Spaced repetition memory prompts should unambiguously produce a specific answer

When writing prompts for a Spaced repetition memory system, it’s easy to accidentally write a question which has correct answers besides the one you intend. You must include enough context that reasonable alternative answers are clearly wrong, while not including so much context that you violate concision (Spaced repetition memory prompts should be concise) or encourage pattern matching (Spaced repetition memory prompts should be written to discourage shallow “pattern matching”).

For example, if you just read a recipe for making an omelette, it might feel natural to ask: “What’s the first step to cook an omelette?” The answer might seem obvious relative to the recipe you just read: step one is clearly “heat butter in pan”! But six months from now, when you come back to this question, there are many reasonable answers: whisk eggs; heat butter in a pan; mince mushrooms for filling; etc.

One solution is to give the question extremely specific context: “What’s the first step in the Bon Appetit Jun ’18 omelette recipe?” But this framing suggests the knowledge is much more provincial than it really is. When possible, general knowledge should be expressed generally, so long as you can avoid ambiguity. This may mean finding another angle on the question; for instance: “When making an omelette, how must the pan be prepared before you add the eggs?”

Soren Bjornstad points out that a prompt which fails to exclude alternative correct answers requires that you also memorize “what the prompt is asking.”

This principle doesn’t apply to non-memory-focused spaced repetition prompts, which are often explicitly designed to produce different answers each time: Spaced repetition memory systems can be used to prompt application, synthesis, and creation

Q. What’s the problem with the SRS prompt “What’s the first step to cook an omelette?”
A. There are many reasonable answers to that question.

Memory-focused SRS prompts must unambiguously exclude {alternative correct} answers.

Last updated 2023-07-13.