How can I use Supermemo for non-technical books?

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--- While I used Supermemo for technical material, making questions and answering them was super easy, and Supermemo has been of great help. I wanted to use the tool also for more non-technical books, like self-help books. Yet, I find it hard to ask questions on material so "verbose". In these books there is no "hard" information. It's not like learning a list of states or when a president was born or how many bits a byte has. These books and non-technical books in general are very "fluffy" and not filled with "hard-facts" that one can easily ask questions about.

So, what technique can i use to create questions for these types of books?

More information needed

You could provide an example of a text or a link. If you use extract and cloze deletion, you can tackle almost any meaningful text


For example, from Beyond Positive Thinking:

The universe is like a river. The river keeps on flowing. It doesn't care whether you are happy or sad, good or bad; it just keeps flowing. Some people go down to the river and they cry. Some people go down to the river and they are happy, but the river doesn't care; it just keeps flowing. We can use it and enjoy it, or we can jump in and drown. The river just keeps flowing because it is impersonal. And so it is with the universe. The universe that we live in can support us or destroy us. It's our interpretation and use of the laws that determine our effects or results. We can only receive what our minds are capable of accepting. We can go to the river of life with a teaspoon, and someone else may go with a cup. Someone else may go with a bucket, and yet another person may go with a barrel. But the abundance of the river is always there and waiting. Our consciousness, our ideas, our frame of reference and our belief system determine whether we go to the river of life with a teaspoon, a cup, a bucket or a barrel.

Or, from Influence - The Power of Persuasion

A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason.People simply like to have reasons for what they do. Langer demon- strated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush? The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: Ninety-four percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line.

As you can see, these are more similar to novels than to technical books. How do I come up with questions that allow me to retain this information?


In ref. to Beyond Positive Thinking, it is just inspirational prose. It depends it you want to remember the inspiration, or if you want to use it to inspire others. The latter is much harder.

If you want to keep the inspiration for yourself, there is very little active learning to do in that text. In other words, you will probably never create cloze deletions to answer specific question. For the inspiration effect, you might just set the interval to re-read in a month or in a year. You should also set the priority in case you have more such pieces in the collection.

If you want to use the text for presentations, lectures, pep-talk, etc. you could just try to repeat from memory and see which keywords cause recall problems, where you halt, where you use inadequate words. Perhaps just one keyword, and at each repetition, you might try to reproduce the whole text. If you fail again, at a different point, strengthen it with another keywords cloze. This is costly, but lecturing without Power Point is always costly, esp. if you really want to inspire. It cannot look like a memorized things.


Consider reformulating the information into chunks of knowledge meaningful to you instead of trying to memorize everything. Get the "gist" and focus on that.

Example question from the first excerpt:

Beyond Positive Thinking

Briefly summarize the "river metaphor" for the universe and our relationship to it.

For the answer to the above question, paste in the entire text you have above. That gives you something to compare your summary against, and you can then score it based on how well you captured the essence of the idea in your own words when summarizing during review. A summary you think of during review might be "The universe is like a river because it is constantly changing and uncaring of our individual needs or difficulties. It is an infinite resource waiting to be accessed. By embracing that we can adapt and flow with life." Or something like that. Then score it compared against the original excerpt.

For the second excerpt the first sentence makes a good cloze deletion:

Q: When we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a [...].

A: reason (source: The Power of Persuasion)

[paste in full excerpt here]

The rest is unimportant detail for long-term "tip of the tongue" knowledge. What is important is the main point -- to be more persuasive give others a reason to help. Referencing the source gives you the ability to look it up again if you like, and also gives you the knowledge that if you want to look something up in the book that said that one day (when you aren't viewing it during review) and you can't recall the name of the book, you can search for keywords from the excerpt in SuperMemo to find the item and then get the source name.

A Second Approach

I have often used SuperMemo for various non-technical learning, and my experience is that the thought that goes into answering the question - rather than the answer per se - is paramount. In terms of the QA items themselves, cloze deletions on catchy quotes are the excellent at guiding those thoughts, which is probably why witty quotes and proverbs naturally survive for many generations.

For your first paragraph, one of the key lessons seems to be about approaching life with an abundance mindset. You could use a question like this to remind you of it:

Q: "We can go to the river of life with a teaspoon, and someone else may go with a [...]" - Beyond Positive Thinking
A: cup/bucket/barrel (I.e. there's no need to hold back from experiencing life because there's enough to go round for all)

Note the reminder in bracket, to reinforce the meaning and context of the quote. Over long intervals these style of questions have had a strong effect on my perspective because over long intervals I have tended to forget the exact wording and responded with other substitute answers and synonyms; meaning that I have learned the idea rather than the specific wording. In this example, as long as you answer "cup", "bucket" or "barrel", it's correct (unless, as in the answer above, you are specifically remembering in order to re-quote to others).

- Georgios

Follow Up

This is very similar to how I also set up items, including adding "hints" immediately after the cloze (usually in brackets) or at the end of the element in bold. This is especially helpful if a question can have multiple interpretations -- the hint helps reduce collisions. As long as the concept is retained that is most important (again as you said, assuming the exact quote is not the goal) so grading can be more lenient. This also makes repetitions faster. Many items have sometimes extensive answers but the repetition may only take a few seconds, most of that spent recalling the concept and restating it in my own words. This also means it is often better to focus on Why? questions. While most of my items are cloze deletions or straight QA items, the Why? items create the deepest impacts in knowledge and are becoming an increasing area of focus during item creation. Non-technical knowledge like given here seems ideally suited to this.

This also touches upon item reformulation. Over many repetitions the concept stated in our own words may change, because our understanding changes/grows over time. So there are times when an item is created reflecting a basic understanding of a concept, and then during a later repetition the same item's answer is modified to reflect additional insight. Occasionally that new insight is then encoded in a new item. To me this is one of the hearts of the SuperMemo system -- knowledge isn't static, and the system easily supports increasing insight over time.

Thoughts from OP

First, I would like to thank the two users above me for further answering my question. What I have come to realize is that it is a lot harder to generate good questions for novel-like text than for technical excerpts, which are usually just a collection of facts that one rarely has to stop and think about "what they could mean", because generally they describe something, be it the laws of physics, a communications protocol, or some specifications. I will take the time and try to apply your suggestions, fully realizing now that not every book deserves this kind of deep, meaningful analysis.