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Optimization of Learning: SuperMemo in the Eyes of Its Users

Piotr Wozniak
This text was taken from P. A. Wozniak, Optimization of Learning, Master’s Thesis, University of Technology in Poznan, 1990 and adapted for publishing as an independent article on the web. (P. A. Wozniak, M. K. Hejwosz, Jul 19, 2010).For a more up-to-date text see: User Survey 1999.In those days, nearly all users of SuperMemo were students of the University of Technology in Poznan and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. The survey was a result of a direct contact with those users who were given copies of early SuperMemo, which was then far from becoming a commercial product.

The effectiveness of the SuperMemo method depends to a high degree on the attitude of the student. The nuances of the optimization procedure seem to play lesser role than student’s feelings about:

  • software implementation (including colors and sound effects)
  • comfort at the working place (esp. interference from other people)
  • demand for new knowledge and the ability to make use of it
  • initial preconceived ideas and misconceptions concerning the method, etc

To collect more data concerning the psychology of a SuperMemo student I designed a simple questionnaire and delivered it to some of the SuperMemo users. By June 20, 1990 (the day I am writing these words) I received 18 forms and a short survey of responses is presented below.

It must be stressed at this moment that the questionnaire does not cover a representative group of potential students. There are many people who despite having access to the SuperMemo software never used the method. Therefore the questionnaire represents only opinions of people who more or less acknowledge the value of the method.

The age of the participants ranged from 10 to 31 years (24.4 on average). 4 students used the paper-based variant of the method, 10 students used the SM-2 algorithm (IBM PC in 9 cases, Atari XL in 2 cases) and 4 students used the SM-5 algorithm (IBM PC).

The participants have been using the SuperMemo method for 14 months on average (ranging from 1 week to 5 years). The average number of items memorized amounted to 5800 (ranging from 170 to 46500). The participants spent 45 min. daily working with SuperMemo (from 3 to 120 min.).

The most remarkable achievement consisted in memorizing 9000 items (English vocabulary) in 56 days (NB the result was obtained by one of the colleagues who used the experimental 1.5 univalent OF matrix!!!). The average number of items memorized in one hour was 24 (ranging from 4 to 67). Paradoxically, the paper-based variant yielded 44 items/hour, SM-2 18 items/hour and SM-5 16 items/hour. One must remember, however, that retention parameters are just the opposite, i.e. they are lowest for the paper-based variant. Furthermore, the students using the paper-based method memorized only 1360 items on average and it was shown in simulation experiments (Chapter 5) that the acquisition rate decreases relatively fast in the first year of using the method.

As far as the application domain is concerned, learning languages appeared to be by far the most popular. All of the students applied the SuperMemo method in learning English vocabulary. Other languages included Dutch, Esperanto, French, German and Japanese (1 student in each case).

Non-language domains: molecular biology (4 students), physiology, psychology, pharmacology, computer science, English grammar, general knowledge and traffic regulations.

Below selected answers to the question “How do you assess the effectiveness of the SuperMemo method?” are presented (my comments in parentheses):

  • The best method I know” (2 students gave this answer)
  • Very good. Better than classical learning
  • Splendid
  • I am able to remember more words and better
  • Quite good, but not perfect. Sometimes inter-repetition intervals are too long!” (the student used the experimental, 2.0 univalent OF matrix; see Chapter 3.6)
  • The program is very good. It lets to memorize new words very quickly and it lets examine the condition of your memory
  • It is effective, but only in limited applications, e.g. biology, geography, history etc. It will not work well in domains requiring non-verbal skills. It is also useless if you are to prepare to an examination that is to take place in two days. Application in humanities seems also limited” (SuperMemo method was not designed for crash learning but for systematic learning with long-term goals)
  • In 12 days I memorized 1000 words and remember them up to now. After a few months I underwent a kind of crisis. I could not make any progress. Happily it is over. I think that activities in other fields can suppress one’s ability to work with the method
  • The method enforces regular work” (3 students suggested the fact)
  • Good training for my brain. Stimulation of memory. Maintenance of high level of knowledge
  • I estimate that I learn English 10 times faster than without the method
  • The method is much more effective than any other conventional method in use, but still a lot depends on the user. If he is focused then results are much better, but even mechanic repetition yield better results than in conventional methods. More research on knowledge structuring is necessary. Inclusion of graphics and sound is indispensable
  • I have been using the method for one and a half year and I can confirm good results obtained by working with the system. The value of the method is that it requires systematic repetitions and allows to learn very fast and in a pleasant way. Certainly the best method I know
  • The effectiveness is great. I would never be able to learn so effectively without SuperMemo

