org-drill for making it stick!

Those who read the last few posts here, would know that I have been experimenting with org-drill (a spaced repetition extension to Org mode). I have been using the system (almost) religiously for the past 2 months, and I do find that it has helped a great deal! (in some respects). I have also spent a considerable amount of time trying to reduce the friction to put new stuff into the system, and am constantly on the look out for further improvements.

Using this system has definitely helped with retention, and I find that I can recall quite a few things I have read a few weeks ago, that I would normally have been unable to. Though, I can recall a lot of information, I have been having a feeling of "fragmentation": the feeling of just retaining individual bits/fragments of information, while losing out on actually internalizing the knowledge; not seeing the big picture, etc.

Wozniak (the author of super-memo) warns against learning without understanding, and memorizing before actually learning stuff. I haven't consciously added stuff into the system that I didn't understand (when I added it), but, later it does feel like I have lost some connections or the understanding, and am only holding onto the fragments of information.

The problems as explained in (read: as interpreted by me from) Make it Stick appear to be:

  1. The understanding (if any) at the time of adding stuff into the spaced-repetition system is untested. It may just be familiarity masquerading as understanding.
  2. The lack of any spaced repetitions for the overall concept/understanding and actual repetitions only for individual bits doesn't help retention of the understanding (even if there was any, in the first place).

To work around this, I'm going to try adding questions that test understanding, to the system. The Super-memo team strongly recommends keeping the drill items small and easy to answer. This may be helpful in keeping each drill session short, but I would really like to add conceptual questions to the system, and see how it goes. I hacked org-drill to allow me to type out answers, before looking at the "correct" ones. This is an adaptation of a system that a fellow Hacker Schooler uses, and shared. Also, hopefully forcing myself to type out the answer will help me get around the problem of sometimes saying "yeah I know that", then looking at the answer only to reaffirm the feeling of familiarity, rather than actually testing myself. I'm still going to continue adding quick and short questions that test "bits of information", though. But, hopefully the additional conceptual questions are going to tie things together and help fill in the gaps. Lets see how this goes!

For those interested, my hacks to org-drill below. The code is really a hack, and welcome any suggestions on cleaning up the code.

(advice-add 'org-drill-presentation-prompt :around 'pc/org-drill-presentation-prompt)

(defun pc/org-drill-presentation-prompt (old-fun &rest fmt-and-args)
  "A presentation prompt that allows capturing answers."

  (let ((cb (current-buffer))
	(heading (nth 4 (org-heading-components)))
	(entry-id (org-entry-get (point) "ID"))
	(input ""))
    (switch-to-buffer-other-window "*org-capture-drill-answer*")
    (org-mode)
    (insert "# Hit C-c C-c once you are done answering!\\n")
    (org-insert-heading-respect-content)
    (insert (format "Answer: %s" heading))
    (org-entry-put (point) "QUESTION_ID" entry-id)
    (goto-char (point-max))
    (insert "  ")
    (org-time-stamp-inactive '(16))
    (insert "\\n\\n  ")
    (while (not (and input (equal input "")))
      (ignore-errors
	(execute-kbd-macro input))
      (setq input (read-key-sequence nil)))
    (switch-to-buffer-other-window cb)
    (apply old-fun fmt-and-args)))

(advice-add 'org-drill-reschedule :around 'pc/org-drill-reschedule)

(defun pc/org-drill-reschedule (old-fun)
  "Calls the original reschedule, but also archives the answer"
  (prog1 (funcall old-fun)
    (let ((cb (current-buffer)))
      (switch-to-buffer-other-window "*org-capture-drill-answer*")
      (pc/org-refile-to-datetree "drill.org_archive")
      (message (buffer-name))
      (switch-to-buffer-other-window cb)
      (kill-buffer "*org-capture-drill-answer*"))))

(require 'org-datetree)
(defun pc/org-refile-to-datetree (journal)
  "Refile an entry to journal file's date-tree"
  (interactive "fRefile to: ")
  (let* ((journal (expand-file-name journal org-directory))
	 (date-string (or (org-entry-get (point) "TIMESTAMP_IA")
			  (org-entry-get (point) "TIMESTAMP")))
	 (dct (decode-time (or (and date-string (org-time-string-to-time date-string))
			       (current-time))))
	 (date (list (nth 4 dct) (nth 3 dct) (nth 5 dct))))
    (org-cut-subtree)
    (with-current-buffer (or (find-buffer-visiting journal)
			     (find-file-noselect journal))
      (org-mode)
      (save-excursion
	(org-datetree-file-entry-under (current-kill 0) date)
	(bookmark-set "org-refile-last-stored")))
    (message "Refiled to %s" journal)))
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