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Study Strategies: Increase your Comprehension and Learning While Studying for IT Certifications


June 12, 2003

In recent articles, we have covered some of the current certification programs that you might want to pursue as part of your IT career. In this article, we will briefly step into a different area and look at some study techniques you might employ while pursuing a certification program. What you will encounter are study methods and activities that are designed to help you be an "active" learner. These techniques will help you get your hands into the learning and not be a passive "standby" learner. Also, you will learn some methods that will help you become a reflective learner who takes responsibility for your own learning. All in all, after reading this article, hopefully you will encounter some learning techniques that will help you actively engage in the content and reflect on your learning so you can effectively map out your next learning endeavors. Do keep in mind, these are techniques that may or may not work for you. When pursuing any training or learning event, always remember that everyone learns differently and at different paces, so if something presented here doesn't work for you, be sure to alter these methods or find techniques that will enhance your learning.

Keeping a Learning Journal

One technique that you can use to help reinforce your learning, increase comprehension, and reflect upon what you learned and still need to learn is to keep a learning journal. A learning journal helps you track where you have been and where you are going in terms of learning and comprehending the technical content. You may be curious as to why you would want to expend extra effort to do one more thing while studying. What you may well find is that taking time to review and reflect on what you have learned will help you reinforce and internalize the technical information. This reflection will not only help you remember the content, but also help you truly comprehend and be able to apply what you have learned.

What should you keep in a learning journal? The broad answer is anything you feel that will help you learn, review, and reinforce the content you need to learn. The following four items are some suggestions for what you might include in your learning journal:

  • Summarize Newly Learned Material: Immediately after finishing a class, chapter from a book, computer-based or Web-based training session, and so forth, summarize in your own words what you just learned. By summarizing in your own words, you are forcing yourself to revisit the important items you gathered from instruction, and by putting this summary in your own words, you help yourself internalize the information better. You might also include a "look into the future" and summarize your initial thoughts on what you are going to cover in the next class, chapter, CBT/WBT session, and so on. This will help you think about what you are about to cover and how it ties in with what you just learned.

  • List All Questions and/or Areas of Weakness You Identified from Recent Learning: Part of your journal entry should include a section where you can list questions and areas of weakness related to your recently completed instruction. By doing this, you are verbalizing and recording areas you have recognized as deficient areas. You are being a "reflective learner" by assessing honestly what you understand, what you don't know or understand, and actively finding answers and skills to fill those knowledge holes. Be sure that as you find answers to these questions, you reflect on your findings in future journal entries.

  • Include Pre-Test Results and Correct Answers for Questions Missed: One exercise you definitely want to do while studying for certification exams is complete plenty of practice exams. As you complete these exams, record in your learning journal all score progressions and pitfalls. Use these to help you see how well you are performing and what you need to improve on. Also, be sure to write out correct answers to questions you missed.

Reflective Note Taking

You certainly are going to be facing a decent amount of reading during your study and learning time. You may well be using training guides and cram guides as your sole source of study. In any case, you can take certain measures to make your reading time a period of active learning and you can do activities that will help increase your comprehension. One such activity is reflective note taking.

If you have a considerable amount of reading to do and you want an activity to help you focus on and summarize what you are learning as you go, take notes that summarize and reflect what you just covered in a section, paragraph, sentence, and so forth. This may seem similar to what I mentioned should be put in learning journal entries. Think of learning journal entries as a broad view of an entire section of learning, such as a full chapter, class period, and so on, and that reflective note taking is the method of digging up individual facts, terms, and concepts along the way. It will be the culmination of all these individual items that make up a learning journal entry.

As mentioned above in the Learning Journals section, writing is an active learning technique. Doing something like reflective note taking will keep you from passively reading content and then forgetting it. Often, training guides and study books leave ample white space in the margins. This white space is good for you to jot down important items and summarize the content in that section of the text. Overall, using something like this technique will hopefully help you increase your comprehension of the material.

Let's take a look at how you might approach this active learning activity with your reading. Let's read the following excerpt from Mike Gunderloy's MCAD/MCSD Training Guide (Exam 70-310) Developing XML Web Services and Server Components with Visual Basic .NET and the .NET Framework (ISBN 0-7897-2820-6) and then I will give you some of the points I pulled from the paragraph:

"Once you have developed an application and ensured its quality, the next step is to distribute and install the application on the target computers. This process is called deployment. The planning for deployment and the process of deployment may vary depending on the type of a program and its targeted users. This exam objective requires you to know what's involved in the deployment of a Windows service, a serviced component, a .NET Remoting object, and an XML Web service. The deployment of Web applications and Windows application is covered in more detail on the 70-305 and 70-306 exams respectively."

In the preceding text, you see I have made some items bold. As I read this section, I found the bold items to be the important content this paragraph offered. If I were taking reflective notes on this paragraph, I would indicate in my own words that deployment is the act of distributing and installing an application to target computers. I would also note that different types of programs and the different uses of programs to be deployed will certainly affect the planning and process of an application's deployment. Finally, I would note that the exam will expect me to know about deployment scenarios for Windows, XML Web, and serviced components as well as for .NET Remoting Objects.

This exercise probably seems simple enough to you. Most can find the main points of a paragraph or section of content. It may even help you to use a highlighter while reading to highlight this critical text. Where the "reflective" part comes in is through your writing of the content in your own words. Putting the content in your own words forces you to process the information on a deeper level than what you would process by simply copying the text.

You can even personalize your notes even more by adding any personal experiences you may have encountered with the actions or concepts the text is explaining. In the case of our sample text, if you have experienced deploying any of the items mentioned and have had successes and pitfalls during the deployments, mentioning these items in your notes and/or journal will also help increase your comprehension (not to mention help you remember actions you may have successfully taken that might help you answer one of the common scenario-based questions you will likely face).

Make Your Own Exam

One last activity you can do to help you actively learn examination content is to make your own exam, complete with an answer key that explains correct answers in a full paragraph. Here you can assume the role of the exam giver. Pretend you have been tasked with creating an exam that will be used to examine the knowledge of your peers. Using what you know about the topic, along with any objectives lists or information from the testing body, determine what you feel the real exam may well ask you and build your own exam on this knowledge.

When creating your exam, deliver questions that are recall in nature, but step up the difficulty of your questions as well by requiring your pretend audience to be able to piece together several items and apply their knowledge to the scenario you created. By being creative and building higher-order questions that require application, comprehension, or synthesis of knowledge to answer, you are imprinting the exam knowledge very well in your own head as part of the process. Plus, writing out full explanations for correct answers will also help you conceptualize and comprehend critical test data. If you have never taken a certification exam before, consult any number of practice exams in books and as standalone products to help you get a sense of what goes into creating an exam. Try to come up with as many questions as possible in this activity because in the long run the more questions you create, the more technical the ground you cover.

Summary

In this article, we have explored three exercises you can do to help you keep certification study active and interesting. The end-goal of any learning activity you undertake is to comprehend and learn the material required for passing the exam. The exercises given in this article are heavily centered on writing. If you learn better by listening, seeing, and so forth, use your creative juices to develop learning activities that better suit your learning style. If you make the study process a little more fun and challenging, odds are you will be more likely to stick with your certification studies, comprehend more, and increase your odds for exam success.

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