Reading the Internet Dr Piotr Wozniak
September 1999
This article, written in 1999, discusses the effective ways of reading articles coming from electronic sources of information. Today, some techniques described here have largely been supplanted by the new concept of incremental reading. Unless you are reading for a historical context of incremental reading, you would better start with a newer text: Devouring knowledge
Important! This article refers to older versions of SuperMemo. For the most up-to-date text, see: "Incremental learning."

Wealth of information

If I was to name one thing that would have the greatest impact on the future of this planet, I would point to the World Wide Web. The possibility of searching 800 million pages of information [Nature, June 1999] in seconds or minutes, provides those with access to the Internet with experience that was not known to humans in the whole 40,000 years of human communication prior to WWW! With intelligent queries, you can get answers to questions ranging from cold remedies, GDP figures, impact of coffee on health to specialist articles, news, train schedules, stock picks, auctions, etc. It seems that soon the access to information is to stop being a limiting factor in your quest for more and better knowledge. Just the opposite, you are likely to be served with more valuable information than you will ever be able to process. To make a true use of the blessing of the web you need tools to prioritize, and process knowledge. Secondly, you will need tools to make sure that whatever you process does not volatilize as a result of your failing memory. It is quite likely that soon, for a significant proportion of Internet users, reading on paper will no longer be a viable option as compared with reading the net

Just five years ago, in my Ph.D. dissertation, I wrote about difficulties in adjusting my reading habits when moving from paper to the electronic form. Now I spend nearly all of my reading time on reading the net! If you sense that you are about to join this ever growing group of electronic readers, or at least, you want to make a good use of knowledge available on the Internet, this article is for you.

Leaders are readers!

Yellow inserts will show that you can greatly improve your reading and learning the Internet if you use SuperMemo for Windows. SuperMemo is an application that pioneered repetition spacing in learning (repetition spacing solves the problem of forgetting by computing optimum inter-repetition intervals in the review process). SuperMemo 99 extended the application of SuperMemo into the area of knowledge access. It provides you with simple tools to: import, prioritize, read, process, dismember and memorize material published on the net. Yellow inserts will show you how to accomplish those steps with SuperMemo. You can skip those inserts if SuperMemo goes beyond your interest

Select your sources

The first relatively easy step to soaking net knowledge is to find the sources of information. Probably you have already located your favorite sites with information that is currently in the focus of your attention. If not, you might start from www.cnn.com or www.google.com or www.wikipedia.org and soon your Favorites section will be populated with lots of valuable links to information rich sites

Collect the articles

You can use Open in New Window in your browser to open many articles in a short surfing session. Before you save your articles for detailed reading, it is very important that you quickly go through what you have collected. Articles that are not worth reading are handled quickly by closing their copy of the browser. Articles of less importance can be reviewed quickly without saving. More important articles should be carefully annotated and prioritized. Very often it makes sense to save only a single paragraph of a larger article or several paragraphs of which each would be assigned a different priority

Prioritize your reading

If you have already started reading the Internet, perhaps you have run into a problem of saving lots of pages on your hard disk and never actually having time to read them. Open in New Window makes it very tempting to check what hides behind interestingly titled hyperlinks. You might find yourself opening dozens of pages and then ... with time running out, adding those pages to your hard disk collections that seems to never stop growing. Clearly you need to prioritize those articles to make sure that you at least read those that seem to be most valuable. You cannot ever hope to read everything that seems interesting. Perhaps you have already created priority folders just to find out that even your top priority folder is overpopulated and still requires further prioritizing. Efficient prioritizing is the key to successful reading. You do not ever have to delete what you do not read. It is only important that you start from reading those articles that are likely to generate most value

Importing articles to your reading list

SuperMemo 99 introduced a concept of a reading list. A reading list is a collection of articles imported from the net and prioritized for importance.

