SuperMemo won't work at school

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anonymous, US, asked on Apr 18, 2017:

Why don't students like school?

I am reading a book by Dr Daniel Willingham, he wrote something that made me pause. Do you agree?

laboratory studies show that repetition helps learning [like in SuperMemo], but any teacher knows that you can't take that finding and pop it into a classroom by, for example, having students repeat long division problems until they've mastered the process. Repetition is good for learning but terrible for motivation. With too much repetition, motivation plummets, students stop trying, and no learning takes place. The classroom application would not duplicate the laboratory result


Repetition can be terrible for motivation. I can also be fantastic for motivation.

The factors to consider:

  • how well the learning material is remembered
  • how well the learning material is structured (i.e. formulated for long-term retention)
  • how useful/relevant the learning material is

In incremental reading, repetition is usually very motivational. The material is highly useful (selected by the user, not by a teacher), it is well formulated (incremental reading makes it easier to stick to "20 rules"), and the review usually occurs late enough to provide a "refreshing" amount of forgetting.

In a typical classroom, it just does not work, and students will stay bored. An enthusiastic teacher can make a great difference though (as shown in comments by Georgios below).

In a typical classroom, material review may be too repetitive (when it comes too early), the material is not formulated for active recall (e.g. lecture format), and it is uninteresting or irrelevant to the student (the result of coercion).

In most cases, students will actually stay bored with or without repetition. That's the reality in most schools. The teacher might ask students to do SuperMemo, or incremental reading at home, but SuperMemo as homework on a tired brain could be worse than no SuperMemo at all. If schools allowed kids to do SuperMemo in the morning, before classes, this might bring some results.

In the end, Willingham is right, repetition can be demotivational, however, SuperMemo defies his observation if used wisely.

User's followup

Could you explain the meaning of "material is unstructured (e.g. lecture format)"? Lecturers usually try to structure lectured knowledge ;)

Structuring material for learning

To remember well we need to stick to some rules that make questions simple and unambiguous. We should rather use the term "badly formulated items". However, it may happen that in some texts at SuperMemopedia you will see some less precise phrases like "poorly structures items" or even "unstructured material".

See: 20 rules

A Teacher's Comment

Georgios wrote:

I have used SuperMemo and incremental reading since I finished secondary school, just over a decade ago. Since the start I realised it was the next stage of education. Also since the start, I've heard endless short-sighted criticisms. One of the most common was "SuperMemo is only good for memorising and mindless recall, not real learning". This was why I began exploring other forms of learning on SuperMemo such as music, and writing about it in my Procedural Supermemo blog. That was years ago.

Now I teach high school maths, chemistry, physics and economics and have written my own version of spaced repetition software which I am in the first year of trialling for chemistry (Note: I have tried using SuperMemo itself but it was a failure for reasons of user friendliness and general lack of tailoring to the teacher-classroom context). I formulate the knowledge for my students in the same terms as I teach in class. They only need 10 minutes at the start of each lesson and one or two 10 minute session at home (depending how spread out their classroom timetable is). I aim to have them use it 3-5 times a week, not every day.

In terms of motivation... for them it is just work like any other classwork! Nothing better or worse. I could ask them to do 10 questions from the textbook or 10 questions on the spaced repetition software, but I know the latter will be infinitely more beneficial over the course of a year or two. I also display their memory strength in terms of intervals, which is motivating, and plan to add more achievement badges and the like. Either way, it has made little difference to their motivation so far, and I hope that after a year or two of amassing a large amount of curriculum-relevant chemistry knowledge their test scores will be higher than ever and they will appreciate the value of spaced repetition. For now it is just another type of work.

In terms of learning, I have taught the same year 11 level chemistry class twice before without such software and the difference in learning is obvious, even only a quarter of the way through the year (in Australia).

At the moment it is a work in progress, but the main point is that when you have a young technology (maybe not in years, but in application) the most useful perspective is not "This will never work outside the lab" but "How can I make this work in a real classroom?"

