Don’t Panic!! Study tips for the overwhelmed(with apologies to Douglas Adams)

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All of us, whether  neophytes or seasoned experts in IT, are aware that study is a key component of keeping abreast of change. The road to certification is a long and arduous one. The volumes of information that we have to digest, assimilate and regurgitate at exam time, is enough to make the most hearty of us pause for breath. I have noticed in some of the posts that people are making comments about the effort required in studying for the certification exams.

So, I thought I would write a post detailing some of the techniques that have served me well through two degrees (one in science, the other in nursing) and a Grad Dip in medical science. This post is aimed at those that are breaking into the IT field and arn’t really working with this stuff day in and day out. It also only deals with coping with learning theory. No techniques for learning practical skills are discussed.

Step 1 Know Thy Self!

According to the little I know of learning theory, when it comes to how we learn, there is a dividing line between those that are more visual learners(pictures, diagrams etc)  and those that get more out of an auditory format(lectures and recordings). If you know the type of learner you are, this goes a long way to easing the load of study as you can chose a technique that gives you better retention.

If you are not sure what type you are, do a little experiment with two different techniques and see which one seems to give you better retention.  The key here is experimentation and finding a best fit. If you find that after a while that no one techniques is better,  just choose one that seems to be the most efficient. As an example, when I was going through this in my first degree, I had a friend who’s sister swore by listening to her lectures through her earphones before she went  to sleep, and recording herself reading aloud from a text.  I tried this and it drove me nuts!

So,  without a doubt, I am a visual learner. This means that  most of the techniques that follow have a emphasis on formatting the information into visual medium, but I will try and include suggestions for an auditory format. And another point also. There is no hard and fast rule that says we are all either one or the other;  auditory or visual learners. Most of us have components of one or the other in the back ground of a more dominant type. For example, I have a pretty good gift for remembering phone numbers. Once I have written them down however, its not the numbers that I remember but the sound of the numbers and the rhythm they make together. This also comes in useful for memorising mnemonics for complex items. If this sounds complex, then just remember experiment with different techniques both auditory and visual, and one should jump out at you as the best technique; it just feels better.

Step 2. See that book? READ IT!

There it is, sitting on your desk, a mighty tomb of some 1200 or so pages. Just looking at it makes you feel sick with the knowledge that you are going to have to consume all of it! Well, whilst that is true, I would like to suggest that we re-conceptualise it as a tool to get you to you end goal…a friend even, and whilst it might be a hard task master, in the end it will get you there. So without further ado here’s an outline of how I handle texts by a process of divide and conquer.

Step 2a Skimming and then Reading the chapter.

Start with Skimming the chapter. Look at the chapter objectives and then just start turning pages, making a mental note of headings and looking at  diagrams that are present. This may seem like a useless exercise, but it really does help. It helps prepare the mind for the information to follow, sets context and aids in retention. Spend 5 – 10 minutes doing this and then sit down to read the chapter.

A word to the wise here. If it is a large chapter(say more than 30 pages), break it into chunks, pick a heading around 30 pages in and stop there. There is no point in struggling through 70 pages and then forgetting the last forty because, you brain has switched off! The brain is like a muscle, exercise it too much and it gets fatigued. The key is to monitor yourself; you will know when enough is enough. You start having to read things twice, or you start losing your spot and are easily distracted. When that starts, its time to stop.

Another thing that I do that I find helps me, is I form mental pictures in my head of what I am reading. Being a visual learner, I find that if I can visualise what is happening it helps with retaining information and recall for later. For those of you that are more inclined towards sound as a retention mechanism, maybe imagining listening to what you are reading might help, or even making a recording of you reading aloud.  This is pure supposition on my part however, so I offer it here only as a method  you may try.

As an example I am a Anatomy geek( I love love love Anatomy!!!). When it came time to remember the names of the wrist bones. I wanted to remember their greek and latin roots (as you may or may not know all anatomical terms have Greek, Latin or in rare cases Arabic roots), which are boat, moon, three sides, pea, little table, four irregular sides, head, and hook, in that order. So I made a little story thus.

” Take a boat to the moon with three sides and carry a pea with you. There you will find a little table with 4 irregular sides, with a hook on it. Place the hook on your head.

Now this is clearly nonsense, but that is a good thing. The main point here, is that it is a story with a logical sequence that ties to it the order of the bones in the wrist. The fact that it is nonsensical means that it will be easier to remember.  This technique will work with those that use sound as their medium. they will just pay attention to the sound and rhythm of the story not the visual imagery.