If you have found an interesting article on the net, you can add it to your reading list in SuperMemo using the following steps:

  1. Have a short look at the article to be roughly able to assess its contents and value
  2. Select the interesting text or its fragment in your browser (e.g. with Ctrl+A) and press Ctrl+C (this will copy the text to the clipboard)
  3. Switch to SuperMemo (e.g. with Alt+Tab)
  4. Choose Edit : Add a new article (e.g. by pressing Ctrl+Alt+R)
  5. You will see a screen as displayed below. In the example below, an article about anti-cancer diet has been imported from www.cnn.com

Importing articles to your reading list (contd.)
  1. In the field Description, type a short description of the article (this description will be displayed in the reading list browser called the tasklist manager)
  2. Switch to the Value field (e.g. by pressing Tab or Alt+V)
  3. In the field Value, type the value of the article. Imagine that someone is about to charge you for being able to read this text. How much would you be ready to pay? If this is $5, you could type 5 in the Value field. You can use any currency or any other measure of value as long as you consistently stick to the same standard
  4. The Time field will be filled out by SuperMemo and will reflect the length of the article
  5. The Priority field will display Value/Time and will tell you how much value you will generate per minute of your precious time spent on reading the article
  6. You can choose OK now (or just press Enter). SuperMemo will sort all your articles by Priority. You will now always be sure that you can start from the most valuable article and thus maximize the benefits of reading. Please remember that accurate preview and valuation of all articles is critical for your efficiency!

Review your reading list

Be sure that you always read your articles starting with top priority articles. Naturally you can always reevaluate the priority and change the reading order

Sorting the reading list

You can review your reading list by pressing Ctrl+F4 (or F4 in SuperMemo 99). The picture below presents an exemplary reading list. The combo-box top-left makes it possible to select the appropriate reading list if you keep more than one list. To change the value, time or priority, click on the relevant field, input the new value and press Enter. You can sort the list by pressing Ctrl+S or by clicking the button Sort tasks on the toolbar

To select your top priority article for reading choose either of the following methods:

  • Choose Learn : Selected stages : Reading list, e.g. by pressing Ctrl+Shift+F4 (or Ctrl+F4 in SuperMemo 99on the main menu, or
  • If your tasklist manager is opened (as in the picture below), go to the top row (e.g. by clicking Home or pressing Ctrl+Home) and open the associated article (e.g. by clicking Jump or pressing Ctrl+Shift+Enter)

 

wpe2.jpg (145700 bytes)

Read and highlight

Once you choose your top priority article, you can proceed with reading. It is highly recommended that you extract the fragments that you believe are most important and schedule them for later review. The great benefit of reading the web, as opposed to reading the books, is that the hypertext nature of the web enforces a very compact and usually self-explaining nature of individual articles. A jump to a randomly selected page in an average book will leave you confused due to the context-dependence of the material. On the other hand, it is less likely the same confusion will trouble you in a random jump to a selected page of an equivalent material placed on the web. Web authors usually put more effort to add contexts to the page (at least in the form of hyperlinks). In other words, it is easier to build quality knowledge by reading single pages of the web than by reading single pages of paper books. We are getting closer to the ideals of incremental life-long learning as opposed to thorough-review learning which for many ends with the end of school years. In the busy days of modern society, few can afford a thorough review of their rusty knowledge in individual fields. It is much easier to fix the gaps incrementally: today an article on the structure of the atom, tomorrow an article on a healthy diet, etc. And all that strictly adjusted to individual's interest and professional priorities.

Let us have a look at an example of a very short, self-containing article, posted in April 1999 on the CNN website. This short article can be read in minutes and can serve as a positive incentive towards adjustments in your diet. Gray inserts will, as of now, be used to follow the processing of this particular article. Please read the article before we proceed with the analysis

Antioxidants may slow aging process, study says April 5, 1999 Web posted at: 9:39 p.m. EDT (0139 GMT) From Correspondent Linda Ciampa BOSTON (CNN) -- Research at Tufts University indicates that a healthy diet fortified with certain fruits and vegetables may slow down and even reverse the aging process. Foods rich in antioxidants -- such as blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli -- have what doctors call high ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) levels. Middle-aged rats who were fed a high ORAC diet in the USDA- sponsored study experienced less memory loss than those given a normal diet. Some of the older, slower rats became as lively as their younger peers after taking antioxidants. "We prevented both some brain and some behavioral changes that one normally sees in these rats when they hit 15 months of age," said USDA researcher Jim Joseph. Antioxidants are effective in destroying free radicals -- cell-damaging compounds that can help cause cancer and heart disease and speed the aging process. "It's pretty well accepted that aging is due to the production of free radicals. So anything we can do nutritionally to provide additional antioxidants is likely to protect us in the process of aging," Joseph said. That fact already has prompted many to eat a diet rich in antioxidants. "I look at it as sort of a savings account. I'm benefiting today from eating right, but I'm also going to have it in the future," said 30-year-old Cori Alcock. "As I age and grow older, I'll have good health as well."

