Overwatering memories

I want to praise myself! But that’s not easy when I have forgotten every third word pretty much every time. Time to bring a bucket!

Nearly two weeks ago, I wrote in praise of Memrise, a website that teaches (mostly vocabulary) by a combination of mnemonics and spaced repetition. Since then, I have discovered a problem with it. Not a showstopper, but an irritation. Luckily, there is a built-in solution.

The problem is that the system is way too optimistic about my ability to remember the words. Actually it is pretty good when it comes to very simple pieces of knowledge, such as the katakana (a Japanese syllable script I have not made the effort to try to learn before). But for more complex information such as Japanese words, I have frequently forgotten them by the time the next repetition comes around. This is particularly bad with longer words. The website uses the same interval by default for single syllables and long words, but my fail rate is much higher for the longer words.

The goal is a 90% memory retention, but my average sessions tend to yield 60-70%, depending on the mix of words. That is not optimal – the perfect time to repeat a fact is the moment it is about to be forgotten. You should ideally have to think for a moment before recalling it; having it at the tip of your tongue but not getting at it is also acceptable. Remembering without effort is less effective, and having to re-learn it even less so. The closer you get to just barely remembering, the better.

The second effect of this, apart from less than ideal learning, is that it is a bit demoralizing. Failing a third of the time feels like failing a lot, even though technically I remember most of the phrases. Failure has a stronger emotional impact in the short run, although psychologists say that we remember our successes better in the long run.

Strangely the Memrise website comes with a tool that fixes this, but subtly discourages its use. The tool is called “overwatering”. The very name is a discouragement: If you overwater your plants in real life, they will sicken and wilt eventually, just not as quickly as if you forget to water them in the first place. To further discourage its casual use, the “overwater” button is white, the same color as the background. (The “water” and “harvest” buttons are in bright attractive colors when they appear at all.)

But the interesting part is that when I overwater, I get pretty close to the target rate, and also have a much more positive feeling. Yes, the short words are now too easy, but correspondingly I spend very little time on them, just write them and press enter to get to the next. The easy words don’t get much attention, as well they shouldn’t. According to the site forum, overwatering does not directly affect the timers. So you won’t get a longer pause if you get a word right during overwatering. This fits with my experience – new words to water appear fairly soon after an overwatering session, and may randomly include words from that session. It seems to be a stand-alone feature, more or less.

I am a bit baffled by the choice to deflect attention from the overwater tool, and the lack of explanation of it anywhere on the site. Only in fragments of discussions on the forum do I get some idea as to why it was included (by very vocal demand, it seems) and the almost fanatical disagreement between its supporters and opponents. I am surprised: Everything I have read about long-term learning implies that memory retrieval fades quickly once you pass the threshold where you can no longer recall it at will, even with effort.


One possibility is that the average user of Memrise learns much more easily than I do. That is certainly not beyond imagining: I am almost 54 years old at this time, while college students are probably the most likely to use a site like this. The ability to learn random data tends to drop off over time, whereas the ability to learn by association remains high until dementia sets in. Hopefully I am not quite there yet, although I feel painfully incompetent at work as well. (Then again, judging from the speed at which our pool of cases is solved, many of us are probably like that. I have no idea whether the others actually feel it though.)

Anyway, if college students remember 90% of the phrases through the ordinary watering process, they will not feel any need to press the white button. So that is one possibility. But I don’t have that luxury. If I want to actually learn enough Japanese to read Japanese books one day, I have to forge on. Even if it means overwatering, by the standards of other people.

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