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4+1 Practices for Effective Lifelong IT Learning (Part 1)


April 6, 2015 - 6 Comments

The debate of what we should be learning seems to be a more frequent topic today. For instance, there’s been a long-standing question for each new networker: after learning a little about routing and switching, does a relative newbie dive deep into route/switch? Move on to learn voice? Or security? Data Center? Or for emerging technologies like SDN, should we learn SDN as defined by the Open Networking Foundation, or ACI, or both? Should we build programming skills to become network programmers, or programming for network automation, or stick with traditional config/verify/troubleshooting skills?

So we can talk to coworkers and discuss/argue about what technologies we should learn… but then we all seem to agree that learning throughout our careers is hugely important. (In fact, the day I was wrapping up this blog post, the Cisco Champion podcast included several people making that very same point, in agreement.) And then we stop talking about learning, because we all agree. We agree that learning is important, and don’t talk about how to learn effectively.

Our long-term career prospects depend in part on learning about existing and emerging technology. But how good are our learning skills? Are we happy with the results? How can we get better at learning?

Today’s post begins a 2-part post that offers a top 4+1 list of answering that last question: how do we get better at learning? Rather than us just agreeing that learning is important, and moving on, let’s treat the process of learning as an important process, and learn how to do it better.

 My Top 4, and Your +1

This 2-part series breaks down the details of my top 4 suggestions for becoming a better lifelong learner, while giving space and opportunity for you to add your +1 suggestions as well.

I do not presume to know all the answers to the question of how to get better at learning. However, the folks at the Cisco Champions program offer us a chance to blog here at the blogs.cisco.com site a couple of times a year, and I thought that it would be interesting to post a top N list about how to become a better learner. I have personally researched better ways to learn, tried several methods, and found some success with the four practices that I’ve listed here. Additionally, my day job (creating educational products about networking) has allowed me to spend a little more time than most just researching and thinking about how people learn. I hope you’ll find the list useful.

All that said, successful learning trumps opinion! All four items I’ve listed started out as ideas from education experts, but then I tried many, and found what worked well for me. Then, to complete the top 5 list, we need a +1 from you! I’ll list 4, you add your +1: something that works well for you when learning.

I do have one request to make as a ground rule on your +1. I’m not looking at individual study resources for a given topic. For instance, a PDF about BGP Route Reflectors may be the end all resource for learning about BGP RRs. However, that’s not a learning practice, or tool, or something that helps us get better at learning. I’m looking for activities that apply no matter the subject you’re learning. For instance, I’ll include some comments about taking notes – not terribly exciting, but note-taking practices can improve how well we learn.

Just due to the length, today’s post lists the first two practices, with a second post to list the next two practices.

 1) Learn How to Learn

Let’s say you decided today to start learning something new. Maybe you passed CCNA R/S a while back, and now you want to start the CCNA Voice track. Which are you likely to do next?

  • Research learning styles, identify your learning style strengths, and plan study activities that work better for your learning style
  • Start reading a book about CCNA Voice

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a techie, and almost all of us – maybe even 100% of us – would start learning the technology instead of learning more about learning.

If you truly believe that learning is important to your long-term career, and you have a long stretch of your career left, spend some time getting better at learning! Learn about options beyond what you’ve done before. Try some of them to see what works well for you.

Thankfully, you can learn about technology at the same time! Learning about learning doesn’t have to be a chore that gets in the way of making progress getting into the technology. Instead, follow a continuous cycle over months and years even: learn more about learning styles and tools, find a new practice or tool, and try them when studying your next technology to learn. Then you’ll discover what works well for you, while still making good progress.

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 Figure 1: Integrating Learning Improvements into Your Current Studies

And on a personal note, I found the above works well. I’ve spent some time off and on over the last 5-6 years both learning about learning and applying some of those ideas to things I’m studying. I know that I learn more efficiently now than at any point in my life – I think it’s worth the effort to learn more about learning!

Get Started Now

The space in a blog post doesn’t allow for a lot of detail for each of the four practices that I’ll mention in this 2-part series, but because “learn about learning” is such a broad topic, it’s worthy of a little more detail. In particular, here are two suggestions you can try to get started now:

  • Read a book that gives advice on how to learn/study
  • Discover your own learning styles, and what that means

First, many professional educators have written books about how to go about studying. I think investing in one or two is well worth the money and time, particularly if you buy into the idea that getting better at learning is important. A lot of these books focus on school-aged students who are developing skills for school, but many of those concepts still apply. Some of the practices I follow today came straight from those books.

One one book I personally found useful is “Study Smart, Study Less”, by Anne Crossman. In fact, just today I gave a copy of this book to my 8th grade daughter as part of getting her ready for the bump in challenge moving into high school next year. (Fun times at the Odom household!) The book is relatively short (100 pages or so, small trim size), but with plenty of good suggestions, easy to read, and a great book for a non-educator to find some quick and easy tips.

For the cost conscious… You can find a large number of articles online as well about how to study. (The problem isn’t finding information – it’s choosing which articles to read.)

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 Figure 2: Learning Styles

Discover your own learning styles! Next, search for and take any quiz online (there are many) that tells you your learning style. You won’t end up with a score that shows you have a single learning style – it’s more of a weighting, that you’re stronger as a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner.

After that, read about what those learning styles mean. You can find gobs of info online; here’s one sample that lists some good types of learning activities to do, by style. For many of us, this exercise is more about dispelling incorrect assumptions and revealing some great study activities that work well for your learning style. For instance, kinesthetic learners don’t have to build something physical to learn well – they can learn better by writing words and drawing pictures on paper.

