Learning curve: What's the best way to study for certification?

Open brain learning concept

Technology today is not only exciting, but faced-paced and constantly changing. Often, skills learned at the beginning of college are on their way out the door by the time the fledging graduate enters the work force.


Successful professionals who remain at the top of the skill ladder are those who adopt an attitude of lifelong learning. Unfortunately, once we cross that stage with diploma in hand, most of us find precious little free time to devote to learning new skill sets or obtaining desired certifications and credentials.


Fortunately, the field of education is evolving to meet the ever changing demands of business. Never before have busy professionals had so many learning options available to choose from — boot camps, e-learning, videos, self-study, labs, webinars, simulations, traditional classrooms (and much more). The possibilities are seemingly endless!


Frankly, the many choices available can make the process of selecting a learning program somewhat daunting. With free time for continuing education at a premium, how do you ensure that the program selected is not only the best one for you, but one that fits into your schedule, budget, and most importantly, holds the best promise of success?


Know Thyself!


Understanding your personal learning style is a key factor in selecting the right training program. While the most successful training programs incorporate multiple learning styles (aural, visual or kinetic, for example) in their instructional methodology to ensure maximum retention, most of us have a particular learning style (or combinations of learning styles) that works well for us. For example, I'm predominately a visual and verbal learner.


As a young person, my memory was almost photographic. Show me a picture and I'm a happy learner. Let me write the information down with a pencil and I'll store it away and still be able to recall it as useless bits of trivia years later. Present me with a stack of audio tapes, however, and I'm a glazed-over, zoned-out certification zombie in about 15 minutes, with no idea of what was just said. On the other hand, my husband is an engineer. He NEEDS a box of tinker-toys and a quiet room to learn. He MUST touch and please, DO NOT interrupt him, talk to him or otherwise bother him while he is "learning!"


Given the right environment, we're both able to learn the same information but the way we learn is vastly different. Knowing your personal learning style can be invaluable in helping you evaluate training programs and materials and choosing a learning method that will be the most successful for you.


If you're not familiar with your personal learning style, take a few minutes to review the learning styles below and identify the style that best describes how you like to learn. Remember: Learning is not one-stop shopping! How we learn is very personal and differs from person to person. There is no right or wrong way to learn!


Open book and eyeglasses

The Learning styles are as follows:


? Visual (spatial) — Show me the picture! Visual learners need to see the picture or image to learn.
? Aural (auditory) — Aural learners are all about the sound and do learn well in environments where sound or music is used as part of the teaching method.
? Verbal (linguistic) — It's all about the words! Verbal learners rely on words (both written and spoken) for maximum information retention.
? Physical (Kinesthetic) — As with my husband, kinetic learners need to touch and feel to maximize learning potential.
? Logical (mathematical) — Logical learners use reasoning, systems and logic to learn.


A secondary learning factor (but no less important than your learning style) is understanding how you relate to others when learning. Are you social (interpersonal) or solitary (intrapersonal) in your learning style? Do you prefer to be in the company of others while learning or are you more comfortable when working alone? Do you need the interaction of others or do you excel when engaged in self-study?


Social learners do well in environments such as traditional classroom, groups, or virtual instructor-led environments where there is ample opportunity to interact with others as a part of the learning process. Unlike social learners, solitary learners are perfectly content to work alone in self-study or self-paced instructional program environments.


Common Types of Learning Environments


Once you understand how you learn and how you interact with others when learning, you're in a much better position to evaluate various training programs available. While the scope of this article doesn't allow us to take an in-depth look at each and every learning scenario available, below you'll find a few of the common types of learning formats you're likely to encounter.


Traditional Classroom — Instructor-led; meets in a classroom (may be on work site or off work site) at specific days/times; may or may not include labs as appropriate; works well for most learning styles although may favor visual/verbal learners; good environment for social learners; may be more expensive than other options; scheduling is not flexible.


Online Self-paced — Occurs in virtual environment; no face to face meetings or communications; materials generally available on a 24/7 basis; learner works at own pace; works well for solitary learners; no feedback from instructor or other students; may or may not have access to supplemental sources such as subject matter experts, community groups or blogs.


Online Instructor-led — Occurs completely in a virtual environment; no face to face meetings or communications; may involve "e-meetings" at scheduled times which may have varying levels of interaction between instructor and students; generally more structured and learner can expect to submit assignments, tasks, papers and so forth on specific dates to instructor.


Hybrid or blended learning — Combination of online learning formats plus some face to face interactions and meetings required.


Self-study — Completely self-paced; no interactions with other learners; may or may not have access to a subject matter expert for assistance; study may be accomplished through books, e-books, audio tapes, videos, lab simulations, and so forth.


There's so much to choose from!


Instructor leading class

Once you settle on a particular type of learning program, it's time to dive into the pool of training materials and select the program that is right for you. This is no small task. To make the best choice requires research. If you're considering an approach that requires physical media such as books, videos or audio tapes, look for ranking lists to see how the materials stack up against the competition.


For example, if you conduct a search on Amazon for "PMP exam prep" materials, you'll find a list of over 190 titles in the book section alone, many of which possess excellent ratings. A quick review of Amazon's Best Seller's Ranking List Best Seller's Ranking List reveals that Rita Mulcahy's materials are a clear and consistent leader in this area. While you're looking at ranking lists, don't forget to read reviews. Reviews can provide a wealth of information about the materials and why they did or didn't provide the expected results.


In addition to ranking lists, many professional organizations maintain lists of preferred and recommended training materials. It's not uncommon for such organizations to maintain a store where you can easily purchase various types of approved training materials. It's always a good idea to see what the accrediting organization recommends when it comes to training.


In addition to professional organizations, don't overlook recommendations from peers, friends, instructors, study groups, bulletin boards, and the like. What do others who are active in this area recommend and why? Remember that not everyone learns the same way so be sure to evaluate response in light of the type of material and your preferred learning style. Rita Mulcahy's PMP book might be an excellent self-study resource for a solitary learner who is primary a visual and verbal learner, but a kinetic or aural learner may have a different outcome to the same material.


When it comes to boot camps or more formal training, look closely at the reputation of the content creators. Are they well-respected in the industry? Do they provide a pass guarantee? How many candidates pass the exam on the first try after taking the course?


While there are no guarantees, understanding how your learning style relates to available instructional formats greatly increases your chances of success when learning new skills or studying for certifications. Combined with careful research and selecting the best materials, you'll find the path to future learning smooth sailing.


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About the Author
Mary Kyle is a freelance technology writer based in Texas.

Mary Kyle is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and project manager based in Austin, Texas. Formerly employed in various positions at IBM, Mary has more than 10 years of project management experience in IT, software development and IT-related legal issues.