Finally, I have read that book and it is excellent. However, I see that quote as meaning "you can't [just] pop it into the classroom", not that you shouldn't or can't redesign it for the classroom. After all - sorry about the spoiler - but Willingham ultimately recommends spaced practice! :)

- Georgios

Update: More Teacher's Comment

Georgios wrote:

After the student responses were added below, I should clarify that I was describing the average student in the average classroom (not just my Chemistry classroom).

Personally, my own experience has been extremely motivating, which is why I have put so much effort into implementing it for my students. However, as SuperMemo World themselves have found after decades of trying to introduce it into the education system, students like us - who feel palpable excitement at the massive vistas of learning opportunity that are opened up by tools such as spaced repetition and incremental reading - have always been in the minority, and will be for a while yet.

A simple and revealing test is to try and convince other people to use it. I sincerely congratulate you if you get a couple of people to stick with it for any significant length of time. Otherwise you're just talking about your own excitement, which is entirely unrepresentative of how well SuperMemo will work at school for average students (e.g. who do not go to the trouble of answering questions posted in obscure forums such as this).

Reply to Georgios

It seems this is a bit more complex if we consider that not all teachers are made equal, not all schools are the same, not all students have the same motivation or preferred ways of learning.

Incremental reading when done well can be crazy motivational. Spaced repetition when done well can be motivational too. Classroom application is probably very difficult unless there is a teacher with an open mind and a will to experiment (let alone write his own software). This is tantamount to forging his own path, so it will take a very special kind of leader.

On the other hand, it is true that SuperMemo employed poorly can discourage the user. Perhaps most of the early dropouts come from the effect mentioned by Willingham.

In a school setting, a teacher who knows the method himself, loves his students, and is open to their feedback may succeed indeed. The main difficulty is to make sure kids can sense their progress and see learning as pleasure. It would be a pity if they treated SuperMemo as another tool to ratchet up the pressure.

A Student's Comment

To some extent you are correct. Reviewing old material can be very unmotivating. However, remembering useful knowledge that you read 6 months ago is very motivational. I am an avid reader, and used to be able to master a huge amount of knowledge in weeks. My only problem was forgetting. After some Googling i found Supermemo.

I did not trust Supermemo at all in the beginning, I thought it made me fall behind. The first week i spent dubble the amount of time compared to my classmates for the same amount of knowledge. I was close to quitting. However, after a month I compared my retention to them. Guess what? I remembered most of the things where they hade forgotten more than half. Never have I been more motivated then when I realized how powerful space repetition is.

My point is: space repetition is very unmotivational in the beginning but when you see results it becomes very motivating. It is the same for working out in order to loose weight. Very unmotivation to run in the beginning but when you loose some pounds it becomes very motivating

Another Student's Comment

Davecan wrote:

I will echo the previous student response emphatically. I began using SuperMemo a little over a year ago, and initially did not see stellar results. SuperMemo has a significant learning curve, not merely in learning how to use the software but also in learning to formulate items, structure learning, and, yes, dealing with inevitable bugs such as the one that nearly destroyed my collection after a couple of months. Because of this I didn't use it every day for the first three months, and in some cases went weeks between sessions. But I persevered and forced myself back on schedule and am amazed at some of the results.

The dull way to describe SuperMemo as a student is that it is a daily pop quiz of everything you have learned. That makes it sound boring but in many ways it is very liberating because it frees you from worrying that you may forget most of what you read. I am an "adult learner" in that I am attending college classes over the age of 40. So I am perhaps a bit more motivated than some traditional classroom students. But I've had the same experience as the previous commenter, able to consume large amounts of knowledge in a very short period but much of that material is dumped shortly after a test and never used again. Since using SuperMemo to structure my learning however my knowledge retention has gone way up, and I can directly compare the learning I've retained over the past year to the learning from previous years that was memorized and then dumped. In fact I intend to return to old class notes after my coursework is finished and add that material into SuperMemo to ensure it can be used going forward, perpetually.

Another aspect of learning that is often overlooked is synthesis across domains. With SuperMemo I am now beginning to make connections between topics that would not have occurred without it. This has resulted in some surprising insights that add excitement and motivation to the learning experience. I read about this on the SuperMemo website when I used Anki previously, but did not experience the same effects with Anki.