a) Last term we went through the Katakana symbols in class, but we didn't really do much with them after that, and since most of us were still getting to grips with Hiragana, the sensei never really expected us to know Katakana. So, it got put onto my "to do" list, and it's stayed there for a bit longer than it should. When I started this term, I realised that I really ought to know it by now, and when we were going round the class reading out sentences from the textbook in turn I had to skip over a couple of words and just say "I'm sorry, I can't read the Katakana". Somewhere along the line, it changed from being "something I haven't done yet" (in the same way that I've never tried to learn the Cyrillic alphabet) to "something that I can't do, and is therefore really difficult".
b) At the risk of boasting, I've found my Kana Test application extremely useful. (I've made some changes since I released the last version, so I'll update the copy on the website soon.) There's a scene in Terminator 2 where Sarah Connor realises that the machine may actually be the perfect father for her son. I don't have the exact quote to hand, but it's something like "He would always be patient, and never lose his temper." In this context, I just need to keep practicing the symbols over and over again until I get them right, and the program is happy for me to do that - it will keep prompting me for as long as I like, and it won't criticise me for getting any wrong answers. It tells me which answers were correct/incorrect, and gives me a score at the end of each test, but there's no sense that it's judging me. I want to improve the application further (e.g. to handle times/numbers/vocab lists), but there's always a tradeoff between working on the tool and actually improving my own language skills.
Edit: It also helps to ignore any resemblance between Hiragana and Katakana symbols; in some cases that means that they represent the same syllable and in other cases it doesn't, so you're best off treating them as completely independent.
Anyway, I'm now off to watch today's Enterprise episode, then I'll try the test again, and see whether it's all sunk into my long term memory properly.