Writing good spaced repetition memory prompts is hard

People regard flashcards as something trivial from their school days, so they don’t take writing them very seriously. But it’s awfully hard to write good prompts for a Spaced repetition memory system. For example, good prompts:

  • access an idea from multiple angles
  • capture one precise think (likely reflective of “Chunks” in human cognition)
  • avoid unintentional ambiguity
  • are concise
  • get to what really matters about the topic, not just what’s easy to memorize

Our working solution to this: The mnemonic medium scaffolds prompt-writing through author-provided prompts. A more active approach: Embedded prompt templates may actively scaffold prompt-writing for mnemonic medium readers.

For more on good card-writing, see section Improving the mnemonic medium: making better cards in How can we develop transformative tools for thought? and Nielsen (2018, 2019).

It’s harder than people think

Unfortunately, it’s not obvious when the prompts you’ve written are bad, so people often don’t realize that their prompts are bad. This can cause them to underrate the performance or overrate the tedium of spaced repetition memory practice.

It’s taxing even if you know how

Even if one develops the skill to write good prompts, it’s quite time-consuming and cognitively taxing to do it. I believe that this is another significant barrier to widespread adoption.


Matuschak, A., & Nielsen, M. (2019, October). How can we develop transformative tools for thought? https://numinous.productions/ttft

Nielsen, M. (2018). Augmenting Long-term Memory. http://augmentingcognition.com/ltm.html

NIelsen, M. (2019, January). Using spaced repetition systems to see through a piece of mathematics. http://cognitivemedium.com/srs-mathematics