20 rules of knowledge formulation

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.


The way we formulate knowledge in learning has a monumental impact on memory. Well-phrased questions make learning easy. Well-structured knowledge will help keep it in memory for life.

Effective learning: 20 rules of knowledge formulation, compiled in 1999, describes the most important rules needed to effectively formulate good questions for long-term retention. Below I provide a concise executive summary (esp. for those interested in incremental reading).

Summary: 20 rules

New rules: incremental reading

With the advent of incremental reading, the rules have been modified, and re-prioritized.

Changes of formulation strategy in incremental reading:

Meta rule: Pleasure of learning

A simple and universal litmus test for a good formulation is pleasure of learning. Each time you see a drop in pleasure, come back to this text and see if you can find a rule violation that might be responsible for the decline in fun.

Meta rule: Applicability

We should strive at maximum applicability of knowledge.

Human intelligence is based on knowledge, of which abstract knowledge plays a particularly important role. Abstract knowledge is based on rules, such as 2+2=4. Such rules may be employed in multiple contexts and contribute to problem solving capacity. Rules are more useful than facts. For example, it is more useful to know that 2+2=4 (rule) than to know that a friends's phone number beings with 4 (fact). Rules and formulas are more applicable than facts. For more details see: Abstract knowledge

Meta rule: Simplicity

In representing knowledge, we should always strive at formulating atomic memories set in a good context of comprehension. If learning is enjoyable, items are probably formulated pretty well. The picture explains why simple memories are easier to retain:

Memory complexity: simple and complex memories

Figure: Memory complexity illustrates the importance of the minimum information principle. When memorizing simple questions and answers, we can rely on a simple memory connection, and uniformly refresh that connection at review. Complex memories may have their concepts activated in an incomplete fashion, or in a different sequence that depends on the context. As a result, it is hard to produce a uniform increase in memory stability at review. Complex items are difficult to remember. An example of a simple item may be a word pair, e.g. apple = pomo (Esperanto). While a complex net of connection may be needed to recognize an apple. The connection between apple and pomo is irreducible (i.e. maximally simplified)

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru