Devouring knowledge Dr Piotr Wozniak
Dec 2000 (revised June 2004)

This article will tell you how to maximize the speed of learning.

To fully use the discussed techniques you will need a computer running Windows, Internet Explorer and SuperMemo 2004 for Windows (freeware). If you do not have one of the above, skip the blue inserts. For simpler solutions that do not have these requirements read: Six steps to excellent memory

Marvin Minsky: Our cultures don't encourage us to think much about learning. Instead we regard it as something that just happens to us. But learning must itself consist of sets of skills we grow ourselves; we start with only some of them and slowly grow the rest. Why don't more people keep on learning more and better learning skills? Because it's not rewarded right away, its payoff has a long delay
Important! This article refers to older versions of SuperMemo. For the most up-to-date text, see: "Incremental learning."

Contents

Introduction

This article summarizes my 20-year-long effort in developing techniques and technologies that assist human learning. It should help you quickly convert your learning into a rationally controlled and conscious process. I believe, it describes the tools that collectively account for the fastest learning approach in existence. If knowledge is important to you, this article should help you optimize your path towards your goals. Among others, we will discuss two concepts that can have a dramatic effect on learning:

This short insert paints the picture of knowledge in the epicenter of progress. If you need no convincing as to the central role of knowledge in our lives, jump directly to Knowledge Acquisition - stages of learning that can be optimized

Knowledge as the driving force of progress

Knowledge and history: Throughout the ages, knowledge was the cornerstone of human progress. From Stone Age to Information Age, in pain, we have built a tiny oasis of civilization in ruthless expanses of the evolving universe. The history of the mankind is made of billions of individual lives that keep on sparking and fading. Born of self-preservation instincts imprinted by evolution, history books paint a picture of a constant string of wars, conflict of interest, loss and gain of influences, lust for power and submission to weaknesses of human nature. On the other hand, the greatest achievement of the evolution, the rational mind, kept on contributing to new findings, discoveries, technologies and philosophies. Progress has always hinged on discovering new truths and preserving them for posterity in form of stories, solutions, tools,  books, and other carriers of information. Knowledge is the basis of human power, yet it constantly struggles with two forces that regularly diminish it: death and forgetting. We can preserve knowledge in books and other forms of information storage. However, this knowledge translates to value only then when it is used by the creative power of the human brain. The limitations of the human brain will remain a bottleneck of progress for many years to come. We will develop artificially intelligent knowledge processors not earlier than in a decade or two

Knowledge and death: Death poses an ageless challenge of educating new generations. Years of hard work needed to gain knowledge on professorial level are obliterated in a single act of death. Newborns need to go through years of education before they are able to access, read, and comprehend this text. They all have to struggle with basic literacy skills, lessons of safe sex and teen pregnancy, lessons on superiority of altruism over egoism, the difference between wise and not-so-wise choices, existential questions, etc. Although constant reeducation may contribute to gaining a fresh perspective in each generation, it is also painfully wasteful. As yet, there is no efficient remedy to the death of knowledge. All we can do is to attach more weight to healthy lifestyle and health research. Those two promote longevity of knowledge in a single generation

Knowledge and forgetting: Forgetting is a natural process that makes it possible to efficiently use the limited memory space of the brain. We forget to dispose of knowledge deemed less important in order to make space for knowledge of higher importance. Currently we have only a limited control over what we remember and what we forget. Today, the most important tool that we can use to prevent forgetting is practice. We can minimize time needed for practice by using spaced repetition (i.e. learning technique based on computing optimum intervals between repetitions). Spaced repetition is the key to maximizing knowledge within a single human lifetime (see below for more details)

Immortal knowledge: Artificial intelligence is our best hope for approaching immortal knowledge. It can nearly eliminate the problem of death (except for the heat death of the universe). It can also eliminate the problem of forgetting (at least within the bounds of the available storage). Today, however, the best path towards immortal knowledge must still rely on the use of the human brain by maximizing its learning capacity

Knowledge acquisition

There are five main areas where the learning process can be enhanced. All these areas will be discussed in this article:

