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THE PLATEAU OF DESPOND






From: How to Use Your Mind

In our investigation of the psychology of study we have so far directed
our attention chiefly toward the subjective side of the question,
seeking to discover the _contents_ of mind during study. We shall now
take an objective view of study, examining not the contents of mind nor
methods of study, but the objective results of study. In doing this, we
choose certain units of measurement, the number of minutes required for
learning a given amount or the amount learned in a stated period of
time. We may do this for the learning of any material, whether it be
Greek verbs or typewriting. All that is necessary is to decide upon
some method by which progress can be noted and expressed in numerical
units. This, you will observe, constitutes a statistical approach to
the processes of study, such as is employed in science; and just as the
statistical method has been useful in science, so it may be of value in
education, and by means of statistical investigations of learning we
may hope to discover some of the factors operative in good learning.

Progress in learning is best observable when we represent our
measurements graphically, when they take the form of a curve, variously
called "the curve of efficiency," "practice curve," "learning curve."
We shall take a sample curve for the basis of our discussion, showing
the progress of a beginner in the Russian language for sixty-five days
(indicated in the figure by horizontal divisions). The student studied
industriously for thirty minutes each day and then translated as
rapidly as possible for fifteen minutes, the number of words translated
being represented by the vertical spaces on the chart. Thus, on the
tenth day, twenty-five words were translated, on the twentieth day,
forty-five words.

[Illustration (graph): STUDY OF RUSSIAN]

In making an analysis of this typical curve, we note immediately an
exceeding irregularity. At one time there is extraordinary
improvement, but a later measurement registers pronounced loss. This
irregularity is very common in learning. Some days we do a great amount
of work and do it well, but perhaps the very next day shows marked
diminution in our work.

The second characteristic we note is that there is extremely rapid
progress at the beginning, the curve slanting up quite sharply. This is
common in learning, and may be accounted for in several ways. In the
first place, the easiest things come first. For example, when you are
beginning the study of German, you are given mostly monosyllabic words
to learn. These are easily remembered, hence progress is rapid. A
second reason is that at the beginning there are many different
respects in which progress can be made. For example, the beginner in
German must learn nouns, case endings, declension of adjectives, days
of the week; in short, a vast number of new things all at once. At a
later period however, the number of new things to be learned is much
smaller and improvement cannot be so rapid. A third reason why learning
proceeds more rapidly at first is that the interest is greater at this
time. You have doubtless many times experienced this fact, and you know
that when a thing has the interest of novelty you work harder upon it.

If you will examine the learning curve closely, you will note that
after the initial spurt, there is a slowing up. The curve at this point
resembles a plateau and indicates cessation of progress if not
retrogression. This period of no progress is regarded as a
characteristic of the learning curve and is a time of great
discouragement to the conscientious student, so distressing that we may
designate it "the plateau of despond." Most people describe it as a
time when they feel unable to learn more about a subject; the mind
seems to be sated; new ideas cannot be assimilated, and old ones seem
to be forgotten. The plateau may extend for a long or a short time,
depending upon the nature of the subject-matter and the length of time
over which the learning extends. In the case of professional training,
it may extend over a year or more. In the case of growing children in
school, it sometimes happens that an entire year elapses during which
the learning of an apparently bright student is retarded. In a course
of study in high school or college, it may come on about the third week
and extend a month or more. Something akin to the plateau may come in
the course of a day, when we realize that our efficiency is greatly
diminished and we seem, for an hour or more, to make no progress.

Inasmuch as the plateau is such a common occurrence in human activity,
we should analyze it and see what factors operate to influence it. It
is interesting to note that the plateau generally occurs just before an
abrupt rise in efficiency. This is significant, for it may mean that
the plateau is necessary in learning, especially just before reaching
the really advanced stages of proficiency. Accordingly, when you are
experiencing a plateau in the mastery of some accomplishment, you may
perhaps derive some comfort from the prospect of an approaching rise in
efficiency. On the theory that it is a necessary part of learning, it
has been regarded as a resting place. We are so constituted by nature
that we cannot run on indefinitely; nature sometimes must call a halt.
Consequently, the plateau may be a warning that we cannot learn more
for the present and that the proper remedy is to refrain for a little
while from further efforts in that line. We have possible justification
for this interpretation when we reflect that a vacation does us much
good, and though we begin it feeling stale, we end it feeling much
fresher and more efficient.

