The Information Technology landscape I work in has changed rapidly, and continues to evolve at pace. The common challenge I find now is that many in the IT field are finding it difficult to keep up with the learning needed to remain relevant in the job marketplace. Before I dive into new posts on the technology areas I’m most enthusiastic about I think it’s important to explain fundamental learning principles, how to remember content and how to remain motivated to learn.
[Credit for content: “Developing a Learning Mindset” by Gary Bolles, find it at Lynda.com]
How we Learn.
There are 3 essential elements to learning, they are:
- Knowledge – cold hard facts that you know e.g. knowing how Active Directory works
- Transferable Skills – skills you learn that can apply to multiple disciplines e.g. learning Python
- Traits – your personality in essence e.g. completing tasks, time keeping
When you learn something, anything, it involves one or more of the above. For future learning (e.g. a textbook you want to read, a course you want to take) try to break down the learning goals into the above 3 elements.
- What new knowledge will you gain?
- What transferable skill will you learn?
- What traits will you continue to develop?
So instead of just cramming information into your head you can focus on the development of all 3 elements as part of one overall task.
Your brain is amazing, capable of things you don’t know it can do. First you need to understand how the brain works, apologies if this sounds like a biology lesson but it is important.
The building block of our brains and spinal cord are neurons, these are special cells that are excited by electricity and use electricity and chemicals to communicate between them. We all have different types of neurons that:
- Respond to Stimuli – see, hear, smell, touch or taste. Neurons of the 5 senses
- Trigger Movements – muscle action, and can remember activity through muscle memory
- Store Memories – short-term and long-term stored through groupings of neurons
How many neurons in your brain? About 86 Billion!
Neurons communicate through synapses – connections between neurons, ‘neural pathways’, and these tend to band together into neural networks – a grouping of neurons that have a connected purpose. One of the most important of these connected purpose is to serve as storage bins for our memories! In order to enhance learning & memory just keep in mind the way neurons respond to stimuli too.
We basically have 2 kinds:
Short-term – built easily, e.g. what did you have for lunch yesterday?
Long-term – takes more to build long term memories
We also lose memories in a multitude of ways, our brains are constantly pairing new neural pathways which in some cases leads to loss of memories. This may be our brains way to preserve newer memories, by clearing out some older unused memories ‘use it or lose it’
When you learn you are transforming how your brain works – effective learning means not only comprehending but also retaining it and being able to use it.
Building Long-term Memories
The way our brain creates and how you can create long-term memories is by the following:
- Occur with strong experiences – emotional highs or lows
- Have repeated experiences – repeat, rinse, repeat
- Use multiple parts of the brain – get creative!
The first key here is repeated experience, if we repeat an experience or piece of information we tend to remember it better. Research has found that spacing out that repeating of information helps us to create those long-term memories. Those of you who know me and have had conversations about this know I recommend the following 4 step process:
- Day 1 – Learn a key piece of information (small or big)
- Day 3 – Learn the same key piece of information again
- Day 7 – Revisit the key information
- Day 14 – Revisit the key information
You might have to tailor your personal learning schedule as it may be different to mine, the way I remind myself is using my smartphone alarm setting for each Day 3/7/14. Follow this process and the information is usually retained long term.
The second key is using multiple parts of your brain. You need to get creative and start stimulating other parts of your brain to associate imagery, sounds or even smells to a word or fact you are trying to remember. As Tony Buzan would put it, the more exaggerated and silly the creative expression the more likely you are to remember it. It’s a fact that adding a sexual angle to something you want to commit to memory is one of the strongest ways to do this – specifically in retaining and recalling long term memory items.
Create a learning mindset.
Create your own learning experiences, forget what came before at school or university and think about learning as a life long pursuit. Formal schooling has conditioned you into a certain type of learning, ‘factory learning’, a model which is meant to work across all ages regardless of ability or unique traits. Many are successful in this rigidly defined system, but many are not.
Forget that model. In Richard Bolles book “The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them” (1981), your life consists of 3 sequential phases:
- Education (learning!)
Throw the above into the bin. Instead focus on ALL 3 as continuous lifelong activities. With the variety of learning methods available to us in recent times you wil be able to hone and develop your learning mindset. You learning didn’t stop at 16/18/21 years of age – it continues indefinitly.
The 3 requirements.
These 3 are really important & not immediately obvious but to maximise learning and memory they are critical:
Sleep – too little and brain function hits a new low
Nutrition – poor diet affects chemical balance in the body, remember those neurons?
Exercise – maintaining health contributes to brain function
In my next blog post I’ll start with some clear examples using Cloud Computing principles, which can equally be applied to any subject of your choice. I will also cover motivation & advanced memory techniques in a later post too.