  1. access to knowledge - this article will make an assumption that the Internet is your main source of knowledge. You can later easily extrapolate the discussed skills to accessing other sources of knowledge
  2. selecting knowledge - we will assume that you are solely responsible for selecting knowledge you want to learn. Your ability to select valuable information will grow in proportion to the acquired knowledge. This article will show you the tools that can assist you in this process
  3. reading - reading is the process in which knowledge for the first time makes an actual intimate contact with your brain. Traditionally, it is streamed into your memory in a more or less linear manner (i.e. paragraph after paragraph). This article will help you delinearize this process and optimize reading by enhancing knowledge selection and prioritization concurrent with reading. For example, you will be able to say This paragraph can be processed later or This paragraph requires utmost attention now or This paragraph can be skipped for good even if I decide to read the article again, or I want to read this paragraph again in three days and in more detail or I want to mark this paragraph with lower-priority and come to it only after all higher priority paragraphs have been processed, etc. 
  4. representing knowledge - the way in which you present knowledge will affect comprehension and retention (i.e. how well you remember). Things that are simple are easier to understand. Things that are simple are also easier to remember. Many people do not realize the degree to which simplicity can affect learning. Many people doubt that even the most complex material can be presented in a very simple way. Einstein noticed that "it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid"
  5. remembering knowledge - this article will tell you how to eliminate the problem of forgetting once and for all. It will encourage you to use the learning technique based on spaced repetition and commercially known as SuperMemo (from Super Memory). SuperMemo produces immense savings in time by scheduling review of the studied material only then when the review is necessary (see: Introduction to SuperMemo)
  6. life cycle of knowledge - this article will show you an approach in which knowledge in your memory keeps on evolving and maturing. This will involve continual rewording, reprioritizing, and re-associating pieces of knowledge. You will often give up portions of knowledge that become outdated or lose their high-priority status. You will apply the rules of knowledge representation that will make knowledge easy to remember. Your knowledge will also become more associative in time. In other words, it will become a more suitable ground for making intelligent choices 
  7. using knowledge - knowledge translates to value when it is properly used. In the long-run, skills discussed in this article will indirectly help you become more creative and skillful in using your own knowledge. Not surprisingly, your skills needed to efficiently use knowledge are also part of knowledge itself and tend to grow spontaneously as your knowledge increases

Access to knowledge

The Internet is an excellent source of knowledge. Its quality and role will for long continue increasing exponentially as more and more people appreciate its potential and contribute to its growth. There are still many complementary sources of information that compete successfully with the Internet. However, it is only a question of time before you will be safely able to rely on the Internet as your sole source of information. 

The three main factors that limit the value of the Internet as the source of information today:

  • verification - there are no formalized peer-review or other verification mechanisms that would make it easy for you to ascertain the reliability of information available and trustworthiness of authors. The burden of proof is on you. You either need to tap onto reputable sites or judge the reliability of individual authors on preponderance of evidence. Consequently, reputable scientific journals are still an unmatched source of raw research data (cf. Pierre Salinger syndrome)
  • bandwidth - popular broadband access to the Internet is still to come. This limits availability of quality video documentaries, video reporting, video education, interactive material, etc. Consequently, television and multimedia titles have still a substantial role to play as an educational tool
  • micropayments - authors still see the printed matter as their main source of income. In the future, your credit account may be charged to a microscopic amount each time you access a selected page on the web if the author decides to make it a source of his or her income. This may ultimately cause a massive exodus of authors from the traditional publishing industry towards the net with immense benefit to those mining for quality data on the net

Despite the Internet's limitations, you can safely commit yourself today to making the net your chief source of knowledge in your quest for new knowledge in nearly all areas of well-rounded self-instruction. The abundance of free encyclopedias, journals, dictionaries, databases, stand-alone articles and thematic websites is mind-boggling. 

All you need for the purpose of knowledge access is a web browser and basic net-searching skills combined with an understanding of the power of individual search engines such as www.google.com

Throughout this article, I will try to demonstrate that you will need a tool for efficient prioritizing and reviewing information: SuperMemo 2004 for Windows. The true power and importance of SuperMemo comes from ensuring high retention of knowledge. SuperMemo 2004 will also help you greatly increase the quality of reading by means of a technique called: incremental reading. In addition to its main strengths, SuperMemo can also assist in the field of knowledge access. You will certainly face the need to fill the gaps in your knowledge in many more areas than your time permits or your memory makes possible. You can ask SuperMemo to help you scrupulously note down and prioritize all areas of knowledge that need an enhancement! 

