Avoid enumerations

In the previous article in this series, we looked at why sets are damaging to learning and what to do about them. The first priority is to avoid sets completely, but when that’s not possible, the next best thing is to turn a set into an enumeration. This is Rule #10 in the 20 Rules for Formulating Knowledge.

An enumeration is just a set with a specific order.

As a quick example, all English speakers are familiar with a classic enumeration: the alphabet. You can see that remembering something like this is difficult from the fact that we teach children a special song to help them recall it. For a lot of people, it’s difficult to recall smaller parts of the sequence without going through the whole song.

That illustrates one problem with sets and enumerations: they make it very difficult to internalise information in an authentic way, instead forcing you to use a crutch, even after years of repetition.

With a set you’ve got little chance of recalling all the items (imagine trying to list all elements of the alphabet in random order), but with an enumeration you’ve got some means to do it.

Turning a set into an enumeration

It’s rare that something will prevent you from turning a set into an enumeration. Usually, a specific order is as good as any order, so you can go ahead and give the items in the set a consistent sequence. Now you’ve got an enumeration.

The situation might be that you’re required to memorise a set of vocabulary for a test. This is unfortunate, but sometimes you’ve got no choice. In this case, giving the vocabulary items a specific order will let you get started on remembering them.

Chinese characters are enumerations

The best example of enumerations in learning Chinese is the individual components of each Chinese character. What’s great about this is that there’s a standard sequence for every character which follows general rules. This is a great help in remembering them, for a few reasons:

  • The enumeration has been considered for you and you can look it up in multiple places (often with an animation).
  • The enumeration is standard, so you’re sharing a learning experience with millions of people. This results in re-usable learning materials.
  • The sequence follows general rules, so the more hanzi you learn, the easier it becomes to acquire new ones due to the accumulated sense of what is right for a character.

Stroke order is worth paying attention to – it’s there for a reason.

Mnemonic techniques for enumerations

You can apply all the usual mnemonic techniques to enumerations. Here are some ideas to get started with:

  • A miniature story or phrase that includes each part of the enumeration.
  • A sentence that references each item by its first letter.
  • A pronounceable acronym that references each item.
  • A memory palace that takes you through the enumeration.

Specifically for Chinese characters, the approach I’d recommend is looking up and learning the component parts and assinging a mental image to each. You can then combine those with the stroke order to build up a memorable phrase for the whole thing. This approach is covered in more details in the series on learning to write Chinese characters.

One other approach you can take with enumerations is to use menmonics for the jump from one item to another. Rather than having a mnemonic for the items in order, you can focus on being able to recall one item after another. This is useful when only certain parts of the sequence are causing trouble.

Wrap up

We’ve now looked at sets and enumerations and how can make them less of an obstacle to your long term learning. Remember that the best approach is to avoid them altogether, but where that’s not possible, you’ve got some handy options to deal with them.

Series: Twenty rules for learning

  1. Understand before you learn
  2. Learn before you memorise
  3. Build upon the basics
  4. The minimum information principle
  5. Cloze deletion for learning Chinese
  6. Use imagery to learn Chinese
  7. Use mnemonics
  8. Graphical deletion and audio deletion for learning Chinese
  9. Avoid sets
  10. Avoid enumerations (this article)
  11. Interference when learning Chinese
  12. 5 ways to optimise your Chinese flashcards
  13. Refer to other memories
  14. Personalise your Chinese learning
  15. Using emotional states to remember Chinese
  16. The importance of context in Chinese flashcards
  17. Why redundancy is good for language learning

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