Start with these steps, but don’t stop – continue to improve your learning knowledge and toolset over time.

2) Develop Better Note-Taking Skills

Of course, that first topic (learning about learning) could include most anything else we might discuss in this post. The rest of the suggestions are more specific.

For the next suggestion, I’ve listed one practice that almost all of us already do, but that we might all do better: note-taking. It’s not an exciting topic, but it’s a very important topic for help us each retain information much better.

First, are you happy with how you take notes when studying something new? Can you even find your notes about topics learned in the past? Would you ever review them – and would they be useful? (And to get a sense of where we are as a whole, click the poll.)

If you’re sad about your current performance with note-taking, retreat to suggestion/practice 1 in this blog post, and research about note-taking in particular. Most any book about learning and study will have suggestions about effective note taking.

Of course, we all have opinions (feel free to add yours.) My own note-taking has improved over these last years, so I’ll offer some notes on what’s worked well for me, and why:

Take Notes with the Review Process in Mind

This next idea has had the biggest impact on how I choose to take notes today: How do you plan to use your notes? Your note taking should then be based on how you plan to use the notes.

First, the basics: notes are most useful as a review tool. If you take notes and never look at them, or worse yet, can’t even find your notes, then in my opinion, you’ve missed a big opportunity. The process of recording notes does help you remember the material, but the much larger learning opportunity comes when reviewing notes, not when recording them.

As a brief exercise, stop for a moment, and think of what you expect to do when reviewing your notes about what you are learning these days. What features would you want your notes to have? Do your current notes give you what you need, or do you find yourself wishing you had done something different? Think about those things before taking the next batch of notes.

Different Types of Notes for Different Goals

Personally, I’ve found that different types of notes work better for me depending on how I intend to use the notes for later review and reference. For instance, sometimes I expect to come back to the notes, review, add to them, go deeper and deeper, and then master the material. At other times, I’m looking for the big picture, or maybe even to record information that can be easily referenced later (but not memorized). Here’s where I’ve ended up with note taking that works well for me:

Use Mind Maps for Major Concepts and Working Through Relationships: I use mind maps to capture big ideas and major terms. Mind mapping software works well for later re-arranging relationships between ideas over time; basically, the more I learn, the more I need to adjust the organization of the material, and the mind map tools work well for that.

Use Mind Maps for Small Topics or Events: I also use mind maps to capture small bits of content. For instance, if you see me in a session at a trade show, I’ll generally have my iPad open to MindNode taking notes. Why? Electronic Mind Maps work well for later searching and reference. I might remember something like “I think I heard something about that back at a Cisco Live presentation last year”, and I can now typically find those notes within a few minutes from my phone, tablet, or computer. The ease of getting to my basic notes outweighs the benefit of paper notes (that I might misplace anyway).

EverNote for small events for later deeper research: Evernote is an electronic note-taking program – basically, you can type, copy/paste most anything, and take freeform notes. You can also share it easily among various devices, which is great for review and reference during idle moments.

Personally, I use EverNote to take notes for shorter events, like for webinars when sitting at my desktop computer, and when I expect to want to keep images as well as text. I also use Evernote when the event is a shorter event, but I know that I’ll want to expand my notes later.

Cornell Notes on Paper for Large Projects: Cornell notes refers to one style of note taking as created by a Cornell University professor. This note-taking style adds a bit of structure to the note-taking process that aids your review time.

With Cornell notes, you put a vertical line down the middle of the page (or a little to the right, to preference). On your first pass (watching, listening, reading, whatever), you take notes on the left of the line. You can even leave a little vertical space between the notes, but mostly leave the right side of each page blank. Then, when you review, you have space to the right to make clarifications, point to study tools related to this topic, and add notes.

But that’s not all. You also use color-coding. For instance, in my own notes, I use a different colors for: general notes, headings, terms, lab-related, Quizlets-to-make, and items-to-research. Here’s a sample page:

WO-Cisco-2015-03-fig3

Figure 3: Sample Page of Cornell Notes

Personally, I’ve been using Cornell notes (rather than random scribbles with no color or conventions) for the last year or two. My review and study time is hugely more productive now. For example, I took 90 pages of Cornell notes in a 4.5 day VMWare class last fall, easily reviewed the large number of terms, easily found items worthy of review and further research, and so on.

Final Thoughts for Today, and Your +1

Feel free to go ahead and post about your personal favorite study practices, even before part 2 of this series is posted! Don’t be worried about whether you happen to post something similar to what I post. In fact, as a brief preview, part 2 will discuss:

  • SMART goals
  • Thinking

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6 Comments

  1. What a great post Wendell. I am preparing for CCNP and I find this really helpful. Thanks for sharing!

    • Glad to be of help, Abindu! Hope your CCNP Studies go well.

  2. Wendell - thank you for writing such a great article! I have very similar views RE: "learning by teaching" as you and Daniel. Also really like using color coding. I'm exceedingly visual RE: learning and the color coding really helps things "pop" better. Looking forward to part 2.

    • Thanks Denise! And on that color point - I never paid attention to colors when note taking til about 2 years ago, and that might be the best part of the Cornell notes to me. Takes a little more time, but boy is the review and study more productive.

  3. Hey Daniel - great point, and I agree as well. And thanks for getting the +1's started!

  4. Learning by teaching is certainly a great way of learning topics better. For me I do that through running my blog which makes me read something, write it down and I have my notes online which will benefit both myself and my readers. It does take time so it's not always the most efficient way of learning but for me I certainly learn the best when I write things down for an audience or do a presentation. Great post, Wendell!