Students Cannot Make Their Own SRS Decks

Note: The SRS community is afflicted by a few cases of "received wisdom" - common knowledge that is held to be true, but may not be. SRSoterica makes the case against such "wisdom" because these beliefs have had profoundly negative consequences, discouraging the majority of SRS-aware people from successfully learning via the technology.

Perhaps the most harmful myth in the SRS community is the pervasive belief that students should write their own decks.

The problem with this should be obvious - students are not capable of writing their own decks, except in the simplest of learning tasks, and/or for the very best of students.

We call this the "Paradox of SRS" - by the time a student is capable of developing a good SRS deck for a complex subject, they no longer need the deck themself.

This document serves to collect the reasons why this is so, as well as refutations of other arguments in favor of students making their own deck.

(Note that we use "student" here to mean any person trying to learn a subject - regardless of whether or not they are doing so in a formal learning environment.)

Knowledge Issues

Writing a good deck for a concept-intensive subject requires subject knowledge, as well as SRS and ISD (instructional system design) knowledge.

Subject Knowledge Issues

  • Students don't understand which aspects of a topic are essential, and which are ancillary
  • Students often skip important details (accidentally, or intentionally) that are critical to understanding a concept
  • Students don't have a firm understanding of how the material relates to material that they have previously learned
  • Students don't have any idea at all of how the material relates to material that they have yet to learn
  • The instructional sources that students create cards from are often incomplete, or otherwise lacking
  • Students don't understand what kinds of Competencies or Knowledge Types that they need to develop
  • Students don't know what material needs additional reinforcement (they usually don't even understand that some material needs additional reinforcement)
  • Students are prone to writing erroneous cards, and there is great danger in fixating erroneous information via SRS

SRS and ISD Knowledge Issues

The 20 Rules is a good start, but it's nowhere close to a comprehensive pedagogy (not that it pretends to be) for working in the medium.

  • Students aren't good at concisely summarizing the material
  • Students don't know how to write cards that develop specific Competencies or Knowledge Types
  • Students don't know how to write the same material in different ways (for reinforcement of difficult concepts (or their details))
  • Students don't know how to structure the material

Time and Motivation Issues

Students are usually trying to learn in situations with deadlines. In such situations:

  • Students don't have the time to learn all of the ISD and SRS knowledge to write a good deck
  • Students don't have the time to write the deck while trying to learn the subject
  • Students rarely have the discipline or motivation to see a deck through to completion

How is a student supposed to feel about SRS when a semester ends and they have half of a deck and half of the subject understanding that they needed to develop?

Miscellaneous Issues and Arguments

  • Writing cards only for material that you personally need to learn is the learning equivalent of a "code smell" - it reeks of premature optimization
  • "No Pain, No Gain" is dismissive (if not puritanical)
  • The "Writing it Down" argument is weak
    • It was only shown to work for handwriting, not typing
    • Writing the cards is a one-time act
  • Summarization, by itself, is deemed a "Low Impact" learning method

The Most Important Reason

Any possible benefit at the micro (individual student) level vanishes in comparison to the aggregate loss at the macro (societal) level.

Research shows SRS to be the most effective learning system known. Yet most people - even most educators - have never even heard of it.

We contend that at least 95% of people that have tried to learn a concept-intensive subject via SRS have failed to do so. The myth that you should write your own deck is the proximate cause for this failure.


  • This article makes liberal use of "weasel words" (e.g. typically, often, most, etc.) To head off criticism, we assert that we can provide multiple examples of the phenomenon in question for every counterexample that you provide.


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: April 18, 2020

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