Another technique I use, is concept mapping or mind mapping. This technique has been around since the 70’s and involves taking a concept and representing it diagrammatically on paper. The most important point to remember here is colour. For some reason the more colour you use, the more it tends to stick, as long as you use the same colour for one concept/point on the map.  Concept mapping is particularly good for diagramming complex processes and relationships. I used it often for complex biochemical pathways or reaction pathways in my science degree, but it will work well with things like protocol handshakes and other multi-step pathways for example.  You create a diagram of the representation in you mind and then annotate with short notes, to explain items where necessary.

An important point to remember when forming these “representations” is that it has to be in your own words/images. Take what you have read and form a picture in you head of what is going on. This is not a rote learning exercise. This is essentially the difference between reading something and actively reading. To retain information, what we read has to be placed in context and understood, not just repeated verbatim.

Another important point is that when structuring the information, try and group it into items of no more than four or five items. The human brain is wired for hierarchical structure. If you can take a concept and break into groups of no more than four or five items, and then have no more than four or five subgroups  for each group, this will aid retention. This is a rule of thumb, and sometimes it cant be helped, to maintain a relationship with a concept we have to have more items within a group. When this happens try and reorganise the information, but sometimes you will be stuck with more than five.

2b. Go back to the Chapter Objectives.

Now that you have finished the chapter reading (or the chunk of the chapter you read),go back to the chapter objectives. Look at the first objective and turn it into a question. So for example I have just finished reading a chapter in my CCNA prep book and the first objective for the chapter was “Configure SVI Interfaces” So, I could form a question out of this along the lines of “What are the commands and procedures for configuring SVI interfaces”, and then start making notes that answer that question.

Now, if you have understood the content and actively read and made your representations of the content in your mind, you should be able to close the book and make your own notes on this particular topic. This is the key to the whole process. Forming the question sets a context for the information and ties it to the representation that you have made. On the first attempt aim for about 70 to 75 percent accuracy and go from there. If your not getting to that level of retention then either your not understanding the material or you missed a few points, which is fine, what ever you miss you can now go back to the book and re-read those bits  that you missed, and repeat the process. When it comes to concept maps try and redraw them from memory, again following the above process.

Repeat this process until you have it about 95-100 percent correct. Again this is a rule of thumb that you can adjust to your own liking. Generally speaking, it should take no more than four iterations of the process, for you to reach this level. With really complex stuff it may take more. If it is taking longer on stuff that is not too complex maybe take a look at the technique and modify it a little. Just remember the key points are understanding the material and active reading. If you are finding that you are not understanding the material, then track down a different text, or try and ambush a knowledgeable friend who is in the know. I cant tell you the number of times I have been stuck and just finding the same information presented in a different manner has made the penny drop.  Once you have mastered one objective move on to the next that covers what you have read and then repeat the active reading process. Once this is done move onto the next chapter or chapter section, and repeat the process.

Step 2c. Practice Questions and Revision.

Once you have finished a chapter it is a good idea to do any practice questions that are located throughout the text. This helps to solidify the material in your mind and also gives you an indication of whether you are understanding the material. Also, it pays to go back and revise stuff you have previously studied. This also aids retention and will make exam time that much less stressful and pressure filled. If you study a section and then don’t go back to it until just before the exam  you will find you have forgotten a fair chunk of it.

Step 3 Maintaining a really good set of notes is key. 

As you progress through your studies you are going to amass a large collection of notes. It is vitally important that these are well organised and maintained. How you do this is completely up to you. For some, paper and pen is their modus operandi, and others like to keep there notes in digital format, still others use a combinations of both.

I didn’t start really using computers until I was in my mid twenties so I am definitely old school when it comes to note format. I like to keep all my notes  in a binder, organised into various sections. I like to have a section for concept maps and I also have sections for problem sets and one for relevant RFCs.

Oh and one more point, if you are going to have loose notes in a binder, it pays to have some sort of indexing system in place in case of accidents. Even if its just numbering the pages. Trust me, I learnt this the hard way…learn from my pain and number your pages! If you ever spill 500 pages of notes on the floor you will thank yourself for numbering them. If you are using digital notes then of course backup, backup and backup again.

Maintaining an organised set of notes makes exam prep so much easier. With a good set of notes you should be able to get to exam swot period and not have to use the text at all, except for practice questions, or clarification of some unclear point. They generally speed the process of study as as you have created them, you know where everything is, and you don’t have to go searching for information. It is also easy to add supplementary information and keep it in one neat, organised spot.

Step 4. Exams

So you have done the hard yards and the exam date is set. You have a killer set of notes that you are proud off, and its time to digest it all into a format that has the information organised, in your mind ready for regurgitation. So what do you do?

Firstly I would start with a chapter and read your notes on it. As you are reading grab a highlighter and highlight the key headings(If you used the objective question method above highlight these). Once you have finished reading, grab some paper and start writing  down the headings you highlighted. Then grab another sheet and pick a heading. Then start writing.  From memory, write down as much as you can remember and then compare it to your own notes. If you have been revising through out your study and doing practice questions then you should be pretty close.

