Measurable progress is a double-edged sword

It seems to me that most people like to feel that they gradually improve and become better at what they’re doing. This is partly why learning is fun in the beginning when every step forward is noticeable, but it’s also why intermediate learners often feel frustrated and complain that it feels that their learning has plateaued.

Actually, they’re still learning, it’s just that the new things they learn don’t make a difference big enough to notice. If a drop of water falls in a dry bucket, you can see the effects. If it falls in a bucket that is half-full, there’s no noticeable difference. Just a drop in the bucket.

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Measurable progress is awesome…

Before we turn to Chinese in particular, I’d like to share with you my personal theory of measurable progress. It started with this question: Why is it that so many people like going to the gym these days? I like body-weight exercises myself (I practice gymnastics) and these can be done for free at home, so why pay money and spend extra time going to the gym?

I realise that the answer to this question is complex and involves many factors, but I think that measurable progress is a key component. In a gym, each movement can be measured very exactly. We repeat more or less the same routines every time and therefore we can see that, yes, I have added so and so many reps or so and so many kilograms since last month. This makes us motivated to keep going, even though we might not feel or see the difference in our everyday lives. The fact that the progress is measurable makes us move forward.

…but it has some serious drawbacks

The gym of language learning is spaced repetition software and other fairly mechanical ways of practising that give us detailed feedback on what we do. Why is it that some people use SRS more than they actually read or listen to Chinese directly? Why is it that some regard SRS as a comprehensive language learning strategy, when in fact it’s just a tool among many?

I think it’s because it offers us proof of progress. We can prove to ourselves that we are learning, we can show others what we have accomplished, even if we ourselves don’t really feel that much of a difference. I have at least learnt 20 new words today. I know 100 more characters than last month.

The problem is that these programs were never meant to supplant reading and listening. They are useful tools that can help us boost vocabulary and reinforce certain other areas, but they are not substitutes for actually using the language, either in written or spoken form.

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Using only spaced repetition software would be like doing a few exercises in the gym and then expect to win a multi-sport event in the Olympics.

Still, most professional athletes use a gym and I think SRS has a lot to offer to language learners of all kinds, so don’t read this article as recommendation to stop using SRS. However, if SRS is your main (or perhaps only) window to the language you’re learning, you’re doing something seriously wrong.

How to measure progress without being trapped in the gym

As I have written in another article, I think than benchmarking is the way out of the dire straits. Benchmarking offers you a way to measure progress while exposing yourself to the language in a healthy way. In case you’re not familiar with benchmarking in the sense that I use the word here, it simply means using various methods to record progress and compare with similar measurements in the future to highlight the fact that you are actually learning something, even if it doesn’t feel like that (or, in case you actually don’t improve, it’s a good way of telling you that you need to change your method).

There are many ways of benchmarking and which one you use depends on what you want to benchmark (see the above article for more specific guidelines). I’d also like to recommend this article about approaches to reading in Chinese, especially the part about benchmarking.

Turn a potential enemy into a powerful ally

Finally, if you feel guilty of exaggerated SRS use, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. Perhaps the reason you use SRS so much is that you really care about being able to feel that you’re truly learning something. This need can be turned to your advantage. Measurable progress might be your enemy if you allow yourself to be trapped, but it can also prove to be a powerful ally if you use it wisely.

More about spaced repetition software on Hacking Chinese

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The importance of counting what counts

Have you ever felt that your teacher is correcting the wrong things or that she says that one thing is all-important but then ignores that when setting grades anyway? Have you tried measuring your own progress and found that it’s not easy to quantify language learning?

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We humans seem to like counting things, we like to measure ourselves and our surroundings. Counting language learning is about quantifying something which can’t be easily quantified, so in this case counting by necessity equals simplification. This process is not simple and can be done in many ways. In this article, I’m going to argue that the way in which we count learning has huge impact on the way we learn. We will look at two examples: formal grades and self-assessed studying and see that even if they are both meant to be measurements, they have significant influence on the way we study.