Selecting knowledge

The extent of global knowledge resources can be measured in terabytes. One terabyte is a thousand gigabytes, while one gigabyte is a rough equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica whose 44 million words would most likely all fit your today's hard disk space. The US Library of Congress is estimated to amount to 25 terabytes of knowledge. Human DNA code kept at Celera takes 80 terabytes. At the same time, the so-called deep web (year 2000) may encompass as much as 7,500 terabytes (deep web includes the static web extended by dynamic information retrievable from web databases). It will take only three years from today to produce more data than in the whole of human history (say researchers at the University of California).

Only a fraction of those resources can be mastered by an individual in a single human lifetime. Even a single copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica goes in detail far beyond what a single human being can encompass in a lifetime! The actual speed of learning and lifetime learning limits can be measured with SuperMemo (see: Theoretical aspects of SuperMemo).

The microscopic capacity of the human brain has not prevented it from building the present civilization as we know it. The human power comes from: 

  1. collective effort - a billion heads is more than one
  2. specialization of labor - all collective tasks are subject to top-down functional decomposition and a single brain usually only needs to process a fraction of information at a time 
  3. knowledge selection skills - the associative power of the human brain combined with the selective nature of forgetting help us retain memories that are actually most useful in problem solving

This article will show you how to prevent forgetting. However, forgetting plays an important role in our lives. It runs a valuable garbage collection on knowledge we acquire daily. If the power of forgetting is taken away, your responsibilities in the area of selecting knowledge increase manifold! 

SuperMemo will help you eliminate forgetting! At the same time, it will increase your responsibility for selecting knowledge that is truly important and applicable. If used without care and attention, SuperMemo may actually waste your time by helping you remember reels of garbage trivia 

A piece of information that occupies just several bytes of your hard disk may carry a relative value that my translate to a net gain of millions of dollars as well as a net loss of millions of dollars. It may also carry no value whatsoever. For example, a sentence written in French "SuperMemo vous aide à mémoriser et apprendre diverses informations comme une langue, des chiffres, etc." may be of nearly zero value for someone who does not know French. At the same time, an item related to a Heimlich maneuver can save the life of a family member. We know that the expected payoff equals the value of the payoff multiplied by its probability; therefore, the low probability of a family member choking and the probability of actual successful application of the maneuver make the value of "Heimlich item" a fraction of the value of the human life. At the same time, even minor errors in medical knowledge of a physician can actually cost somebody's life and carry substantial negative value!

Frequently, you will find more benefit in memorizing the three best things you have learnt today than in memorizing a whole monothematic article to the last detail!  

It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated (Alec Bourne)

I have mentioned earlier that SuperMemo 2004 can help you prioritize knowledge areas and topics that you want to study. In a similar way, SuperMemo 2004 will help you prioritize articles you locate on the net and decide to study in detail. 

Importing articles to SuperMemo 2004

To import an important article to SuperMemo, follow these steps:

  1. Select the imported text in your web browser and copy the selection to the clipboard (e.g. with Ctrl+C)
  2. Switch to SuperMemo (e.g. with Alt+Tab)
  3. In SuperMemo, press Ctrl+Alt+N (this is equivalent to Edit : Add a new article on the main menu). SuperMemo will create a new element, apply the reading template (i.e. a template with one scaleable HTML component), and paste the article
  4. Optionally, use Ctrl+J to specify the first review interval (e.g. one day for high priority material or 30 days for low priority material)

Tips:

  • To import many articles at once from Internet Explorer, use Edit : Import web pages (Shift+F8)
  • To type your own notes to SuperMemo, use Edit : Add to category : Note (Alt+N)
  • If you would like to store pictures locally (in the registry), and make them proliferate in incremental reading (i.e. show up in all extracts and clozes), you will need to paste pictures separately. Use Copy on the picture menu in the browser and then press Shift+Ins in SuperMemo to paste the picture. As you should not keep more than 2-3 pictures per element in SuperMemo, you should paste pictures from multi-picture articles only to relevant extracts of the main article
  • To learn more about HTML in SuperMemo, see: HTML component

Reading

Traditional linear reading is highly inefficient. This comes from the fact that various pieces of the text are of various importance. Some should be skipped. Others should be read in the first order of priority. Old-fashioned books are quickly being replaced with hypertext. Hypertext will help you quickly jump to information that is the most important at any given moment. Hypertext requires a different style of writing. After all, all texts will live by the assumption that there has been some introductory section read before. The texts become context-independent, and all difficult terms and concepts are explained solely with additional hyperlinks. As the world wide web helped delinearize the global resources of information, SuperMemo 2004 can help you delinearize your reading of whatever linear material you decide to import to SuperMemo. While reading with SuperMemo, you will see a linear text as a sequence of sections subdivided into paragraphs and individual sentences. SuperMemo will help you provide a separate and independent processing for each section, paragraph or sentence. Here are some typical actions you will execute on individual sections, paragraphs or sentences. Most typically you will decide one of the following:

