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Moving Backwards Can Be The Beginning of Progress

February 19, 2013

You put things in your brain, you keep reviewing them. They stick in your brain. This is how we tend to think of learning.

While not in any way incorrect, viewing the learning process in such simple terms can be rather detrimental to your success when it comes to execution. That way lies frustration, boredom, time-waste, inefficiency and, in the worst case, outright failure.

Your brain, not learning.

The problem is something we all understand to some extent, whether intuitively, from experience, academically or a combination of the three. You can only learn so much. More especially, you can only learn so much at a time. None of us can put a precise figure on it, but we understand that our brains struggle to retain information the more quantity we throw in to it at once, and the more complexity the information in question has (which can really be regarded as more volume per unit, or even an unnecessary abstraction from information quantity). We’ve ALL experienced the late-night cram before an exam, drilling facts in to our brains until the mental exertion is almost manifest in physical symptoms, only to turn up 5 hours later to the test and remember nothing, or, best case scenario, promptly forget everything mere days, hours, or even minutes after its completion.

Having said all that, it is surprising how many, including myself, seem to believe that we can fight upstream against this fact, or rather (given this IS technically the case), how many, including myself, can often behave as if this seems a good idea!

Our brains are complex organs, very poorly understood, but one thing we can be sure of is that trying to cram too much information inna that big ol’ head of yours risks retaining less than if you’d taken but a measure of it. Compound that with our knowledge regarding the effects of stress on memory (hint: it doesn’t help), and fighting up the metaphorical stream becomes something of a fruitless, yet exhausting task. It was with a shard of ice-cold clarity that I reminded myself of this the previous week, flailing around, attempting in vain to commit Kanji to memory.

Now Kanji. What can I say about Kanji..? Well, there’s a lot of them. Thousands actually. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like Kanji. I really LOVE Kanji actually. I’m probably one of the few Japanese learners out there who not only regard Kanji as anything less than an abomination, but consider them my friend and ally.

My love of Kanji however, is not what I wish to talk about, so much as the labour of love, in which yours truly is currently engaged in. That is, actually learning them.

Sometimes, love wanes. Sometimes, waning love recovers. And so it was with my love for learning Kanji, a task I do genuinely enjoy (though not as much as I enjoy knowing them).

After a “small” (read “bigger than I’d like to admit”) hiatus from studying them, my Anki deck was starting to back up. It was starting to back up a lot. I had over 600 reviews that needed doing. Good God that’s a lot of Kanji. Well, I did what any gung-ho fool like myself would do. I decided I could knock them all down in a couple days and be back on track before I knew it.

I was not back on track, in fact, I have only just, over a month later, gotten back on track. It didn’t take me a month to get back, it took me a month to realise I needed to be sensible if I was ever going to do so. I had made the mistake of taking on far too much at once, and in doing so, had failed to manage much at all.

Every day, another 100 reviews, and every day, I failed miserably to recall or recognise any of the characters. It didn’t matter that I was relearning 100 a day, because I wasn’t even recalling 10 consistently.

Finally, as if in some admission of defeat, I suspended all “Due” cards in my deck, and unsuspended them at a rate of 50 every two days. This allowed Anki to show me cards it felt I needed to review the very next day, the actual next day. Rather than these cards queuing up behind another 500, and not making it back to me within the week.

Once I did this, the insurmountable task which has hounded me for over a month, with no progress whatsoever, was conquered in under two weeks. Two, comfortable, leisurely, confident weeks. Doing half the work had gotten me a better result, faster!

I had learned a good lesson, an invaluable lesson, an invaluable lesson too often forgotten. Sometimes a step back, perhaps many, is the first step forward.

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