Formal grades

Everybody knows that the way grades are set determines how students approach the subject being taught. This is more true for compulsory education than it is for grown-ups attending courses in their spare time, but it’s still a widely known phenomenon. Language learning consists of many different skills, but it’s seldom the case that all these cases are being formally graded, leading to some parts being more emphasised than others.

The problem is of course that humans are lazy (or smart) and only do what is required of them. Even diligent students (a category people tend to place me in, for instance) look closely at what is required. Perhaps they do more than that, but if they care at all about grades, they are still affected by which grading criteria are being used.

Let’s look at two cases:

  • Neglect is about overlooking an aspect of language learning. It might be intentionally, because of a lack of resources or because of ignorance. For instance, I took an advanced course in Chinese last year which contained no graded spoken element whatsoever. Sure, you needed to be able to communicate, but formal grades were still only based on written exams. Likewise, I’ve attended courses where you don’t need to write characters on the exams (perhaps you’re allowed to type or there are multi-choice questions).
  • Emphasis means the opposite of neglect, i.e. placing more focus on one skill rather than another. As is the case for neglect, this might be because of a number of different reasons. For example, a teacher or education system might strongly emphasise one aspect of language learning. I know teachers who are very strict with character writing and who deducts points for minor writing mistakes, even for beginners.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not saying that either neglect or emphasis is inherently good or bad, but we need to acknowledge that they influence the way people learn. In the first case, people are less likely to learn characters or focus on speaking and in the second case, students will probably spend lots of time handwriting characters.

Intention is great, ignorance catastrophic

If this is what the teacher wants, this is perfect. If not, it’s catastrophic. In other words, if neglect or emphasis done intentionally by a teacher, we can call her “competent”, but if it’s done unintentionally, I would say the she’s a bad teacher. I’ve found that many teachers aren’t fully aware of the impact their choice of examination method has on the students. If a teacher says that communication is priority number one and then deducts many points because of bad handwriting, this teacher isn’t aware that there is a discrepancy between what she says and what she does. The students will heed the latter, not the former.

  • As teachers, we need to make very sure that we are measuring what we think is important and that we communicate this to the students.
  • As students, we need to be aware of that not all teachers do this. In short, we need to take responsibility ourselves and make sure we learn what we need to achieve our goals.

Self-assessed learning

From time to time, I’ve had some extra time on my hands and have devised various plans to study Chinese more efficiently. Even though I realise that this might not be the case for everyone, I think that most people benefit from some kind of goal to strive towards, like learning X characters, reading Y pages or writing Z articles. Setting goals isn’t easy (see my article series about goal management), but as if the basic problems weren’t enough, measuring itself also causes problems.

If we’re going to measure our progress, we need to make sure that we measure every area in which we want to make progress, because otherwise we will neglect the areas we aren’t counting and emphasise those that count.

A personal example of self-assessment

For instance, I’m taking fewer credits than usual this semester and have a fairly ambitious plan to learn more Chinese. I devised a system for keeping track of how much I read, wrote, listened and so on. It worked very well, except that I had neglected to include some areas that I thought were important, such as writing articles here on Hacking Chinese or reading articles and books about Chinese or language learning in general that weren’t in Chinese. Because I didn’t count this as studying, I didn’t include it in my overall count. Result? I stopped spending time writing and researching articles. I read fewer and fewer books I knew I would benefit from reading.

This is an example of neglect. I didn’t count some aspects that really counts (or that at least were as important as what I counted). After adjusting the measuring system a bit, things stabilised and I now have a fairly robust method which takes all aspects into consideration (and if I find something which is related to Chinese, but doesn’t count, I will change the system).

Counting what counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

– Albert Einstein

This quote from Einstein really captures it pretty well, even though he didn’t have language learning in mind. Just because something is counted (measured by grades or when you assess your own progress) doesn’t mean it’s truly important. Likewise, some things that actually count can’t be quantified. This is because measuring is a simplification and some things will inevitably be lost in that simplification.

Being aware of this doesn’t make the problem go away, but it certainly makes it less serious.