SuperMemo and Medical School

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From: Michael Y.
Sent: Thursday, April 28, 2011 4:08 AM
Subject: Supermemo for Medical School


I am currently out of school for summer break, and therefore have time to revamp my study strategies. I ended up being a C average student, which is very stressful, as my school requires at least a C to continue through the curriculum. This is frustrating because I study all day, every day, plus I know about the testing effect, spacing effect, and supermemo. The only explanation I have is that my science background was very weak compared to my colleagues, but nonetheless, I would like to be an A student next year.

I believe in both the logic and the empirical justification of supermemo. I have been practicing Incremental Reading now that I have more time on my hands, and I think I am picking up on it very quickly. I understand the idea of importing study materials, extracting the most important points, and incrementally creating items for active recall through cloze deletions. I have gotten quick with the shortcuts. It has given me obvious savings in time from when I was adding Q/A items in '98 version of SuperMemo.

Nevertheless, in medical school, they require you to memorize about 3000 items for an exam every two weeks. I have quantified this from my use with the older supermemo in the past. Encoding 3000 items in supermemo, even with the added speed of cloze deletions, still takes up a lot of time. I am a fast typer and pretty good with computers, but nonetheless, making up that many items leaves not very much time to actually practice repetitions of those items. I know that learning at that rate is not humanly possible for the long-run and I have read where you say that the med student must de-prioritize his items after each exam so as not to become victim of information overload. I am left with the following questions:

  1. How do I deal with the fact that it takes so long to encode, even with Incremental Reading, 3000 items every two weeks? You mentioned to me before to only encode just a few of the more important things into SuperMemo and rely on traditional learning methods to learn the rest of it, but wont the traditional learning methods continue to fail me in terms of correct recall on tests? If I just kept reading my notes over and over, rather than practicing some type of rehearsal, wont my performance on tests continue to be poor?
  2. Because actually making items for recall practice in supermemo is time consuming and I am strapped for time before an exam, what do you think about some kind of free-recall approach instead? For example, I could read a paragraph of my notes, then attempt recalling it. To introduce more spacing, I could challenge myself to read more and more before attempting to rehearse the material. I recognize that this approach is not optimal, because cues and the algorithm of supermemo can keep track of the best time to review a certain item, but how do you think it would work under the special circumstance of preparing for an med school exam?

Answer Outline

Weak background in science or insufficient mnemonic skills could be to blame for your C average even if you try hard. Both are pretty easy to remedy. You can master science basics with SuperMemo and never worry about these again. As for mnemonic skills, the more you learn, the better they get. Even if you do not try consciously.

You can be an A student because you are on the right track. Perhaps if you catch up with some basic stuff this summer, next year will be your year.

You could send your collection for review. Beginners waste a lot of time in incremental reading by improperly formulating their items.

3000 items in 2 weeks is not sustainable even with SuperMemo. Create an exam branch or even a separate collection, work mostly with that collection before the exam, and after the exam, transfer the material to the main collection, spread priorities in the range determined by the relevant imporance of that exams knowledge (e.g. 5% - 100%). 100% makes sense because you will definitely want to delete lots of that stuff.

Most of your colleagues do not use SuperMemo and succeed with traditional methods. You should employ SuperMemo only as far as it increases your performance in exams. It will obviously fail you if you try to memorize everything with SuperMemo alone and there is too much material to process. You need to determine if your SuperMemo skills are good enough to do 3% in SuperMemo or perhaps 45%. Reading over and over is not how you do it without SuperMemo. You noticed correctly that you need to do some form of active recall. E.g. you see a paragraph, close your eyes, and try to repeat it. If you succeed, cross out the pagraph or its portion and go to the next one. If you are good in natural mnemonics and manage to pass all the material 3-4 times, you shall have an excellent recall of all the portions that you understand well. You do not need to apply any spacing before the exam that comes in 2 weeks. Your recall 2 months later will be dismal anyway. Your goal is to pass the exam. The job of long term recall you can leave to SuperMemo (even if you store only 5% in there, you will do much better than your fellow students as soon as in a few months).

The most optimistic part is that you think about strategies and work hard. On paper, you got everything you need to succeed :)

Summer is a great time for peaceful and reasonable learning without deadlines and stress! Good luck

See also