Selected answers to the question “What do you like most in the SuperMemo method?”:

  • Effectiveness. Build-up of knowledge
  • Impression that I know extremely many words
  • Testing” (repetition of items)
  • The fact that it forces me to use it every day” (5 students responded in a similar way)
  • Its results. It is very fine to read a paper and use a dictionary only few times. SuperMemo organizes the work. I am a person who never works if he does not have to. SuperMemo makes me work regularly. I am under pressure and it is very good for me
  • Organization of material to learn
  • Effectiveness. It creates a sort of a competition with myself. I always want to memorize more. If I am regular, this is very effective and encouraging
  • That I can learn fast and stop worrying about forgetting
  • Improvement of memory
  • Short time – good effect
  • That it is selective and asks only the difficult items. Sometimes I have an impression that the program can guess exactly when I should repeat the item, as if we worked on the same wavelength and the computer could read my thoughts
  • My life became a bit easier. I feel a wiser person now
  • I like most the fact that without a big effort I could get wonderful results
  • After six months spent in England I was shocked to find that I forgot a lot of vocabulary I knew previously thanks to using SM method” (the user did not use SuperMemo in England)

Selected answers to the question “What do you dislike most in the SuperMemo method?”:

  • It requires regularity” (2 students gave the same answer)
  • Repetitions” (2 students gave the same answer, both used the paper-based variant of the method)
  • Brightness of parameters displayed on the screen” (SuperMemo version 2.5, Hercules Graphic Card)
  • If I want to check a given word in my database, I have to scan all the pages” (user of the paper-based variant)
  • Appending new items. It takes a lot of time
  • Why may I not stop working during holidays? Databases should be provided ready. It takes too much time to create them
  • It is effective, so I do not complain
  • I wish it were still faster” (2 students gave the same answer)
  • Problems with formulation of univocal items
  • The program should automatically reverse questions and answers during testing (so that sometimes an answer becomes a question)” (the student referred to pairs of words in learning vocabulary)
  • Discomfort of editing items. Items are grouped and repeated together. This suggests the answers” (student used the SuperMemo version 2.5. The mentioned problems were eliminated in subsequent versions)
  • No option for handling forced breaks in learning
  • Compulsion causes mental discomfort, but I feel even worse if I fail to repeat outstanding items. In learning languages I prefer to read books or go abroad instead of sitting at the computer
  • I have to repeat easy and difficult items in the same intervals. Context suggests the answers” (the student used the paper-based variant)
  • I don’t like your experiments (like uninitialized tables, etc.)” (the user used experimental versions of the SM4 program and SM5 with univalent OF matrices)
  • I dislike most the fact that I must use this method systematically, but every work needs effort

Selected answers to the question “If you stopped using the SuperMemo method then describe why” (7 students stopped repetitions for longer than 1 month. All of them resumed working with the method):

  • Laziness” (3 students mentioned this reason)
  • Lack of time” (3 students)
  • Personal reasons
  • I had to leave Poland
  • Every time I have to leave I cannot take the computer with myself
  • Lack of the access to the computer” (3 students)
  • I stopped twice. Once in the summer (obvious reasons) and second time during the examination session when I planned to change the computer” (the student used Atari XL and planned to purchase an IBM XT computer)
  • No more than 10-day breaks forced by the lack of time and other circumstances
  • I worked in a wrong way formulating items that were too long. I want to start everything all over again after the examination session. I want to learn the whole dictionary in 3 months

From the abovementioned responses it becomes clear that the personality of a SuperMemo student has a great impact on the successful application of the method. All the questioned students acknowledged the usefulness of the method but only few of them seemed to be fully satisfied with the obtained results. The major obstacles on the way to wide popularization of the method that are suggested by the questionnaire can be formulated as follows:

  • high requirements of regularity and persistence the student must fulfill
  • difficulty in formulating unambiguous items
  • lack of ready-made databases
  • lack of graphic facilities in the SuperMemo software
  • insufficient availability of computers

Only two of the mentioned factors are beyond the scope of influence of people involved in further development of the SuperMemo method and its applications: persistence of individuals and availability of computers. Future work should therefore concentrate on developing the theory of item formulation, creation of standard, well-structured databases applicable in particular domains and employment of graphics in the process of learning.

Other aspects of the application of the SuperMemo method in stochastic learning, problem solving, etc. are presented in Chapter 12.