In SuperMemo, all material worth remembering will be scheduled for review in the future. This is necessary to ensure you do not forget what you have learned. At the same time, all material that has not been read but is classified as worth reading will also be scheduled for reading in the future. In SuperMemo, you will constantly face a serial process of reading, review, and repetition that will make sure that your work with the program is challenging, interesting and leaves permanent traces in your memory.

Reading with SuperMemo 2004

When reading an article in SuperMemo 2004, you will process individual paragraphs or sentences with commands available from the Reading menu available with a right-click over the selected text. For fastest processing, these commands are also available on the reading toolbar:

You will begin reading an article in one of these circumstances:

  1. Learning process: The article's turn comes up in the learning process (after choosing Learn or Ctrl+L)

  2. Reading list: You pull the article from the top of your reading list with Shift+Ctrl+F4

  3. Immediate reading: You want to read the article immediately after importing it to SuperMemo with Ctrl+Alt+N

  4. Search: You locate the article in your collection with navigation or search tools (e.g. with Ctrl+F)

Here are the typical actions you will perform on individual sections, paragraphs and sentences:

  1. Read and remember - you can read a paragraph, select it with the mouse and choose Remember extract (Alt+X or the green T icon). Remember extract will create a new mini-article in SuperMemo and store it for review in a couple of days. The review of the extract will be subject to the same procedures as reading the entire article. In other words, you can only quickly read the selected paragraph to get the general idea and read it in detail only upon the first review

  2. Skip and read later - if you see that a longer section is important and requires more detailed reading, you can execute Remember extract without reading the section at all. You can also choose Schedule extract and determine the first review interval (for example, if you type "1", the first review will take place on the next day)

  3. Skip for ever - if you believe that a given part of text is not worth your time, you can choose Ignore (stop-sign icon). This will mark the text with a grayed font, and ensure you will not get into reading the same text again in the future (e.g. on the next review)

If you believe the whole article should be skipped, you can do the following:

  1. Skip and read later - you will delay reading an article if you believe its priority is less or if you think that you need to read some other introductory articles first. For example, you can stop reading and manually choose an interval after which you will return to reading (Reschedule or Ctrl+J ). You can also choose Forget (e.g. at the bottom of the element window or Ctrl+R) and put the article at the end of the queue of articles waiting for review

  2. Skip and retain in the archive - if you do not expect to return to a given article but you still want to retain it in SuperMemo, you can choose Dismiss (e.g. at the bottom of the element window or Ctrl+D)

  3. Skip and delete partially - if you believe an article is not worth keeping in your SuperMemo collection, you can delete it without deleting review material generated from the article. Use Learning : Done or Ctrl+Shift+Enter

  4. Skip and delete entirely - if you believe an article is not worth keeping in your SuperMemo collection, you can delete it along with all associated extracts, sections and paragraphs (use Del)

Representing knowledge

In SuperMemo, all imported articles will evolve. This evolution will ensure maximum comprehension and retention of knowledge. Initially the articles are split into sections and paragraphs. Those sections and paragraphs are later subject to regular review and further evolution. Individual paragraphs get enriched with context clues, reference labels, and converted to individual sentences. Individual sentences convey ideas which you want to remember. These ideas come back for review at increasing intervals. Initially, the ideas come back every couple of days, later after months and years. However, passively processed ideas in the form of sentences rarely leave a durable trace in your memory even if they are reviewed regularly. Very often, as soon as after 2-3 months, you will notice that at review time, you actually do not seem able to recall that you have ever had a given sentence in your collection. You will quickly discover that you need active recall in order to remember. Active recall is a process in which you must answer questions. For example, you may be presented with a picture of Charles Darwin and be asked to recognize his face. In the long run, you need to replace passive review with active recall. Otherwise, your memory of the fact will not be permanently consolidated. 

