Learn Smarter, Not Harder: The Science of Better Self Education
Working in technology means that a person's knowledge base typically turns over at least once every five-to-10 years. That means that most of what you know, do, and work with right now will be supplanted by new things to know, do, and work with by somewhere between 2026 and 2031.
That interval is shortening and the turnover is increasing, as more new technologies step in to take over for gradually retiring older ones. It turns out that there is a substantial body of study and literature devoted to improving and speeding up how humans learn.
I was reminded about this in a phone call with my old MSCA/MCSE training buddy and mentor, Herb Martin, who has run a training and human development operation since the early 1990s under the euphonious and evocative name of LearnQuick.
Talking to Herb reinvigorated my interest in this area of human endeavor. The speed at which we learn closely pertains to IT workers in particular, and knowledge workers in general, of course, because of the quick, high turnover in our daily work and activities.
A Litany of Lists Leads the Way
A Google search on "how to speed up the learning process" delivers a surprisingly useful and cogent set of lists of "things to do" to help lifelong learners do more, faster, and better. Let me cite a select few of them verbatim (with attribution and links) so I can glean some pointers and zero in on certain recurring topics.
1. Say out loud what you want to remember.
2. Take notes by hand, not on a computer.
3. Chunk your study sessions.
4. Test yourself. A lot.
5. Change the way you practice.
6. Exercise regularly.
7. Get more sleep.
8. Learn several subjects in succession.
9. Teach someone else.
10. Build on things you do know.
List 2) 5 Hacks to Speed up the Learning Process — Source: LifeHack.org
1. Focus on number of repetitions, not on the amount of time we practice.
2. Break everything down into small chunks.
3. Perfect each chunk, and then create a "chunk chain."
4. Turn the learning process into a game, with rules and rewards.
5. Repeat "focus bursts," where we give our very best effort for a short period of time, then take fulfilling and refreshing breaks.
List 3) Six Brain Hacks to Learn Anything Faster — Source: Fast Company
1. Tech someone else (or just pretend to).
2. Learn in short bursts of time.
3. Take notes by hand.
4. Use the power of mental spacing.
5. Take a study nap.
6. Change it up.
I could go on and on, but this is enough for me to make the points that need making to help IT pros speed up and improve their learning processes. And for what it's worth, my old friend Herb has a few extra suggestions to share, which I'll pass along in the discussion.
Adding Facts and Best Practices Can Produce "Usable Wisdom"
To me, the most important parts in these various lists include the notion of breaking learning into chunks, and then devoting intense but not-too-long sessions to tackling and mastering those chunks. Conventional wisdom is that it's hard to maintain deep and serious focus for more than 15-30 minutes.
Plan to stay within that envelope, and you'll get better results by spending less time but more focus and energy as you learn. Writing things by hand really, really works. When I was in college, then grad school, and then in professional training, I would take copious notes. Interestingly, I seldom revisited them.
The act of writing information by hand truly helps to set things into your mind, and does indeed assist with learning, retention, and internalization.
As the old saying goes, the best way to learn something is to teach it to somebody else. As the Fast Company list explains, that can even be an imaginary somebody else (though imaginary students tend to ask fewer and less valuable questions than real ones).
The exhortations to change things up are also well-founded. Why? Because the ability to change how things proceed, how they're arranged, and how they relate to each other means that you must improve your understanding and learn how to manipulate concepts, practices, tools and activities to match.
Rote learning doesn't change and it doesn't run very deep, because it does not involve enough understanding to know how things change, when they can change, why they might change, and so forth.
The suggestions to take frequent breaks, get more rest, and to gamify the learning process all stem from the need to keep your focus and energy levels high. Paradoxically, it helps to get away from what you're learning or doing for a while to recharge and refresh at periodic intervals. Then you can return to high-level, high-focus learning without losing your edge, thereby lowering your levels of interest and capability.
When I'm writing difficult material, for example, I'll work in half-hour bursts punctuated by breaks to play a game, shoot some pool, or take a short walk. All of these things not only help me recharge and attack the next chunk with vim and vigor, they also give me time to digest and absorb what I'm doing, solve conceptual or presentational problems, and think my way through, around, and past any current sticking points. Sounds whacko, I know, but it really works.
Dig into these lists and make of them what you can (and will). Indeed, they can't help but improve your learning processes. And if the science is right, they might even help you learn things faster and more enjoyably. Cheers!