Mnemonic medium

The mnemonic medium embeds a Spaced repetition memory system within narrative prose. Spaced repetition memory systems make memory a choice, but they’ve suffered significant barriers to adoption. The mnemonic medium is designed to solve many of these problems.

It was first used in Quantum Country. I’m now working to expand its scope considerably in Orbit. (see more Substantive examples of the mnemonic medium)

Last updated 2024-04-16.

The mnemonic medium may help scaffold prompt-writing through author-provided prompts

The mnemonic medium supplies expert-authored prompts to remove the burden of prompt-writing, which helps ameliorate Writing good spaced repetition memory prompts is hard. But by including the prompts, we also help readers who want to write some prompts of their own. They get to see expert examples of prompt-writing, which they can use as templates for their own prompts.

Several Quantum Country readers have told us that they’d tried and abandoned Anki before reading Quantum Country, but that they’ve since returned to it now that they have a clearer idea of how to write prompts.

A more active variation: Embedded prompt templates may actively scaffold prompt-writing for mnemonic medium readers

Important consideration: How important is it to write your own spaced repetition memory prompts?

User feedback regarding this effect

Giacomo Randazzo on Quantum Country’s influence / 2020-03-28:

The Quantum Country series was essential in stepping up my Anki game. The flashcards are well thought and incorporate ideas for building questions and answers that are not obvious when starting out. The authors do a great job at introducing the ideas gradually. For people with a sufficient mathematical background, that want to learn how to use any spaced repetition software effectively, I think the investment of time in going through the entire series is exceedingly valuable!” [source 1, source 2]


References

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

… making good cards is a difficult skill to master, and so what users lose by not making their own cards is made up by using what are likely to be much higher-quality cards than they could have made on their own. In future, it’s worth digging deeper into this issue, both to understand it beyond informal models, and to explore ways of getting the benefits of active card making.

Last updated 2023-09-13.

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 thought (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

For more, see: Important attributes of good spaced repetition memory prompts

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. More: To what extent do review sessions offer prompt-writing feedback?

One solution: The mnemonic medium may help scaffold prompt-writing through author-provided prompts

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.

One solution: The mnemonic medium supplies expert-authored prompts to remove the burden of prompt-writing. Or, maybe Using machine learning to generate good spaced repetition prompts from explanatory text.


References

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

Using spaced repetition systems to see through a piece of mathematics - Michael Nielsen

https://andymatuschak.org/prompts

Anki Practice Cards: Language, Music, Mathematics - Album on Imgur some examples and notes from Eric Siggy

Last updated 2024-04-16.

Important attributes of good spaced repetition memory prompts

This note collects ideas about how to encode knowledge into Spaced repetition memory system prompts, both to support memory of facts but also to foster richer understanding (Spaced repetition memory systems can be used to develop conceptual understanding).

See How to write good prompts (2020) for a published manuscript on this topic.

Basic attributes of prompt-writing:

“Covering” material:

Meta / mental models:

Related: The “reflected essay” metaphor for the goal for the mnemonic medium

References

Matuschak, A. (2020). How to write good prompts: using spaced repetition to create understanding. https://andymatuschak.org/prompts

See section Improving the mnemonic medium: making better cards in How can we develop transformative tools for thought? and Nielsen (2018, 2019).

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

Using spaced repetition systems to see through a piece of mathematics - Michael Nielsen

Piotr Wozniak - Effective learning - Twenty rules of formulating knowledge

Soren Bjornstad’s patterns

Fernando Boretti: Effective Spaced Repetition

Last updated 2024-01-13.

Avoid orphan spaced repetition memory prompts

When adding prompts to a Spaced repetition memory system, it’s usually a mistake to write prompts about a detail that seems interesting, but which is disconnected from everything else you’re thinking about. Spaced repetition memory prompts should connect and relate ideas—and it’s even better to make them connect and relate to ideas that you’re regularly thinking about.

“Orphan questions” (coinage per Michael Nielsen, 2018) cause two important problems:

  1. After a while, these isolated prompts often start to feel like a burden in the review session, disconnected from what you actually care about (contra The critical thing to optimize in spaced repetition memory systems is emotional connection to the review session and its contents)
  2. You’ll likely have more trouble remembering the answers to these questions, since they won’t be naturally reinforced through your daily life. Even if you do remember the answers, there’s a danger that they’ll be pattern-matched because they don’t connect to other knowledge (Spaced repetition memory prompts should be written to discourage shallow “pattern matching”)

At least for me, one common situation that often results in orphan questions is: someone shares an interesting paper in a field I know nothing about; I read it and write a few prompts. A few months later, I have no idea why I’m reviewing them. They don’t relate to anything I’m doing or thinking about.

Michael underscores the particularly harmful case of “lonely orphans”:

It’s particularly worth avoiding lonely orphans: single questions that are largely disconnected from everything else. Suppose, for instance, I’m reading an article on a new subject, and I learn an idea that seems particularly useful. I make it a rule to never put in one question. Rather, I try to put at least two questions in, preferably three or more. That’s usually enough that it’s at least the nucleus of a bit of useful knowledge. If it’s a lonely orphan, inevitably I get the question wrong all the time, and it’s a waste to have entered it at all.


References

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

Last updated 2023-07-13.