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What do you include in a Spaced Repetition System

March 30, 2010

"I only make flashcards of the stuff I don't know." Amy Hansen

I’m guilty of taking Speed Reading courses while on med school, I wanted to learn faster to have an edge, did it work? I don’t think so, I forgot as fast as anybody else after going through many pages while rubbing my index on them, but it also contributed that I didn’t have an organized system for reviewing my notes after a year or so. Reading faster wasn’t the answer to my learning deficits, even though I was reading faster as was not retaining as much. After a couple of years of frustration I decided I was going to read how to read – a very circular concept, I know.

Here is  briefly, the most valuable methods on how to read and two easy suggestions to filter what to include in the review phase of your learning system.

With SQ3R you have a nice mnemonic summarizing how read any type of text, but especially non-fiction. This technique implies that you Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review and was first proposed on Effective Study by Francis Pleasant Robinson (1970). Perhaps, by current accelerated life standards you might considered this approach to old, specially it a twitter informative style of many data out there, but it still has enormous effectiveness to help us acquire information for the long term.

In a similar fashion “How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (Simon and Schuster, 1972)” gives a set of rules to be a able to critically read a book. While many consider a “How to read two books” should have been a follow up, a how to read many books would have been even better, and with many e-reader on the market, even “How to read many texts” sound like a  much precise contribution on learning how to read.

Regarding “How to Read”, Paul N.Edwards– professor at the School of Information in the University of Michigan, has given us a nice piece of advice in his essay: How to read a book v4.0.

There is plenty of more information of ways to read, including the Skim and Dump technique, and non of this address the greatest obstacle to learning while reading, or as Paul Edwards puts it how to:

The purpose of reading non-fiction is to gain, and retain, information as quickly as possible. [emphasis mine]

When reading non-fiction you can, for sure, also adapt this same idea. If you love fiction why would like to read only a couple of books on the subjects you love, you’ll probably want to read them all, albeit something impossible even for Kim Peek.

In order to retain information you have to choose it first, you have to know what you really need, then you have a to use a system to review it. Systems make you behave almost automatically and frees you cognitive energy better served to understanding what you are reading.

You’re system might be some note-cards, note papers or any Spaced Repetition System (SRS’s or technically called adaptive learning systems). If you are very compulsive about wanting to remember everything you find interesting you’ll end up with so much information you won’t be able to deal with it at your daily studying sessions – doing the repetitions.

A simple way to choose what to put into SuperMemo or any SRS’s is to determine if you have any chance you’ll need that piece of information in the next  two months while not having the opportunity to see it again even once over that same period. The other requisite would be that  failing to remember that information would cost you a life threatening experience (such as not remembering to do CPR (cardio-pulmonary resurrection) if you are a medical doctor, or even the food your girlfriend dislikes most.

Include in a SRS if:

Need to remember it in two months with no chance of seeing it again in this period of time

Avoiding Life threatening forgetting episodes .

For everything else, don’t include it in your SRS’s, there is no need to, you can always find it later or fast enough, you’ll remember it anyway, or you wont’ die if you do forget or you’re unable to recall it at the appropriate time .

By following this principles you’ll have a much pleasant experience with any adaptive learning system and you’ll stick to the repetitions more often, enabling your effort to deliver the desired results on learning a book or anything else.

If you are thinking about using a SRS to learn for an upcoming exam then a different approach is needed, enter the four quadrants of SRS’s, that should make another post soon enough.

Picture credit Amy Hansen’s legal blog: Above Supra

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Xbrog permalink
    April 2, 2010 12:50

    Nice post, gersapa.

    What is the rationale of the two months period? Why not a week or a month instead?

    • gersapa permalink*
      April 3, 2010 22:51

      This is just an heuristic conclusion, is hard to grasp what might be useful in some far away future date, but 2 months is just a good starting point, if you feel the need you can use a month, but in no case less then that time, to evaluate is an item should or not be included in your collection.

  2. mndfll permalink
    April 4, 2010 11:11

    on the 2 month period:
    I don’t use SM only for life-saving info or only for things I must know. I use it not only for these crucial useful things, but just for cool stuff I want to have in my back pocket–things that make me a more interesting person and good conversationalist.

    Sometimes I choose information that relates to what my friends and family know about and we talk about. Of course, there is such a plethora of cool topics that I must pick and choose carefully, deleting what I deem unused after a period of time or no longer important. I often find myself with a backlog of material: I want to put it in cloze form, but I postpone that to keep my repetition count down and simply continue to incrementally read it, perhaps highlighting what I will cloze in the future.

    I try to keep my repetitions in the neighborhood of 150 per day, which might take 30-60 minutes.

    • gersapa permalink*
      April 12, 2010 07:53

      >I want to put it in cloze form, but I postpone that to keep my repetition count down and simply continue to incrementally read it, perhaps highlighting what I will cloze in the future.

      >I try to keep my repetitions in the neighborhood of 150 per day, which might take 30-60 minutes

      Both this related to having a low count of repetitions and I agree completely on this requirement. As to the kind of material we should included, say information related to friends and other interest, this kind of stuff is in “things you need to know”.

  3. Patty permalink
    June 23, 2010 00:04

    I used speed reading software to read faster when I was in college and it helped me a lot. I read faster and retained more information.

    • gersapa permalink*
      June 23, 2010 07:51

      Although this looks more like spam, if you read the above comment you should read:


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