Learning Concepts via SRS

There is a fair amount of advice out there detailing how to make SRS cards and decks. Rather than sift through all of this, or attempt to build an exhaustive catalog, we want to focus here on a (small) set of foundational issues that most authors underemphasize (or miss entirely).

The issues that we emphasize here are more relevant (and become especially important) when trying to develop conceptual understanding via SRS. Concept-intensive subjects are larger, and harder to learn, than more common SRS tasks like learning vocabulary, foreign languages and lists of things.

Note that this article assumes an understanding of the Learning Stages framework, as well as the study guide built upon it. Those articles define some of the terms that we use here (e.g. concept/topic/area, Integration), and will answer most of the questions that new readers are likely to have.

To make our point more directly, SRS is only one part of the learning process (albeit a very important part). You have to understand how you learn, in general, and have an overall strategy for doing so, before you can understand how to develop conceptual knowledge via SRS. The Learning Stages framework provides that overall understanding and strategy.

You Must Work at the Right Level of the Material

You must learn the subject at the level of individual concepts.

You can't work at higher levels (topics, areas) until you have learned the concepts that comprise the topics, and the topics that comprise the areas.

Similarly, you can't work from the lowest level, individual facts. When you first read the individual sentences and paragraphs of a concept's description, you can't distinguish which bits are essential from those that are supplementary (further description of the essential), until you fully understand the concept. Therefore, you can't extract the individual facts about the concept before you have fully read, and understood, its description as a whole.

The notion that this might be more efficient - that you are killing two birds (Introduction and Decomposition) with one stone - is illusory. Trying to extract the facts before you understand the concept results in a much slower pace though LS1, and a mediocre (at best) set of facts/cards for LS2.

You can only work at the level of individual concepts.

You Need to Understand Each Concept Fully

You should already know this. Every article on SRS cites this rule. But it cannot be overemphasized.

Other authors focus on why this rule is important. But they don't explain how to know when - or if - you have achieved the level of understanding needed to start writing cards for a concept.

The answer is straightforward, though it will take a bit of practice to develop your sense here.

You must be able to comfortably read through the description of the concept without needing to stop - no matter how many readings it may take you to get there. This includes fully understanding all terms and phrases used to describe or explain the concept. (On the extreme end, it is said that in advanced math classes, it can take an hour to understand a single page of the textbook.)

After attaining this level of comfort, you must also be able to:

  • identify all of the individual parts which comprise the concept
  • understand how the parts fit together
  • identify all of the behaviors that the concept may exhibit

If you can do all of these things, you understand the concept well enough to proceed to LS2, to start writing cards. If you have not achieved this initial level of understanding of the concept, you are going to miss important details when writing your cards.

You Need to Thoroughly Decompose Each Concept

Thorough means two things here. First, it means practicing all of a concept's facts, not just those that you think that you need to learn. Creating a bespoke deck that excludes the facts that you think that you already know can - will - constrain the Integration process.

Second, thorough means identifying and learning the higher-order facts (in addition to the simple facts). Higher-order facts include facts about (other) facts, and facts that relate the concept that you are learning to other concepts, topics or areas.

Higher-order facts are often not integrated until they arise in your mind spontaneously, as flashes of insight. Identifying and memorizing them - from the outset - makes your deck (and Integration) much more effective.

You Need Multiple Instructional Sources

Explaining concepts is hard. A consequence of this is that you should regard most instructional sources as being inherently flawed. They may be incomplete. They may assume prior knowledge. Sometimes the author may simply be wrong. Sometimes just about everybody is wrong, or at least imprecise.

As such, you should seek out, and seek to understand a concept from, multiple instructional sources.

Articles (or videos) that focus on a particular concept (the concept you're learning at that time) are especially helpful in this regard. Sometimes these articles highlight the nuances that can confuse new learners. At other times they can succinctly distill the essence of the concept. Invariably, they require less of your time than another textbook (or set of lectures) would.

Your Deck Needs to be Structured

Concepts are almost always built upon other concepts. If, for example, concept C includes concepts A and B as parts, you must have a firm understanding of A and B before you can learn C.

This means that you can't practice your deck in random order - at least not initially.

Randomness is less of a problem as a concept passes into the Review phase of practice. It may even be beneficial. But randomness will inhibit learning in the New and Learning phases for concept-intensive subjects.

We also note this in our article on Spaced Repetition (SRS) Myths and Misunderstandings.

Teaching Concepts via SRS is Best Done by Experts

SRS is perfectly well-suited for teaching and learning conceptual knowledge.

But, as we have shown here, there is a fair amount of subtlety to making a deck for concept-intensive subjects that doesn't manifest itself when making more decks for more mundane tasks.

Making such a deck is beyond the ability of most students - at least until they have gained a good deal of experience doing so.

For this reason, we believe that making an SRS deck for a concept-intensive subject is best done by experts.

Try one of our decks. If you don't learn the subject better than from any other instructional source, you can have your money back.

Learn More!


Michael Reichner is the Founder of SRSoterica (this site), and the author of spaced repetition system (SRS) flashcard decks for absorbing the concepts that underlie complex programming subjects.

Discuss this article on the site that it was linked from, or at the SRSoterica subreddit.

Last updated: June 23, 2020

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