Items, topics and tasks

A collection in SuperMemo is a set of elements. Each element makes up a page of information visible on a single screen. Elements in SuperMemo can be of three types: items, topics or tasks

This is the function of these three element types:

  • items are simple elements that are used to test your knowledge. They often have a form of a question and an answer. They can also assume other stimulus-response forms. For example, multiple choice test, spelling exercise, picture recognition, etc.
  • topics are pages of information that is used in learning new things. Topics usually assume of of the two forms:
    1. articles (e.g. imported from the Internet) or their fragments (chapters, sections, paragraphs or even single sentences)
    2. presentation pages created by the author of a collection for wider use. Presentation pages provide an introduction to the learning material (e.g. detailed description of an anatomy chart)
  • tasks are similar to topics and are understood as pages that describe jobs to be done. A task may be an article to read, e-mail to respond to, website address to explore, etc. A very important characteristics of tasks is that there are more tasks than your can handle. Tasks are therefore prioritized to help you start working with the most important tasks and proceed with less important tasks later  

Let us first emphasize the difference between topics and items. Topics are used to introduce the student to a given subject, while items are used to rehearse the same subject in order to retain it in memory. Typically, you can import an article from the Internet (this will be a topic), extract its most important fragments (which will also be topics) and then convert it to question-and-answer material. Those questions-and-answers will be items

For example, a topic may contain the following text:

Jimmy Carter, born 1924, US statesman and 39th President (1977-1981), born in Plains, Georgia. He was educated at the US Naval academy, and served in the US Navy until 1953, when he took over the family peanut business and other enterprises. As Governor of Georgia (1970-1974) he expressed enlightened policy towards the rights of colored men and women. In 1976 he won the Democratic presidential nomination, and went on to win a narrow victory over Gerald Ford. He arranged the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (1979), and was much concerned with human rights. His administration ended in difficulties over the taking of US hostages in Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election

To rehearse the knowledge of the facts presented in the above text, the following question-answer items might have been used:

Q: Which year was Jimmy Carter born?
A: 1924

Q: Who was 39th President?
A: Jimmy Carter

Q: When did Jimmy Carter become President?
A: 1977

Q: What academy did Jimmy Carter attend?
A: US Naval academy

Q: What kind of family business did Jimmy Carter take over in 1953?
A: peanut business,

etc. etc.

Topics and items are presented for review in the learning process in a different way:

  • topics are presented in always increasing intervals. Each new interval equals the old interval multiplied by a constant called A-Factor
  • items are presented in intervals that depend on grades. Those intervals are determined by the standard SuperMemo algorithm (see: Algorithm SM-8)

If you generate items from topics by means of reading tools (see: Incremental reading), items will usually be children of topics in the knowledge tree. Even if you move items away from their parent topics, you can always jump back to the source topic by using the reference hyperlink button on the navigation toolbar.

Tasks differ from topics only with the fact that they are kept on one of your tasklists. Tasklists are prioritized lists of tasks. Tasklists which are composed of articles to read are called reading lists. Tasks can also enter the learning process and still remain on the tasklist. This makes it possible to apply incremental reading to tasks without using a strict reading prioritization determined by the reading list.

The following table summarizes the differences between items, topics and tasks:

Properties

Items

Topics Tasks

Length

Must be as short and simple as possible

May be longer, contain lengthy texts and rich graphics Maybe either short (e.g. task description, URL, etc.) or long (e.g. reading list articles)

Repetitions

Repeated as many times as it takes to keep them in memory

Presented in always increasing intervals May never enter the review process. If they are subject to review, they behave in the same way as topics

Purpose

Used for rehearsing knowledge

Used as an introduction to knowledge Use to define to-do-tasks, e.g. articles to read, jobs to do, e-mail to respond to, etc.
Creating

Usually by Add new (Ctrl+A) or by Reading : Remember cloze on the component pop-up menu

Usually by pasting articles from the clipboard with Ctrl+Alt+N, by Reading : Remember extract on the component pop-up menu, or by converting tasks to topics (e.g. with Remember) Usually by Add a new task (Ctrl+Alt+A), Add a new article (Ctrl+Alt+R), or Add e-mail (Ctrl+Alt+E)

Setting the type

Check Type : Item on the element pop-up menu or Element type : Item in the element parameters dialog box (Ctrl+Shift+P)

Check Type : Topic on the element pop-up menu or Element type : Topic in the element parameters dialog box (Ctrl+Shift+P) Check Type : Task on the element pop-up menu or Element type : Task in the element parameters dialog box (Ctrl+Shift+P)

Repetition cycle

First question components are presented. Answer components are presented only after choosing Show answer

Topics are just presented as they are (even if some components are checked as Answer) Rarely do task take part in repetitions. They are just presented as they are (even if some components are checked as Answer)

Processing

They are intended for active recall of information from memory

They are intended for passive review or reading They await processing in a tasklist. If they enter the review process, they are intended for passive review or reading

Nature

Stimulus-response (most often: question and answer)

Synthetic As chosen by the user for a specific purpose. May be synthetic, descriptive, include a single picture or e-mail, etc.

Location in knowledge tree

Best placed as children of the parent topic

Best located as parents of items that concern the same subject Usually located on a tasklist

Priority in the learning and review process

Introduced into the learning process via the pending queue (first come first served), with Remember or with Remember cloze Introduced into the review process by Remember or Remember extract. Less often: picked from the pending queue or created from a task picked from a tasklist May not take part in the review process at all. Introduced into review by tasklist priority sequence with Remember (and usually converted to a topic at the same time) 

The structure of the knowledge tree will usually be determined by the operations you perform in the process of incremental reading. However, if you create a collection for use by others and would like to build a clear structure of presentation pages (topics) and the testing material (items), you can follow these steps:

  1. Click Contents in the element window to open the contents window
  2. Find a place where you want to add a new topic related to a given subject
  3. Add an element with Add, Insert or Sibling at the bottom of the contents window
  4. Choose Add to add the first item
  5. Choose Sibling to add remaining items
  6. Click your topic and choose View to open it in the element window
  7. Check Topic on the element pop-up menu
  8. Edit the contents of the topic
  9. Click Contents
  10. Click the first item and choose View to open it in the element window
  11. Edit the contents of the item (you can use templates to speed this work up)
  12. Go to Step 9 and repeat Steps 9-12 until you are done with the remaining items
  13. Use can use categories to speed up adding a large number of items as children of a single topic

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