Making mistakes and memorizing faster

Ok so I’m not sure where to post that, but I’ve noticed something. I don’t know if it’s just me, or if it’s something everybody experiences, but I’ve tested learning new kanji, thanks to Wanikani, by, on one hand, always checking the answer first and then typing it, and on the other hand, allowing myself to make mistakes if I didn’t remember correctly.

I thought, at first, that making mistakes would slow me down, because of how the system is thought and built, but I realized that, even after “guru-ing” some kanji and vocabulary, I would still hesitate for a few seconds, even several tens, if I did it this way.

However, every time I got an answer wrong, be it the reading or the meaning, it almost immediately got burned in my mind, and I’m wondering if there’s a reason for that? Why is it that whenever I check the answer before answering, I can’t seem to retain the information, at least not without looking it up several times, but as soon as I answer it wrong, I almost never forget it later?

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Well that’s the theory of SRS. You don’t “waste” any time studying until the evidence shows you need to. Volume over depth. If you’re passing it after only having seen it once, why would you spend any time on that one? You could be learning a new one instead.

For that to work though, you have to treat the failure AS study. Like you said, when you fail it, stop, re-read the mnemonic, practice it in your head a few times, THEN move on. if you STILL keep failing it, then you know you have to do something special for that one.

But human nature; people can’t stand to fail things so they study beforehand. Plus with the gamification element of the gated level-ups, nobody wants to delay their level-up “win” with a failure.


Negative feedback makes a larger impression on the human mind than positive feedback. While this is empirical, I would imagine items that you get wrong once or twice stay memorized for longer than items you get right all the time, other than particularly hard-to-stick items aka leeches.

This is why not using re-dos (unless it was a typo or just a lack of synonyms available) or looking it up/studying upfront for reviews is better, not only because you’d be messing up with the SRS, but also because negative feedback helps! And the SRS isn’t a test that you need to ace, you can get everything right and nothing happens. When a lot of language learning comes by tests that you need to get right or you’ll fail, this is a very underrated feature that should be used to its fullest, imo.


Yeah that was basically the conclusion I came to. It’s almost as if being wrong is a much more… uncomfortable thing for the brain, so much so that it automatically burns the knowledge so as not to be wrong anymore, if that makes sense.


That’s the thing though: whenever I “cheat”, as in, I verify the answer before answering, I retain almost nothing, with a few exceptions. But the moment I get the red band of wrongness, as I like to call it, I just need to look the reading and the meaning once, and it’s burned in my memory. I don’t need to work hard to remember it.

That’s what I find fascinating, the fact that, for me at least, and possibly others, whenever I answer wrong, I then retain the information much more easily than if I look it up before. If that makes sense? And ultimately, I learn faster and, therefore, go through the levels faster because of it.

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Yeah, I don’t know lol. I’ve noticed the same thing now that you mention it. I can guess why, but I’m no expert. Maybe when you PRE-study, you subconsciously aren’t sure you really need to be doing this and don’t concentrate. Kind of half-ass read it. Whereas after you’ve failed it, you’re trying not to fail it again, which you know WILL happen unless you do something. Interesting question.

Plus, the experience of failure itself is memorable, especially if it pisses you off (or generates another strong emotion). I know once I posted in the forum a rant about an item that was especially frustrating for me, and guess what? Never missed it again. Because every time it came up, I remembered making that post (which contained the right answer). Memory is weird.


Did you try to remember it from long term memory before looking it up? Or did you just look it up and type it in? The latter being ineffective would totally make sense, but the former would be much more unexpected and interesting

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The mind is a wonderful, remarkable thing, don’t you think?


Look it up and type it in. But it doesn’t change the fact that if I get it wrong, I just look it up once and I remember it. The fact that I was wrong makes it easier to remember it. That’s what I find fascinating about the whole thing :slight_smile:

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Yes, my mind likes flattering itself :laughing:

This may be an unusual experience, I definitely get the same items wrong multiple times pretty often

In short it’s the whole “Try, fail, try again” thing. Or as Yoda would put it, do, or do not, there is no try.

Yeah it’s like, I’m so miffed for having made a mistake and wasting time. But ironically, I’d rather now make mistakes if I can’t remember something, rather than cheat the system, since it’s clearly counterproductive.

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This is actually key to learning, in general, in many theories. (I liken it to placing your hand on a hot stove. You’re unlikely to do it again.)

Relatively related reflections:

I always find it fascinating that for many language learners, a fear of failure or feeling stupid prevents them from practicing or asking questions. Yet, making mistakes is an excellent way to learn, as is asking questions.

:sweat_smile: I’m actually a bit of a hypocrite writing this, though. It took me a while to recognize this, and I’m only now starting to allow myself these feelings. Lol.

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It doesn’t help that a lot of time asking questions is viewed as an annoyance by class and teacher, and can make you be seen as stupid or derailing. A lot of time its not only fear of failure, but a fear of being judged.

One thing I learned at my university is that asking questions is good and doesn’t make you less smart, and you should not feel annoyed about people asking questions or see them as worse than you either


I had both kind of teacher. The one who treat any question as if it was the stupidest shit he heard, and the one who always said - and lived by his words - that the stupid person is the one who doesn’t ask question and keep himself in ignorance.


I once had a boss who said that „learning is horrible“ (precisely because of that uncomfortable realization that I did not know something or thought I knew it but didn’t) and that „we only learn through mistakes“ (because of the strong impact the failure makes). While I don’t really agree with the „only“ part, I do see his point.

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That’s precisely my feeling. Obviously, I don’t only retain information when I’m wrong the first time (in fact, there are many kanji and vocabulary that I’ve memorized without ever getting them wrong even without “cheating”), but if I find one complicated to remember, I notice that getting it wrong helps me memorize it much faster and much more easily.


So as others have said, negative reinforcement works. Think of it this way, the brain likes to be efficient. If you look up things before entering them, your brain will realize that it doesn’t need to put effort into recall, because it get the reward (question correct) either way. But if you try and get it wrong, the brain learns that it needs that information to get the reward.

Biologically, when a set of neurons are activated together, the connection between them is strengthened. If they’re not activated, over time, the connections weaken. This is how memories form and are forgotten. If you look up stuff, the pathways are only being exercised weakly through seeing the information, so they don’t get strengthened much, if at all. If you try to remember something, and can’t, that’s still hitting those paths, to some extent. So it’s more exercise for the brain. I also think (but have no evidence) that after a failure of recall that seeing the information again will stimulate the brain more than just seeing the information without the effort to recall first. Ie, that the paths are primed for learning by the failure just prior.

So yeah, it’s a real phenomenon. And one the SRS is good at exploiting.


Ah that makes so much sense, thank you for your explanation!

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