The fastest way of converting simple sentences into active recall material is to use a cloze deletion technique (nb: cloze is the correct spelling; please do not report an orthographic error!). In the cloze deletion technique, you convert simple declarative sentences like:

WW1 was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist in 1914

into question-answer pairs that can be used in actively stimulating your memory for best recall:

Question: WW1 was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of [...](country/empire) by a Serbian nationalist in 1914
Answer:
Austria-Hungary

Question: WW1 was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist in [...](year)
Answer:
1914

Question: [...](war) was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist in 1914
Answer:
WW1

Active recall in SuperMemo 2004

To convert a sentence to a cloze deletion in SuperMemo 2004, select the appropriate keyword in the sentence (e.g. Austria-Hungary, 1914, WW1, etc.) and press Ctrl+Z. You can also choose Reading : Remember cloze available with a right click over the selected text, or click the blue Z-icon on the Read toolbar.

If you would like to immediately reedit the newly created cloze deletion, choose button on the element toolbar or press Alt+Left. This will make it possible to add context clues, shorten the text, improve the wording, etc.

Tip! Try to avoid using cloze deletion tools on conglomerate paragraphs. Your cloze deletions should be as simple as possible. Consequently, simplifying the parent paragraph to a simple statement will produce simple clozes that will require little processing. If you use Remember cloze on a longer multi-sentence paragraph, you will have to put extra effort on simplifying the resulting items. All cloze deletions should be short enough to ensure you read them entirely at repetition time. Otherwise, your brain will tend to "deduce" the answer from non-semantic clues. This will defeat the purpose of learning!

The active recall issue in representing knowledge is just a tip of the iceberg. You will need to master quite a number of skills that will ensure your knowledge is:

You will hone those skills gradually in time. Your own mistakes will provide the best material for improvement. You will find more details in: 20 rules of formulating knowledge in learning

Remembering knowledge

Forgetting has been the number one problem in learning for ages. All capable students know that it is not really hard to cram hundreds of pages of material before an exam. But a great deal of the learned knowledge is gone just 3-4 days later (esp. after an exhaustive all-nighter). 50% of the quickly crammed knowledge evaporates within a week or two. After a year or so, nearly all material is forgotten unless reviewed. It is easy to notice that the repetition is the key to remembering in the long run. Repetitio mater memoriae may date back to Horace (65-8 BC).

In SuperMemo, review of the learned material is in the center of the learning method. The review algorithm has started the whole concept of SuperMemo in the early 1980s and the first software implementation of SuperMemo in 1987 was based solely on repetitions of simple questions and answers.

SuperMemo makes it possible to remember, by default, 95% of the learned material (see: General principles of SuperMemo). You can program this retention level to fall between 90-99%. You can also determine the retention individually for each of the pieces of information subject to review. You can also use tools that will make it possible to substantially increase the flow of information into SuperMemo at the cost of retention. 

With SuperMemo, you can nearly eliminate the problem of forgetting! However, the cost of remembering is still substantial. SuperMemo protects your memories from the spontaneous process of forgetting and puts them in your own hands. Your persistence and conscious choices will determine what you remember and what you decide to give up to forgetting
Remembering with SuperMemo 2004

All material introduced to SuperMemo 2004 will be subject to review. This is all you need to remember:

  • on a daily basis choose Learn (or press Ctrl+L) and go through the scheduled portion of the material (this will include whole articles, their fragments scheduled for review, cloze deletions and simple question-answer items)
  • if you proceed with your daily review until you get the message Nothing more to learn, you are guaranteed to remember, by default, 95% of the learned material

You will often introduce to SuperMemo more material than you are able to review. You will therefore also need to consider the following:

  • the proportion of the material you remember can be changed globally or for individual pieces of information (see: Forgetting index)
  • if your review takes too much time, you can slow down the process by which material stored in SuperMemo is actually introduced into the learning process by answering No to Do you want to learn new material? This will make excess material wait for learning until you master the material that has already entered the learning process
  • if you cannot keep up with review, you can choose rescheduling tools (e.g. Postpone or Mercy). For example, you can choose Learn : Postpone : Topics to postpone all articles scheduled for today

Life cycle of knowledge

Knowledge stored in SuperMemo will gradually be transformed and reformulated. This will also reflect changes to the corresponding knowledge in your memory. Three main principles will underlie the evolution of knowledge in SuperMemo:

The core of SuperMemo is review and repetition. Changes to individual pieces of knowledge will take place in steps upon successive reviews. Here are exemplary steps that show a complete evolution of a single article into a finished item based on active recall:

  1. Imagine that you find an article on the net, e.g. The criticism of global capitalism, and you decide to read it and remember it for ever

