An interesting point that Zander made in the third episode of our podcast was that learning is a continuous (as opposed to discrete) process where the sense of achievement from making progress is delivered so gradually over time that you don't notice it.
In learning and fitness progress generally occurs continually, but in tiny increments that you either don't notice or acclimate to immediately.
There are occasionally small epiphanies that come from struggling to understand something and having the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle "slot in", but the feelings of reward they deliver are unpredictable and uncertain, rather than being delivered according to a dependable schedule.
In his blog and in our podcast, Zander introduced the idea of tracking artificial metrics as a way to visualize your progress over time. He mentioned that people will take progress pictures, or record certain metrics like their body weight over time. Essentially, since progress in learning and fitness is gradual and the rewards derived from it are irregular and unpredictable, people will use metric tracking as a means of visualizing their progress towards their goal.
In this way, metrics have the effect of tightening or accelerating the feedback loop between learning and achievement - rather than waiting for an uncertain payoff potentially years in the future, metrics can deliver reward on a schedule.
When you track metrics on a schedule, you may decrease the value of future rewards by eliminating the surprise (the "Wow!" factor) of suddenly realizing your progress. In a sense, accelerating the feedback loop by enjoying the the rewards of future progress today is similar to borrowing money - when you pay for something on your credit card, you consume part of the reward of future income today, in exchange for less consumption in the future.
Metrics are indirect indicators of progress. They are not the progress itself, but may be correlated with progress towards your end goal to a greater or lesser extent.
Assuming that you:
Then metrics can be used to show trends, infer acceleration towards your end goal or to diagnose a plateau.
However, it is well understood that metrics are also open to misinterpretation and abuse.
Surrogation describes the replacement of a meaningful end goal with some metric.
"An everyday example of surrogation is a manager tasked with increasing customer satisfaction who begins to believe that the customer satisfaction survey score actually is customer satisfaction." - Wikipedia
When the metric becomes the goal rather than a mere indicator, people adjust their behavior to optimize purely for that metric. When you optimize for metrics without pursuing some meaningful goal, the entire process becomes disconnected from reality. In learning with SRS, this manifests itself as an endless grind to beat your high score at the flashcard slot machine without it ever culminating in a payoff in the real world.
I argue that there are 3 metrics in Spaced Repetition Systems that people abuse by surrogating them in place of meaningful goals:
Heatmaps are essentially a crude measure of consistency. Consistency is important in Spaced Repetition Systems because items are spaced according to an algorithm that calculates the optimum time to review a piece of knowledge. If you aren't consistent, you won't review at the optimum time, reducing efficiency and memory retention.
It isn't actually the heatmap itself that is so negative. As mentioned above, consistency is important and in circumstances where the learner has some sort of meaningful goal, the heatmap may be a useful metric. Rather it is the toxic work for the sake of work culture it has spawned through social media that is worthy of contempt.
Heatmap posts on reddit and discord are not treated with the disdain they deserve. Not only are they low-effort garbage in terms of content quality, they create a culture that idolizes the "Grind is the Glory" mindset rather than the pursuit and achievement of intrinsically meaningful goals. How often is it that people make SRS progress posts describing how learning with a Spaced Repetition System contributed to them writing a great piece of research, starting a business or writing a book? Hardly ever. Instead we are bombarded with posts that are essentially along the lines of "Look at how great I am for persisting through an endless grind controlling a flashcard slot machine."
The abundance of these posts poisons the culture around learning with SRS. Those who fail to see flashcards as a means to an end rather than an end in itself post their heatmaps and streaks online, receiving reward / social status / upvotes from others who respect "the grind" rather than applications of learning in the real world. New users who don't know any better follow suit and the spiral continues.
Streaks are similar to heatmaps, but are more pernicious in the sense that they are poorer measurements of consistency, and punish users who obsess over them by resetting to zero in response to small lapses in consistency.
The combination of heatmaps and streaks turns learners into workers at the flashcard factory - the heatmap is the punch card and the streak looms over the learner like a constant threat of failure should you dare to take a day off.
The obsession with consistency in SRS is totally misguided - if you have an important application of the knowledge you have gained through SRS, such as a real life project, that requires you to focus 100% of your time on that, then isn't it rational to take a day or two off of flashcards, given that real life applications are the ultimate goal of learning?
The infamous Outstanding parameter becomes a form of religion. If it does not get down to 0+0, users feel like a failure. - Piotr Wozniak
The outstanding parameter in SuperMemo interests me because there is less of a culture of sharing streaks amongst the community. So there should at least be less social pressure to obsess over it. But users still regularly complain that they feel a "duty" to complete their outstanding queue. Users have a hard time "embracing overload" - despite the fact that SuperMemo comes with features like the priority system and auto postpone to deal with large workloads. Indeed, the idea that there will always be more to learn than you can possibly hope to finish learning in a lifetime has proven itself to be one of the most unintuitive ideas to accept amongst SuperMemo learners.
Perhaps the reason people fixate on these measures is that they haven't found something "in the real world" to apply the knowledge they are building in their SRS collection to. I do feel that this situation could be remedied with a "culture shift" in terms of the types of content that the largest SRS communities on social media value. I want to see write ups of people explaining how they used SRS to generate creative ideas for their startup, to produce groundbreaking research or to write books. Not more posts of metrics without discussion of real life applications.