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4+1 Practices for Effective Lifelong IT Learning (Part 2)

- April 20, 2015 - 8 Comments

Happy with how you go about learning, or wish you could learn more, learn more quickly, and even just do it? Today’s post continues what was begun in the previous post, namely a list of good practices to consider to improve how you go about learning throughout your IT career.

The previous post set up the issues, and made two broad suggestions:

  • Continuously learn more about learning and study, practice what you learn, and improve
  • Research and improve note-taking skills for each type of notes you take

Today’s post adds two more practices to the list, with a renewed request that you add your suggestions as well. Today, we’ll examine one type of short-term tactical goal setting with SMART goals, plus a much-neglected study activity: thinking about what you already studied.

3) Start Each Week w/ Achievable SMART Goals

Have you ever finished a week with this thought?

“I failed to make as much progress as I would have liked to make with what I’m learning right now.”

Many factors, both controllable and uncontrollable, affect whether we meet our goals. This next practice helps us achieve our short-term goals by setting and reviewing SMART learning goals weekly, every week.

WO-Cisco-2015-03-fig4

Figure 4: SMART Goals Acronym

First, SMART goals refers to the SMART acronym that describes a method for how to write goals so that your goals are more effective. The SMART acronym has a couple of different versions, including the one shown in the figure. For example, here are some smart goals that might have been created on Monday morning:

  1. Read Book X for Y hours (or Z Chapters) by next Monday AM
  2. Create mind maps about all the major ideas from the course I took last month, by next Monday AM
  3. Get functions X and Y working in my lab (or at least spend Z hours trying) by next Monday AM
  4. Review my notes from that course I took last month until I have either a) mastered my notes content or b) marked items in red for further research and study by next Monday AM

In particular, note that each goal lists enough specifics so that you know whether or not the goal has been met or not, and a specific completion date/time.

While SMART goals are great, the process gives you a great tool to determine if you’re serious about your goals or not. For example, getting a few things working in lab sounds like fun. Putting a cap of 4 hours on the activity makes it more specific and more measurable. But when you set that goal for the week, ask yourself: where’s that time coming from in your schedule? Do you have four hours available this week? Are those work hours, or home hours? When will that happen this week? If you have to do this activity in off-hours, and you (and your family) aren’t committed to making that time a part of your schedule, then writing down a goal is meaningless. But the process will help you uncover whether you’re interested or committed to doing that activity this week.

Next, write them down! Use paper, use a Word doc, or use a phone app. For instance, any Get Things Done (GTD) type of app can give can help. (I like Toodledo.) You can put a date on each, check your progress, and note which ones you complete by certain dates. But don’t just think about the goals – write them down.

Finally, in your 10 minutes of planning each week, review last week’s goals first. If you find that you’re meeting most of your goals over time, great! If not, question whether the goals are achievable and realistic, or if the time you allotted is too short.

On a last more personal note, the purpose of setting these goals is NOT about making you feel bad when you miss them. Instead, they should help you make a considered choice. Maybe you won’t have time this quarter to do much independent learning – but let that be a purposeful choice. If time is too short one quarter, make some easier weekly learning goals, just to stay in the game. Maybe pick some different learning activities that will fit this quarter. At the same time, these written goals can help us avoid that day where we wake up, thinking we would have made good progress, and find out we lost a bit of focus. It’s worth the 10 minutes a week to think, plan, and track.

4) Spend Time Thinking

I believe that the study practice of thinking about what we’re learning is one of the most neglected study activities. My suggestion is simple: spend more time thinking about what you have learned.

You might think that this suggestion is a bit odd – obviously, we think all the time, and we have to think in all stages of learning. What I mean is more like what you would do if a friend or colleague told you to “go think about it”, whatever it is.

Pause right now, and picture yourself doing just that – thinking about something. That is, close your eyes if it helps to visualize yourself, and picture what you look like when you are truly thinking about something. When you do your best thinking, what are you doing? What’s in that scene?

  • Inside or outside?
  • Sitting, standing, lying down?
  • Desk chair, comfy chair?
  • Exercising, or not?
  • Hands quiet, active, or pen/paper?
  • Notes and Internet handy, or not?

Everyone’s methods will differ. Personally, I think best when moving around – I’ll do laps in the pool or walking laps around the lake at the park. (I have planned many a book chapter while exercising.)

Now back to what I truly mean by asking you to spend more time thinking about what you’re learning: Spend time, without notes, without the Internet, without other input, pondering the details of what you have been learning.

The process itself is simple: take yourself, your brain, with no related external input, and some time. Other than that, personally, I don’t care if you’re inside/outside, exercising/sitting, etc. However, you can use other tools to help you think through the topics.

Why spend time thinking, without any other input? Doing so lets your brain review facts, strengthen connectors that exist already, make new connectors between ideas, and learn by uncovering ideas (which results in stronger retention). And it also creates some (useful) learning tension by uncovering areas where your knowledge and connections are weak.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time, at least in proportion to other learning activities, but spend some. Here are a few to give you some ideas:

Do what you pictured yourself doing when thinking earlier. Whatever you pictured, do that, but think about what you’ve been learning. Maybe bring a pen and blank piece of paper, if you will be in a place where you can jot any notes (like things you want to read more about later).