  2. You import the article to SuperMemo

  3. You read the article (e.g. once it tops your reading list or once its turn comes up in incremental reading)

  4. While reading, you extract most important paragraphs. One of these, let us say, refers to Kuznets hypothesis

  5. The extracted paragraphs will assume a separate life in SuperMemo and will be scheduled for separate review, i.e. independent of the review of the parent article. The extracted paragraphs in the parent article will be marked as processed. Once all paragraphs in the parent article are processed, you will terminate the review of the parent article and keep on reviewing only its components (e.g. selected paragraphs)

  6. Upon the first review, usually after a few days, you read the extracted paragraph again and analyze it as to how it should be processed further. You may decide to postpone it, remove it from the learning process, shorten it or extract the most important sentences that you want to remember

  7. If you decide to extract a single statement in reference to Kuznets hypothesis it will again be marked as processed in the original extract and will assume a separate review cycle in SuperMemo

  8. Upon the first review of the extracted sentence, you make further decisions as to its further life in SuperMemo. Let us say, this is the wording of the Kuznets sentence: Acc to Kuznets hypothesis, growth (from the low income levels associated with predominantly agrarian societies) would first lead to an increase, and then to a decrease in income inequality

  9. In order to capture the essence, you would probably decide to shorten the above sentence to the following form: Acc to Kuznets hypothesis, growth would first lead to an increase, and then to a decrease in income inequality

  10. At the same time, other parts of the same parent article might establish a memory trace that would say that Kuznets hypothesis has been based on relatively weak empirical data. Moreover, recent research clearly indicates that the hypothesis is false (growth actually seems to equally benefit both the poor and the rich). You could then enhance the extract with words controversial or even recently falsified. For example, Recently falsified Kuznets hypothesis claimed that growth would first lead to an increase, and then to a decrease in income inequality

  11. Upon the next review of the same sentence, you may decide to convert it into a number of cloze deletions. This conversion will be incremental, i.e. you may decide to first create a cloze deletion asking about the name of the controversial hypothesis and only later ask about its actual meaning (the meaning is relatively easier to remember and shall survive longer in your memory without active recall). Your cloze deletion could then look like this:

    Question: Recently falsified [...](name) hypothesis claimed that growth would first lead to an increase, and then to a decrease in income inequality
    Answer: Kuznets 

    This cloze deletion would again assume a separate life from the original sentence in which the keyword Kuznets will again be marked as processed. This is the original Kuznets sentence with one keyword marked as processed: Recently falsified Kuznets hypothesis claimed that growth would first lead to an increase, and then to a decrease in income inequality 

  12. The same sentence will generate a few separate cloze deletions that will be processed independently. Upon the first review of the cloze deletion created in the previous point, you may decide to simplify it in accordance with the rules of formulating knowledge in learning

    Question: Recently falsified [...](name) hypothesis claimed that growth would first lead to an increase in income inequality
    Answer: Kuznets  

  13. Upon the next review, you can, but you do not have to, convert the cloze deletion into a standard question-answer item:

    Question: What is the name of the hypothesis that falsely claims that income inequality initially increases with growth?
    Answer: Kuznets hypothesis 

  14. The above question-answer pair is probably as simple as it can only be. Certainly, it is simple enough to be relatively easy to remember. This item will be repeated in intervals determined by SuperMemo. You can decide how well you want to remember it. By default, it will be remembered with 95% probability of recall and require 5-15 repetitions in lifetime. The establishment of durable memory traces in your memory, completes the life cycle of this particular piece of knowledge. The only thing that remains is the memory-sustaining review in intervals ranging from months to years (as determined by SuperMemo)

  15. Once you convert all important keywords from the Kuznets hypothesis into separate cloze deletions, you will remove the parenting paragraph from the review process. You will not longer passively review the original declarative hypothesis. You will continue repeating individual clozes and that will ensure your perfect recall of the hypothesis for as long as you deem necessary

To learn more about the life cycle of knowledge in SuperMemo read: Flow of knowledge in SuperMemo

Incremental reading

If you stop reading an article and return to it after a month or so, you may find it hard to understand the text due to the fact that the part read earlier will have already been partly forgotten while it might have built a solid introduction needed for understanding the remaining sections of the article.

In SuperMemo, reading articles in small parts does not pose a problem. The parts read earlier enter the regular review process that ensures continual retention of all pivotal points. Even more, SuperMemo encourages reading in small parts. This makes it possible to read many articles at the same time, and portion the inflow of information into the learning process in proportion to priority and available time.