If there are any points that you miss then re-read your notes and write that point out again. Then stop, take a break, come back and move on to another chapter. Once that chapter is finished come back and rewrite the chapter from before.  As you progress through the chapters practice this same method and by the time for the exam rolls around you should be ready. Good luck!!

Step 5. Final Pointers

This final section isn’t so much about study technique, but more about what I call good “study hygiene”(Cant half tell I am an ex nurse can you!).

Routine. Try and set aside a time period each day that is for study. Turn off the TV, put the kids to bed, kiss the wife and lock youself away in your own private study Mecca, away from distraction. This needs to be a space that is right for you and be set up by you. How you do it is up to you, the only guidelines I would suggest is you need to have a door that can be shut and that it needs to be reasonably clutter free.

I know that as geeks we have a tendency to ignore the clutter and concentrate on the tech, but the closer we can get to study Nirvana, the more effective at study we will be. So remove as much as the flotsam and jetsam as can be, or organise it and it will remove a lot of the distractions. Also find a time that seems to work best for you.I find that I work best between the hours of 8pm and 2 am but other people find that working during the day is better.

Sleep. Your brain needs it and and so does your body. Getting a good solid nights sleep is essential for keeping our study performance at its best. This isn’t always possible especially if we have a family with young kids but important thing is to have it as a top priority. Being sleep deprived decreases cognition and decreases memory performance. It also weakens your immune system if it goes on for to long.

Food/nutrition. When we are under the gun time wise, it is tempting to just get take out or  open a can of beans and and pop it in a bowl and stick it in the microwave. Whilst this is ok in moderation, our brain has the highest energy budget of any organ in the body, and often these food “shortcuts” contain sugars that are burned quickly and  don’t provide us with lasting energy( High glycemic index). In short, remember this adage: “garbage in equals garbage out”. It is as true in life as it is in the tech world. The brain also requires an adequate supply of nutrients in the form of vitamins (particularly B group) and minerals to be able to sustain peak performance through a long study session.  So in short, take 15-20 minutes to prepare a good balanced meal and you will reap the benefits.

Stress. In short,  stress and study dont mix. Both acute and chronic stress have negative effects on both memory and cognition. The single most important point I have to mention here(and this is particularly true if you have a family) is their has to be a balance between study and the rest of demands that life places on you.

If you have a live-in significant other, or you are a mum or dad. Whilst you are going through this process, they are going to have to say good bye to  you for significant period of time each day whilst you lock yourself away in study Nirvana. For some this is easy, for others not so much. The only thing I have to suggest here is talk about it, negotiate and compromise and come up with a plan that is amenable to all parties. Date nights, TV nights, that sort of thing,  go a long way to giving your significant others the message that you are still a part of “the team” so to speak.

Finally, if you are going through a really stressful time at the moment, for what ever reason, then frankly you need to ask yourself the question, “Is this the right time to be planning such an big commitment”. What I am talking about are major stresses in life. The death of a spouse, major illness or some other major event.

These events cause increased levels of cortisol in blood. Cortisol is the bodies natural cortisone, it depresses the immune system, and impairs memory and cognitive function in a major way. If you are going through such an event then really ask yourself are you prepared to add the stress of study into the mix.

Organisation.Finally I will add a point on time organisation. I find that a time planner is a good way to organise all the commitment I have. When it comes time to planning for study time, be realistic. Most people (apparently) find that 50 minute study blocks are best. I am a bit of a freak and can concentrate for about 90. So block your study sessions into a series of 50 minute intervals and allow ten minutes break between(make a coffee or get a snack). Once you have done two consecutive blocks of study time, take a break of about an hour and then go back to it.  If you find you can concentrate for longer then increase the periods if you want.

Well that’s it, my take on how to study. Its been a long ride but I hope that some of you have gotten something from my post. I hope your study goes well and you all get the rewards of all the hard work. Thanks for staying with me to the end.

Cheers

Author

Timothy Badenach(Gandalf_the_not_too_Grey)

Worked in IT fifteen years ago. I am now working to update my skills. In my spare time I write about technical things...and yes I am a geek! My main interests are security and network technology.

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2 Comments

  1. Nilesh Prajapati August 4, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Great tips. I will make sure I follow these in my four year degree course (starting tomorrow).
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Timothy Badenach August 4, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    Thanks Nilesh. Just remember that the numbers are a guide not a hard and fast rule. The key is active reading and understanding what is read. I have been out of study for a few years and I am finding I am a little rusty. I hope this will improve with practice. Take care and good luck!!

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