But to stop work temporarily is not the only way to meet a plateau, and
fatigue or ennui is probably not the sole or most compelling
explanation. It may be that we should not regard the objective results
as the true measure of learning; perhaps learning is going on even
though the results are not apparent. We discovered something in the
nature of unconscious learning in our discussion of memory, and it may
be that a period of little objective progress marks a period of active
unconscious learning.

Another meaning which the plateau may have is simply to mark places of
greater difficulty. As already remarked, the early period is a stage of
comparative ease, but as the work becomes more difficult, progress is
slower. It is also quite likely that the plateau may indicate that some
of the factors operative at the start are operative no longer. Thus,
although the learning was rapid at the beginning because the material
learned at that time was easy, the plateau may come because the things
to be learned have become difficult. Or, whereas the beginning was
attacked with considerable interest, the plateau may mean that the
interest is dying down, and that less effort is being exerted.

If these theories are the true explanation of the plateau, we see that
it is not to be regarded as a time of reduction in learning, to be
contemplated with despair. The appropriate attitude may be one of
resignation, with the determination to make it as slightly disturbing
as possible. But though the reasons just described may have something
to do with the production of the plateau, as yet we have no evidence
that the plateau cannot be dispensed with. It is practically certain
that the plateau is not caused entirely by necessity for rest or
unconscious learning. It frequently is due, we must regretfully admit,
to poor early preparation. If at the beginning of a period of learning
an insecure foundation is laid, it cannot be expected to support the
burden of more difficult subject-matter.

We have enumerated a number of the explanations that have been advanced
to account for the plateau, and have seen that it may have several
causes, among which are necessity for rest, increased difficulty of
subject-matter, loss of interest and insufficient preparation. In
trying to eliminate the plateau, our remedy should be adapted to the
cause. In recognition of the fact that learning proceeds irregularly,
we see that it is rational to expect the amount of effort to be exerted
throughout a period of learning, to vary. It will vary partly with the
difficulty of subject-matter and partly with fluctuations in bodily and
mental efficiency which are bound to occur from day to day. Since this
irregularity is bound to occur, you may well make your effort vary from
one extreme to the other. At times, perhaps your most profitable move
may be to take a complete vacation. The vacation might cover several
weeks, a week-end, or if the plateau is merely a low period in the
day's work, then ten minutes may suffice for a vacation. As an adjunct
to such rest periods, some form of recreation should usually be
planned, for the essential thing is to permit the mind to rest from the
tiresome activity.

If your plateau represents greater difficulty of subject-matter and
loss of interest, your duty is plainly to work harder. In exerting more
effort, make some changes in your methods of study. For example, if you
have been accustomed to study a certain subject by silent reading,
begin to read your lessons aloud. Change your method of taking notes,
or change the hour of day in which you prepare your lesson. In short,
try any of the methods described in this book, and use your own
ingenuity, and the change in method may overcome the plateau.

If a plateau is due to our last-mentioned cause, insufficient
preparation, the remedy must be drastic. To make new resolutions and to
put forth additional effort is not enough; you must go back and relay
the foundation. Make a thorough review of the work which you covered
slightingly, making sure that every step is clear. This process was
described in an earlier chapter as the clarification of ideas and is
absolutely essential in building up a structure of knowledge that will
stand. Indeed, as you take various courses you will find that your
study will be much improved by periodical reviews. The benefits cannot
all be enumerated here, but we may reasonably claim that a review will
be very likely to remove a plateau, and used with the other remedies
herein suggested, will help you to rid yourself of one of the most
discouraging features of student life.

READING AND EXERCISE

Reading: Swift (20) chapter IV.

Exercise I. Describe one or more plateaus that you have observed in
your own experience. What do you regard as the causes?





Next: MENTAL SECONDWIND

Previous: HOW TO BECOME INTERESTED IN A SUBJECT



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