The process or reading many articles at the same time in small portions will later be called incremental reading

Without SuperMemo, incremental reading would not be possible. This comes from the fact that only SuperMemo can ensure that you do not forget what you have read before. In other words, if you return to the same article in a week or in a few months, you will quickly recover the context and keep on reading as if you have read preceding parts just minutes earlier.

The advantages of incremental reading are numerous. They all are interdependent. Good retention enables incremental reading. This provides variety which eliminates boredom, enhances attention and affects creative associations. Good prioritization enhances the speed of reading without affecting comprehension, and that in turn, eliminates the stress of fast reading (worry of missing important pieces of information) and the stress of massive reading (worry of losing track of one or more articles). 

Here is the list of the most prominent advantages of incremental reading: 

  1. knowledge structure and comprehension: Building knowledge in your brain is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces cannot be placed in the puzzle before the others. Some pieces capitalize on others. There is no point in memorizing facts about Higgs boson before you learn what a standard model is and that, in turn, should follow the general understanding of particle physics which itself requires some ABC of physics. In incremental reading, if you encounter texts related to Higgs boson you can manually delay it until the time you hope your Physics ABC will provide the ground for understanding. In traditional reading, you would just waste your time on reviewing Higgs boson material. Traditionally, your decision to skip the material would provide no definite way of coming back to material in the future. With incremental reading, you waste no time on reading material you do not understand. At the same time, you can safely skip portions of material and return to them in the future. You become the master of the conscious knowledge building process

  2. attention: Human brain has an in-built limit on the attention span. We all get bored with things. This is often true even with interesting articles once they get too long. Millions of people do a daily channel zapping on TV. This absurd activity is driven precisely by the craving for dense action and information variety. A gripping movie goes "too slow" for a typical channel zapper. This is why he or she prefers to watch three movies at the same time (even though the plot of all will suffer). Incremental reading is a perfect remedy to the limited attention span. Once you sense any sign of boredom or distraction, you can jump to the next article with few negative side effects. Unlike in the case of channel zapping though, you won't miss a bit of information. Just the opposite, you will maximize attention per paragraph. Your attention to the same piece of information may depend on your mood, amount of prior reading, today's interest that may depend on the piece of news you heard on the morning radio, etc. With incremental reading, you can fit your best attention to each individual piece of reading

  3. speed: Incremental reading will help you dramatically increase the speed of your first reading of a selected text. You can quickly jump from paragraph to paragraph, get the overall picture, mark fragments for later reading, mark fragments for detailed study, etc. You will be relieved of the greatest bottleneck of speed-reading: fear of missing important pieces of information. As soon as you suspect a quickly-reviewed paragraph may carry more importance than meets the eye, you can simply introduce it back into the review process (as opposed to backtracking and reading the paragraph again). Once you process the entire article, you can slowly digest it again from the very beginning in the incremental reading process. Incremental reading provides for speed-reading without detriment to comprehension  

  4. prioritization: There are always many more articles at hand than you can hope to read. Evaluating articles and prioritizing them is difficult because you cannot do a good evaluation without actually reading a part of the article in question. In incremental reading, you can read the introduction and then decide when to read the rest. If an article is extremely valuable or interesting, you can process it entirely at once. Other articles can slowly scramble through the learning process. Yet others may ultimately be deleted. The prioritization will continue while you are reading the article. If the evaluation of quality or content changes while reading, so will the reading-review schedule. Prioritization tools will ensure that important pieces of information will receive better processing. This is one of the most important things about incremental reading: efficient fishing for pieces of golden knowledge!

  5. consolidation: Everything we learn must be reviewed from time to time in order to be remembered. If you read an article in intervals, you already begin the consolidation of memory which may save you lots of time. In traditional reading, you would need to read the whole article, and then to review the article later several times. With earlier releases of SuperMemo, you would need to read the whole article, and then only review the most important parts of the article in SuperMemo at intervals determined by the program. Now you can begin the consolidation-review cycle already during reading! By the time you convert parts of the material into clozes or question-answer items, you will already have it well consolidated. This pre-consolidation will often dramatically reduce the number of repetitions required before your material gets to be reviewed in long intervals of months and years

  6. creativity:  SuperMemo will throw at you various articles, paragraphs, statements and questions in a most unexpected order. You will be surprised to discover how this affects your creativity and helps you generate unexpected associations of ideas. This will also provide your brain with an entertaining form of mental training that will be highly appreciated in all forms of professions based on intellectual performance. Critics of incremental reading, who have never tried the method, are not convinced this argument is really tenable. You may be skeptical too. There is only one sure way to convince you: give incremental reading a good try! Try incremental reading for a month at times when your brain is in its peak shape. If the processed knowledge belongs to the areas that are critically important to you, so much the better. You may see your brain turn into a creative sparkler!

