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Gap-filling items (cards) in SRS

Q
Information is available ____ the push of a button.
A
Information is available at the push of a button.
On Antimoon, we use the SuperMemo terminology. A Q&A pair is called an item. A collection of items is called a... collection. In Anki, an item is called a card and a collection is called a deck.

Usually, we use gap-filling items to learn grammar. The question field contains an English sentence with a gap (which looks like this: ____). The answer field contains the full sentence. There is no gap — it is filled with the missing word or phrase.

You can also use gap-filling items to learn words: The sentence in the question field can have a gap in place of the word which you want to memorize. The answer field can contain the full sentence, a definition of the missing word, and its pronunciation.

Examples

Q
His card preceded him ______ a few seconds and then he entered himself.
A
His card preceded him by a few seconds and then he entered himself.
Q
Don't try to shift the blame ____ me!
A
Don't try to shift the blame onto me!
Q
We are indebted ___ you for your help.
A
We are indebted to you for your help.
Q
If anyone calls, tell ____ I can't come to the phone.
A
If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone.
Q
If we (want to) get there by lunchtime we had better hurry.

{2}
A
If we are to get there by lunchtime we had better hurry.
If we are going to get there by lunchtime we had better hurry.
Q
If he had run a bit faster, he (would have been able to win).
A
If he had run a bit faster, he could've won.

In the above two items, we didn’t use an “empty gap” (like this one: ____). Instead, we put a phrase in parentheses in the gap (“want to” and “would have been able to win”). The phrase is like a definition. It shows the meaning of the word which you have to put in the gap.

In the first item, “{2}” means that you have to give two answers.

Q
I know too little Dutch to (understand) what they were talking about.
A
I know too little Dutch to have understood what they were talking about.
Q
Before we (be) there a week we (spend) all our money.
A
Before we had been there a week we had spent all our money.

In these two items, we used gaps with words in parentheses (understand, be, and spend). The words are verbs. You have to put the verbs into the correct grammatical form.

Q
Chain-smokers often attempt to stop smoking ___ cigarette after cigarette.
A
Chain-smokers often attempt to stop smoking cigarette after cigarette.
Q
He was elected ___ President in 1879.
A
He was elected President in 1879.

In these two items, what word goes in the gap? No word. These items teach you that, for example, “He was elected a President” and “He was elected the President” are incorrect sentences.

Q
I could tell that my opponent hardly understood what was going on. We played only 15 moves and I already knew that the game was in _____.
A
...the game was in the bag.

When you say that the game is in the bag, you are certain that you will win.

Here, a gap-filling item is used for learning vocabulary (the phrase in the bag). A definition of in the bag is given in the answer field.

How to repeat

  1. Read the sentence in the question field.
  2. Say or think the word which fits in the gap.
  3. Read the full sentence in the answer field carefully.
  4. Choose a grade.

What to do when you cannot remember the correct answer?

Suppose you have difficulty remembering the correct answer to the following grammatical items:

Q
I haven’t had a good burrito since I ___ to Europe. (move)
A
I haven’t had a good burrito since I moved to Europe.
Q
We drove ___ the desert. (across/through)
A
We drove across the desert.

You could help yourself out by memorizing a grammar rule (“we use the simple past in a since-clause that refers to a point in time”, “we use across if we’re on something and through if we’re surrounded”), but I wouldn’t recommend that as your first solution. Instead, I would suggest memorizing the whole phrase: since I moved to Europe and drive across the desert (just repeat it to yourself several times). This is for several reasons:

  1. An example phrase will often stick in your memory more easily than a grammar rule.
  2. Memorizing an example phrase is closer to natural, input-based learning than memorizing a grammar rule, and so we can expect it will produce intuitive, native-like knowledge more quickly (grammar rules can lead to intuitive knowledge, but only if you apply them many times in your own sentences – the process can take a long time).
  3. Applying grammar rules when writing or speaking slows you down because it requires conscious thought – before you can use a rule, you always have to consider whether the conditions specified in the rule are met (is this a since-clause that refers to a point in time? are we talking about movement on something?).

Of course, you’ll need to be flexible – sometimes it may be necessary to memorize some rules to answer your SRS items correctly. I have certainly used rules occasionally to deal with troublesome gap-filling items. Sometimes the underlying grammar is so subtle that it cannot be acquired with one or two examples, but can be described with one apt rule. For example, consider these two examples:

  • They serve their lunches with good wine.
  • Can you recommend a good wine for lunch?

In the first example, wine is uncountable; in the second, it’s countable. Having these two examples in your SRS may not be enough to master the countability of wine. Your brain may not figure out the correct rule, which is that wine is countable only when the meaning is “type of wine”. Instead, it might make up some simpler, incorrect rule, such as “wine is countable only after recommend”. Learning the correct rule might take more than two example sentences.

In situations like this, grammar rules start to look more attractive because it may be easier to remember a single rule than the answers to several SRS items. However, grammar rules still lose points on account of reasons 2 and 3 above: they slow you down and they’re a type of knowledge that doesn’t translate to native-like skills very easily.

When to use

Gap-filling items are a good way to improve your knowledge of grammar (tenses, prepositions). Their biggest disadvantage is that they are difficult to create correctly, especially when you are a beginner. You can add a sentence from a dictionary or a book (e.g. He’s an expert in pollution), but it is always possible that there are other correct answers (e.g. expert on).