(source: CNN.com, April 1999)

In the course of reading, you should select the most important sections of the article. The article introduces some facts related to healthy diet and adds a lot of redundant explanations. For your review, you are only likely to need the core message which usually makes up a fraction of the entire text. Please have a look again at the same text with four most critical sections emphasized (numbering is not needed and is used only for your convenience for further reference)

Antioxidants may slow aging process
Research indicates that a healthy (1) diet fortified with certain fruits and vegetables may slow down and even reverse the aging process. (2) Foods rich in antioxidants -- such as blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli -- have high ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) levels. Middle-aged rats who were fed a high ORAC diet in the USDA- sponsored study experienced less memory loss than those given a normal diet. Some of the older, slower rats became as lively as their younger peers after taking antioxidants. "We prevented both some brain and some behavioral changes that one normally sees in these rats when they hit 15 months of age," said USDA researcher Jim Joseph. (3) Antioxidants are effective in destroying free radicals -- cell-damaging compounds that can help cause cancer and heart disease and speed the aging process. (4) "It's well accepted that aging is due to the production of free radicals. So anything we can do nutritionally to provide additional antioxidants is likely to protect us in the process of aging," Joseph said. That fact already has prompted many to eat a diet rich in antioxidants. "I look at it as sort of a savings account. I'm benefiting today from eating right, but I'm also going to have it in the future," said 30-year-old Cori Alcock
While reading texts imported to SuperMemo, you will start from selecting the important fragment with the mouse (reading list positions are formed by rich text component and you should make sure that you set Tools : Options : Mouse : Edit texts : On click so that you could enter the editing mode with a click of the mouse; this is the default behavior).

Once you select the important text with the mouse, you can proceed with one of the three methods of processing the fragment:

  1. Choose Queue extract (right click over the selected fragment and choose Reading : Queue extract).
    This option will create a new element in SuperMemo. It will use the selected fragment as the contents of the new element and put the new element at the end of the pending queue (i.e. the queue that keeps the unprocessed learning material in line for memorization). Optionally, you could change the ordinal of the queued element (Ctrl+Shift+P) in order to later sort the pending queue (this is highly recommended if your queue grows long enough for processing it to take more than a month or two). Please note that after executing Queue extract, SuperMemo takes you back to your processed text. If you still want to inspect the newly created element, choose Alt+B or the < button on the navigation bar
  2. Choose Remember extract (right click over the selected fragment and choose Reading : Remember extract).
    This will create a new element and introduce it immediately to the learning process. This works like Queue extract but the newly created element enters the learning process immediately (in the same way like all learned items repeated along the spaced repetition algorithm)
  3. Choose Task extract (right click over the selected fragment and choose Reading : Task extract).
    Here the extracted fragment will be used to generate a new reading position. The Time field will be generated in the same way as when importing whole articles, i.e. on the basis of the text length. You will have to assign the title and the importance of the fragment by filling out the fields Description and Value. You will most likely use Task extract for larger paragraphs that require more detailed analysis. You can also use Task extract for breaking larger articles into smaller articles (even without careful reading of the extracted fragments). This is to make sure that you do not get stuck for days with a single article of which some parts may be more important to your knowledge than others and should be prioritized independently

After reading an article, dismiss it with Ctrl+D. This will remove it from the reading list and place it in the archive

In SuperMemo 2000/2004, you can additionally use reading toolbar for operations listed above:

Improve the wording of highlights

Once you extract important fragments from an article (as discussed in the previous paragraph), you will have to reformulate individual fragments to make sure they are fully context independent, free of redundant information, easy to read and formulated in such a way that the beginning of the fragment serves as the introduction to the latter phrases and not vice versa. Please have a look at the example which is the continuation of our work on the healthy diet article. We selected four important fragments and these fragments (presented on the left) were reformulated to become fully-independent pieces of information (on the right). Please note that two fragments have generated more than one reworded fragment and that one fragment was deleted as it appeared to be redundant upon closer analysis.

