Learning from a textbook

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From: aleishamak
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 11:46 pm
Subject: Quick Backup


I have recently received my grades for the latest set of exams. These are the first that I have used supermemo for and I received ABCC. I needed to get AAAA, which is what I have previously got.

I am not ready to give up on supermemo just yet, but I wonder if you can help me with incremental reading a textbook. A lot of my articles look like this (see below).

I am highlighting almost all of the text in the article, as you have to learn it all to succeed. This is, in many ways, making me almost skip over the text in order to highlight as much of the information as possible. Then, when it comes to questions (as shown below), I lose all recollection of the main article and get them wrong. I currently have a retention rate of about 70%, but when it comes to examinations, this is reduced to about 30-40%. This is completely unacceptable for me. (see below)

I will list my process below. Could you possibly help me pick out any flaws in it?

  1. Scan textbook pages.
  2. OCR textbook pages.
  3. Import textbook pages into supermemo, with one Topic per 2-page spread. Subheadings are emboldened, and the main title is referenced.
  4. Incrementally read the texts, highlighting almost every sentence in the article.
  5. When the article is done, dismiss it.
  6. Go through converting all the Remember Cloze items to Cloze Deletions
  7. When a Remember Cloze item is complete, dismiss it.
  8. Go through all the cloze deletions questions.

I've got to a stage now, where I don't particularly understand the information before I try to remember it. However, if I was to spend a lot of time incrementally reading the articles, then I would run out of time before the next set of exams in January.

As you can see, I am very, very worried that I am not going to be able to successfully learn with supermemo. I would really appreciate it if you could spend a bit of time helping me out with these problems!


  • If you are pressed by deadlines and still not too fluent with incremental reading, it would make much more sense to do your learning in parallel (e.g. 30% incremental reading and 70% traditional learning). You will make many mistakes in strategy and the discovery process may take longer than until the exam. At the beginning you will have a big overhead cost (strategy, material selection, formulation, learning SuperMemo itself, etc.). It would not then be surprising if your performance actually dropped. You could pick a couple of chapters that you enjoy learning and use those for incremental reading. You would then process the rest using your old methods. You cannot possible embark on a massive conversions of textbooks into SuperMemo material before you get the feel of how to do it right! It can backfire and discourage the use of SuperMemo for good.
  • You MUST NOT memorize material that you do not understand! There is little hope that by doing more learning in other areas you will at some point understand. Instead, you can build up frustration with items that mean little. If you do not understand a term or concept, you need to dig deep into why. Is it terminology? This can be easily investigated and fixed. Or is it a problem with the material itself? Perhaps you can find an alternative on the net? Your item, for example, can be pretty hard after a while if you are new to cell biology. Will you remember it refers to chloroplasts? Do you remember what are grana and lamellae? Would it not be much cleared if you found a nice picture on the net to illustrate this item? Obviously, each little investigation takes time, but it is better to master 10-20% of the material well, that to cram the entirety without comprehension. Even if you fail an exam, those 10% can be useful in the future (e.g. if you retake the exam). In general, schools load more than students can master and this leads to lots of stress and frustration. By choosing SuperMemo, you have already made the first good step. Now you need to make order in the process and think carefully about your best long-term strategy.
  • Scanning books takes too much time. If you learn cell biology, you can always find nice and easy texts full of pictures on the net. You could, for example, learn with your textbook using a traditional method, and then complement it with SuperMemo on subjects that are particularly hard. Instead of scanning, you could just Google and find your texts in seconds. If these are general enough, you can be sure you can always find excellent quality texts that will make learning fun!
  • follow up on scanning books: book scanning can indeed be time consuming. The fastest way is to remove the spine and to feed the book through a sheet-feeder scanner. The second fastest is to use a digital camera, instead of a scanner. This makes post-processing a little more involved (use book restorer and abbyy fine reader) but that part is mostly automated once you understand it. Your camera needs to have very high megapixels, and ideally a remote button option so you can take pictures with your foot while holding/turning pages. You can also use text-to-speech (see: textaloud) to read certain materials while scanning a book.
  • Your chloroplast text is a bit "dry" (more about structure than function). If learning is not enjoyable, it is less likely to be effective. Perhaps a Wikipedia replacement would be fun and more meaningful? Even if this is a bit longer, you can process it pretty fast with incremental reading, illustrate with pictures, and enjoy the process.