  7. stresslessness: Once you know you can rely on SuperMemo in presenting review material for you, you can eliminate the stress and anxiety related to having too much to study or too much to read. You will probably not manage to read or learn all that you would hope for, but you will at least not lose sleep over planning and scheduling. SuperMemo is a promise of the best use of your potential. With this conviction, you can devote all your energy to comprehension and analysis of the learned material

  8. consistency: If your material contains contradictory parts, your brain will alert you to this fact. In classical learning, you would often relearn new facts that would contradict earlier learned facts. Then you would relearn the older version again and this wasteful cycle might repeat more than once. In SuperMemo, the same process can take place; however, there will be two mechanisms that will prevent it. High degree of retention guaranteed by SuperMemo will often make it quite effortless to immediately spot the contradiction: Wait a minute! I have already learned this fact and the answer was different! Unfortunately, even SuperMemo isn't hermetic to contradiction (your retention actually never reaches 100%). The second mechanism will quickly produce the convergence of contradictory facts in time. If you, for example, learn two different answers to What is the size of human population?, say, 5.5 billion and 6 billion. You will naturally provide a wrong answer to one of these questions. Once you relearn it the new way, you will provide a wrong answer to the other question. Inter-repetition intervals for these two contradictory items will get shorter with each relearning cycle. The timing of repetitions of contradictory items will tend to converge. It is only a question of time when the red alert is raised by your brain. You will quickly resolve the difference and delete one of the items. Similar process will affect hazy or incompletely specified information. Your knowledge will grow in consistency with time

  9. massive learning: Massive learning is the consequence of all advantages listed earlier. Incremental reading will run a river of knowledge through your memory. The speed of acquiring new information will surprise you. Even though human memory is painfully limited, you shall be able to read thousands of texts pertaining to different fields and quickly swell the size of your knowledge to your and others' benefit

  10. enjoyability: Those who can compare the classic SuperMemo with incremental reading will testify that incremental reading is by far more enjoyable. Monotonous repetitions are here interspersed with reading and analyzing new material

Incremental reading tools in SuperMemo 2004

To introduce an article to incremental reading - use Edit : Add a new article (Ctrl+Alt+N). This will introduce the article stored in the clipboard into the incremental reading process

To resume reading - once you return to an interrupted article, the cursor in the text will be set on the last-processed text. When leaving the article, you can also manually set the so-called read-point and the place where you interrupted reading. Choose Ctrl+F7 to set the read-point or choose the read-point button on the Read toolbar

To schedule the next review - if you want to schedule a given article for review on a selected day, choose Learning : Reschedule on the element menu (e.g. by pressing Ctrl+J). You can also use Learning : Execute repetition (e.g. by pressing Ctrl+Shift+R). Execute repetition works like Reschedule with this difference that a repetition will be executed before rescheduling

To add pictures - to add a picture to an article use Copy on the picture menu in your web browser and then press Shift+Ins or Ctrl+V in SuperMemo to paste the picture

To place the reading toolbar on your desktop - drag the Read toolbar from the toolbar dock to any location that seems suitable and choose Ctrl+Shift+F5 (to save the default windows layout)

To randomize your today's repetitions - press Ctrl+Shift+F11 (this is equivalent to choosing Learn : Random : Randomize repetitions)

To postpone all articles and extracts - use Learn : Postpone : Topics. For large collections you can use a faster method: (1) View : Outstanding, (2) Child : Topics, (3) Learning : Postpone

To postpone the currently processed branch - choose Learning : Postpone branch (or press Ctrl+Alt+P)

To learn more about incremental reading see: Incremental reading in SuperMemo 2004

Using knowledge

SuperMemo is not yet equipped with tools to help you efficiently use your knowledge for good causes. It will boost your knowledge but ... you must be vigilant: Do not spend your time on gaining knowledge for the knowledge sake! Think applicability! 

Luckily, as your knowledge grows, so does your ability to use it efficiently. 

Enjoy your learning!


Further reading