The original fragment pasted without change from the CNN article Modified fragment: shorter and easier to read (sometimes split into more than one part)
(1) diet fortified with certain fruits and vegetables may slow down and even reverse the aging process (a) Diet of fruits and vegetables may reverse aging
(2) Foods rich in antioxidants -- such as blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli -- have high ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) levels (b) Examples of foods rich in antioxidants: blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli
(c) Foods rich in antioxidants have high levels of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC)
(3) Antioxidants are effective in destroying free radicals -- cell-damaging compounds that can help cause cancer and heart disease and speed the aging process (d) Antioxidants destroy free radicals
(e) Free radicals are cell-damaging compounds that cause cancer, heart disease and aging
(4) It's well accepted that aging is due to the production of free radicals After a closer scrutiny, the fragment on the left seems to be redundant when compared with the one listed above. We can delete it from the set
All highlights are scheduled for review

In SuperMemo, you do not have to reformulate fragments immediately after reading them and generating the extracts. Note that all fragments will be scheduled for later review using the following three mechanisms:

  1. Fragments extracted with Task extract will become new tasks and do not even have to be read carefully (let alone reformulated). It is only recommended to add some words of introduction if the extract seems to poorly identify the context from which it was cut out
  2. Fragments extracted with Remember extract will be scheduled for repetition (usually in just a couple of days). Those fragments will be repeated in turn when you choose the option Learn. Reformulation of extracted fragments can be done during the first repetition (esp. if the piece of information is very important, the fragment is lengthy or it misses some important context) or later (esp. if the fragment is of less importance or is clear without rephrasing)
  3. Fragments extracted with Queue extract will be schedule for review at the end of the pending queue. In other words, the review will not take place earlier than before all other pending queue elements are reviewed (memorized, dismissed or reset) with Learn : Selected stages : New material (this stage is called automatically after outstanding repetition if you answer with Yes to Do you want to learn new material?)

Note that all extracts generate elements that are children of the original article. If you have problems with recalling the original context of a fragment, you can always call it back by pressing the parent button in the element window (up-arrow).

Review the material

Repetitio mater studiorum est. Repetition is the mother of all learning.

If you would like to leave a permanent trace of your reading in your memory, you will have to regularly review the material you have generated as a result of your reading. Your review should take place in days after reading and be repeated regularly in gradually increasing intervals. However, you cannot just passively read the extracted material. This will not have a sufficient impact on your ability to recall relevant facts and rules. You will need to put extra effort in reformulating the material. For example, Diet of fruits and vegetables may reverse aging should be converted into active recall material: What is the impact of fruits on aging? What is the impact of vegetables on aging? What exemplary diet can reverse aging? etc.

It is easy to notice that we will experience further proliferation of the material for review at this stage. However, research and experience show that this proliferation will actually reduce the time needed to effectively remember the material in question!

Effective formulation of active recall material may require some experience and the first attempts are often clumsy and inefficient (even if your IQ is far above average). Beginners might start with a simple technique called cloze deletion (yes, the spelling with z is correct). In cloze deletion, you simply replace fragments of your items with three dots. Those empty spaces filled with dots should be replaced at recall with relevant words or phrases. For example: Diet of fruits and vegetables may reverse aging might produce: Diet of ... may reverse aging

Please have a look at the example below where we convert items generated earlier into active recall items based on cloze deletion:

Original item Cloze deletions generated from the item
(a) Diet of fruits and vegetables may reverse aging (1) Diet of ... and vegetables may reverse aging

(2) Diet of fruits and ... may reverse aging

(3) Diet of fruits and vegetables may reverse ...