Explain networking concepts with diagrams you draw. This one’s great for networking topics, given the nature of the material. Start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen/pencil, plus you and your brain, but nothing else. From memory, draw a diagram that would be meaningful for what you’re learning. Add the acronyms, the big ideas, and the messages that flow in the network for overhead and for user traffic. Think about all the things that must happen to make that network work, for whatever technology you’re learning about.

Mind map every term and idea you can remember. Mind mapping is a classic thinking activity that helps your brain create more and stronger connections between ideas. You can start with a blank paper with pencil/pen, or use mind map software, but no other notes. The goal: remember every concept and term, draw lines between connected ideas, make lists of details about each idea, show relationships between the ideas, to build and strengthen connectors in your brain. Later, for items you know you didn’t remember well, go back with your notes and complete the mind map.

Explain it to someone else. Take a branch of what you’re learning, stand in front of a white board, and explain it all to your buddy. It’s ok to make mistakes! Just go for it.

Doodle while pondering. Yes, Doodle. Check out this Ted Talk for some insights!

Again, the point is to make yourself think about what you already learned, without any notes or other prompts. The net result: you improve your memory, your increase your understanding, and maybe most importantly, you uncover areas where you know you’re weak, so you can then go back and study further.

+1) What’s Your Suggestion?

Like with any skill we need for our jobs, we can each benefit by improving learning skills. We can benefit from finding out more from professional educators, as suggested back at the beginning of the first post in this series. At the same time, the proof is in what works for you: Find what works, and use it.

To that end, it’s time for your +1 to round out this list of five suggestions. If you haven’t already, post your suggestions! What study practices do you have that happen to work well for you? Fire away!

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8 Comments

    Great stuff! I like mentor idea. and there is plenty of experienced IT professionals who really enjoy helping and sharing their knowledge. so it wont be a problem of bothering. trying to implement a short meditation before and\or after my studying. combining it with "thinking about it" would definitely benefit in solidifying fresh knowledge. thanks for awesome advise!

      Sure thing, Dmitry. Let us know how it goes on the mentoring front! Wendell

    Hi Wendell, Thanks for the information. I also agree that "thinking about what we’re learning" is very important, it strengthen connectors as you said but we live in such a busy world that sometimes I just want to "shutdown" and relax if you know what I mean which is also important. Also specially when it comes to Cisco exams (but not restricted to it) I think it's important to somehow "validate" the knowledge and it's good to go through a questionary, simulations etc

      Hi Murilo, Great ideas. I love labbing whatever, simulator or otherwise, always seems to clarify and extend your knowledge. Thanks for adding to the list!

  1. This is great information. My biggest problem is time-wasters and avoiding unpleasant tasks that need to be done. Those tasks that you put off because they seem overwhelming or even just because they are tedious or boring. I make lists of what absolutely needs to be done by a deadline, as well as the most important things that should be wrapped up. I try and break down the avoidance tasks into chunks if possible. Many times I realize it's not as bad as I thought and I just spend the time to finish whatever it is - so I guess the main point is to just plan it and do it. If it's a huge undertaking, I find a good stopping and starting point and try to finish it as close in time as possible, so I don't forget subtle things that I swore to myself I would remember (plus I write notes to myself, just in case).I used to use the calendar app on my phone, but I just downloaded toodledo, so perhaps that will allow me to be more efficient.

      Hi LeAnn - great suggestion! Getting through those crummy tasks, especially big ones, can be challenging. And breaking up the larger tasks, be they crummy or interesting, always helps. Great +1! Thanks for adding yours. Regards, Wendell

      • My biggest pitfall is the time-wasters, whether it is wasting time online or finding menial tasks that allow me to avoid getting to the meat of the real job. I am changing careers and starting a new IT career, which includes the intro classes, such as Linux. I am also taking a course in VMWare, which I enjoy far more than Linux (perhaps because of the particular Linux class I'm in??). What I have found helpful is to shut the time-wasters like Facebook and e-mail off - don't even look at them. Do the work that needs done and get it over with. Another point: I was at an IT job fair a few days ago and the intro speaker suggested finding a mentor that you can touch base with throughout your career, so I am putting some serious thought into that. I believe most people don't ask for mentors because they don't want to bother or take time away from another person. That happens to be my main concern. There seem to be several professional groups in my area. It may be worth asking if they already have mentors or even suggesting that maybe they could offer their expertise and guidance to students and those people in entry-level IT positions.

          More great suggestions, LeAnn. Remove those time wasters, like social media (at times); and mentors can be a big help. I had posted elsewhere about the mentor a month or so back, and asked the question: which is more important in a mentor: your connection, their honesty, level of respect, or from the same industry. Even if it's only for an occasional check, it's great to have a few trusted advisors speaking into your career!