two hour essay about the family regulations of the Civil Code. I always start learning a given major by introducing material to SuperMemo. When I was in the first year, I would put to SuperMemo just items like the one above. 1-2 weeks before exams, I was was only reading books.  

A real revolution came with incremental reading (you may find more on SuperMemo site). Incremental reading saves my time and lets me introduce articles and whole pages of books (e.g. with a scanner and OCR). The greatest ideas are those that are the simplest. Now you can add article or pieces of a book and read them in SuperMemo (e.g. an article on the institution of marriage in Spain). Then if you find interesting pieces, you click an icon on the toolbar, and SuperMemo schedules this small piece of material on a given day (you can choose this day or let SuperMemo pick it). If you consider this piece important, you can make a cloze deletion (sentence with a part deleted where you have to fill the gap).

Let's say, that from a bigger piece of text (e.g. from an on-line law magazine) you extracted a piece:

"The social group that includes parents, grandparents, etc. is called the ascendants"

Now you select the word "ascendants" and SuperMemo creates a cloze deletion item: 

It greatly speeds up gaining new knowledge. And the problem of losing context is gone.

If have other questions, please write

Regards

Mariusz Zmuda


Footnotes

(some of Mariusz Zmuda recommendations differ slightly from what is officially promoted via supermemo.com)

  1. Enumerations belong to the category of intractable material. They are difficult to remember. If possible, avoid enumerations or use tricks described in: 20 rules of formulating knowledge for learning
  2. Writing one's own learning material is highly recommended. Your own material will take longer to prepare but will often produce much better structure of memories and, paradoxically, result in saved time. Naturally, there are well-defined bodies of knowledge that will not differ from one person to another and are already available (e.g. from SuperMemo Library)
  3. Use incremental reading: It seems more efficient to use incremental reading to reduce workload rather than play with the forgetting index