(b) Examples of foods rich in antioxidants: blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli (4) Examples of ... rich in antioxidants: blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli

(5) Examples of foods rich in ...: blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli

(6) Examples of foods rich in antioxidants: ...

(c) Foods rich in antioxidants have high levels of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC) (7) ... rich in antioxidants have high levels of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC)

(8) Foods (rich/poor) in antioxidants have high levels of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC)

(9) Foods rich in ... have high levels of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC)

(10) Foods rich in antioxidants have (high/low) levels of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC)

(11) Foods rich in antioxidants have high ... of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (ORAC)

(12) Foods rich in antioxidants have high levels of ... (ORAC)

(13) Foods rich in antioxidants have high levels of Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity (...[abbreviation])

(d) Antioxidants destroy free radicals (14) ...[food component] destroy free radicals

(15) Antioxidants (destroy/create) free radicals

(16) Antioxidants destroy ...[harmful compounds]

(e) Free radicals are cell-damaging compounds that cause cancer, heart disease and aging (17) ... are cell-damaging compounds that cause cancer, heart disease and aging

(18) Free radicals are ...-damaging compounds that cause cancer, heart disease and aging

(19) Free radicals are cell-(building/damaging) compounds that cause cancer, heart disease and aging

(20) Free radicals are cell-damaging compounds that cause ...[health problems]

Although we have generated 20 cloze deletions from the original 5 extracts, it is important to stress that reviewing this much of the learning material will ultimately cost you less time and the memory effect will be better! Note that cloze deletions meticulously test your knowledge of all important semantic aspects of the learned article

Producing cloze deletions

SuperMemo will add most strength to your learning at the review stage. SuperMemo can save you hours each month by optimizing the timing of the review of the material (indeed this has been its greatest strength and focus from SuperMemo's very inception in 1987)

At the review stage, SuperMemo will also assists you with generating cloze deletions. Once you have your extracts formulated (as discussed in the section on improved wording), you can select a fragment that is to be replaced with three dots and choose one of cloze deletion options. This will generate a new item with your partly-deleted fragment used as a question (the tested phrase is replaced with three dots) and with the deleted phrase in the answer field

There are two cloze deletion options in SuperMemo:

  1. Queue cloze - this option does the following:
    1. Create a new item (a child of the current item)
    2. Use the extracted fragment as the question of the new item. The phrase selected at Queue cloze is replaced with three dots
    3. Use the selected phrase as the answer of the new item
    4. Put the new item at the end of the pending queue
  2. Remember cloze - this option is similar to Queue cloze but the newly generated item is immediately memorized (i.e. introduced to your repetition schedule) and is not put in the pending queue

Do not neglect knowledge management

After you extract fragments and formulate active recall questions, you should continue to constantly reevaluate the importance of individual pieces of information, their wording, delete less important pieces and move them for later review, etc. Examples of reformulated cloze deletions can be found below. Note that Clozes (4)-(6) and Cloze (20) have been split further to eliminate set enumeration (it is easier to independently associate cancer or aging with free radicals than to list all health problems caused by free radicals)

(4) Examples of ... rich in antioxidants: blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli

(5) Examples of foods rich in ...: blueberries, strawberries, spinach and broccoli

(6) Examples of foods rich in antioxidants: ...
Are blueberries rich in antioxidants?
Are strawberries rich in antioxidants?
Is spinach rich in antioxidants?
Is broccoli rich in antioxidants?
(12) Foods rich in antioxidants have high levels of ... (ORAC) What does ORAC stand for?
(17) ... are cell-damaging compounds that cause cancer, heart disease and aging What is the name of cell-damaging compounds that cause cancer? (cleaned off with antioxidants)
What are free radicals?
(20) Free radicals are cell-damaging compounds that cause ...[health problems] Do free radicals cause cancer?
Do free radicals contribute to heart disease?
Do free radicals cause aging?
Editing extracts and cloze deletions in SuperMemo is easy. You only have to Alt+click a given text and use standard editing operations (as available in standard text editors).

