Back to Basics: Taking on Unfamiliar Topics

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Think back to the time you first learned long division in third or fourth grade. Remember how confusing it seemed? It was like several division problems rolled into one. Your mind, which only a few years ago had been trying to master the alphabet, probably struggled at first to figure out how to calculate such a complex numerical puzzle. With a little learning and practice, though, you managed to discern certain rules and patterns until working these problems required little real thinking at all.


Of course, long division might not have been that tricky for everyone. Tough topics to learn about as a youth could have included a foreign language, the periodic table of elements, World War II battle dates, scales on a guitar and so forth. The point is, almost everyone can relate to coming across a difficult subject and mentally straining to comprehend it. This can be an especially thorny situation for adult learners, who aren’t always particularly enthusiastic about developing a new skill. (This might be due to the fact that taking on new topics makes them feel like mathematically challenged elementary school students all over again.)


But those attempting to learn an entirely new sphere in technology need not worry too much. Just take the following advice, and you’ll figure it out in almost no time at all:


Start with a Basic-Level Course or Book
This point seems obvious, and indeed it is. Yet more than a few IT pros have wasted their time and money on a class or study aid that was beyond their skill level. This is even more of a mistake if you don’t understand the subject at all to begin with. Also, notice that I said “course” or “book” in the singular tense. If you’re just starting out in something, one of either ought to be plenty.


Take Notes on Everything
Normally when you take a class that involves subject matter you already comprehend to some degree, you don’t have to write down everything the instructors say. However, when faced with a completely novel topic, you should probably write down just about everything that comes out of their mouths after they say, ‘Hi, my name is (blank), and I’ll be your teacher.’ (For more on taking notes, see this Study Guide article.)


Ask Stupid Questions
“But there’s no such thing as a stupid question, right?” Of course there are. Simple, obvious inquiries that come from an ill-informed mind are by definition dumb. And hopefully, you’ll be asking your instructors, mentors and study buddies plenty of stupid questions. That’s how you get smarter.


For example, if you don’t understand the definition of a word or phrase when someone’s explaining a technology or product, ask them what it means. Don’t know what that acronym stands for? Just raise your hand and ask. And if your questions happen to educe a lot of groans and eye-rolling from your colleagues, just remember: Some of them might not know what it means either, but they didn’t have the courage to pose the question you did.


Read Over Materials with a Dictionary or Other Reference
Speaking of tricky words and phrases, you’re bound to come across some when reading a book, pamphlet, manual or any other form of print material that covers a new subject. Keep a dictionary on hand so you can look them up, comprehend them in their context and then move on to the next point. If the terms are so technical or cutting-edge that they won’t be found in a standard unabridged dictionary, then try to find a technology reference book that explains the ones you don’t understand. Or just write them all down and go over them with someone you know who is familiar with them.

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