Once your extracts and cloze deletions enter the learning process, you can take further actions depending on your assessment of the priority. These will mostly be:

  1. Reduce the forgetting index for items of high priority (press Ctrl+Shift+P and modify Forgetting index). This will make sure these items are repeated more often
  2. Manually reduce the inter-repetition interval in items identified as important (choose Ctrl+J and select a new interval or the date of the next repetition). This will shorten the time before the next review
  3. Increase the forgetting index and/or interval for items of less importance. This will reduce the frequency of repetitions
  4. Remove items from the learning process and put them at the end of the pending queue (choose Forget or press Ctrl+R). Additionally you could increase the ordinal to make sure that sorting the pending queue will put the item in question at a later position
  5. Convert the item into a new task (choose Type : Task on the element's pop-up menu). This will postpone the review until the newly created task climbs up to the top of the tasklist
  6. Dismiss the item (e.g. with Ctrl+D) and permanently remove it from further consideration, Dismissed items can be restored for consideration with Remember (Ctrl+M)
Reading algorithm

This is how you can effectively read the Internet using SuperMemo. The presented algorithm proposes rough estimations of time expenditure related to individual slots in a 2-hour daily reading and review assignment:

  1. Collect the material from the net (30 min)
    1. Go to your favorite sites
    2. Use Open in New Window over relevant hyperlinks to open articles in separate browser windows
  2. Review and import the material to SuperMemo (20 min)
    1. Preview the articles. Close those that are not worth your time and quickly read those that are of less importance
    2. Use Select All (Ctrl+A) and Copy (Ctrl+C) in your browser to copy an article to the clipboard (you can close the article at this point)
    3. Use Edit : Add a new article in SuperMemo (e.g. by pressing Ctrl+Alt+R) to import the contents of the clipboard to SuperMemo (as a new reading position)
    4. Assign Description and Value to determine the title and the priority of the article
    5. If there are more articles to import, continue importing (i.e. go to Step 2.2)
  3. Read the material (50 min)
    1. Select the top priority article in SuperMemo by pressing Ctrl+F4
    2. Read the article
    3. Use Queue Extract, Remember Extract and Task Extract to extract smaller fragments of high importance (component menu). In the first two cases, try to extract fragments that are no more than a sentence or two long. With Task Extract you can break up a larger articles into smaller articles that will be prioritized independently
    4. Dismiss the article after reading (e.g. Ctrl+D). This will remove the articles from the reading list and store it in the archive. Do not delete the article! Remember that all cloze and extract operations create items that are children of the article. Choosing Del would delete all those children along with the article. You could better gradually move the children items to relevant categories (e.g. with Ctrl+Shift+P). When you move the last child, SuperMemo will itself propose to delete the article
    5. If you have got time left, continue reading (i.e. go to Step 3.1)
  4. Review the material (20 min)
    1. Use Learn in SuperMemo to review the material scheduled for today (Ctrl+L)
    2. Use Queue Cloze and Remember Cloze to convert extracts into cloze deletions. Once you convert all important components of an extract into cloze deletions, dismiss the extract with Dismiss (Ctrl+D)
    3. Repeat the material until you see one of these messages: Do you want to learn new material? or No more items. In the latter case, quit SuperMemo
    4. Learn new material until your time is up. Convert extracts to cloze deletions, convert cloze deletions to more meaningful items, forget, dismiss or even delete less important material, etc.

Please carefully note how much time you need for individual stages and try to keep a rational proportion. Adjust the time limits depending on your own needs and observations. Please note that in extreme cases you might follow one of these two dangerous patterns:

  1. import an excessive number of articles (far beyond your processing powers). You will waste time on importing without actually learning much

  2. read and extract much more than you are able to review. If you clog up SuperMemo with excessive repetitions, you will end up with spending lots of time on reviewing less important material without having enough time to acquire new knowledge

Once you master the techniques described above, it is recommended you go a step further and learn about: Incremental reading


Further reading

For more about efficient reading and knowledge management read: 


Summary

  1. Knowledge is power
  2. Reading is critical for building knowledge
  3. The Internet makes it possible to read incrementally in smaller, self-contained portions (see: Incremental reading)
  4. You can use SuperMemo for Windows to prioritize your reading and the methodically review of the learned material