Go Beyond Studying: Absorbing Knowledge

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It might not be intuitive for a newsletter titled “Study Guide” to downplay the significance of studying. After all, the “branding” of this particular medium suggests its bread and butter is helping readers study better. And that’s undeniably true — it does primarily exist to assist IT pros prepare for certification exams.


In the commonly understood meaning of the word, though, “studying” is a short-term effort. People study a particular subject through reading and research for the sake of some goal, usually to pass a test. After they’ve successfully completed the exam, they can just let the knowledge they’ve built up fall into the cerebral abyss. But they haven’t really learned anything if they do that.


For true career success, IT professionals need to build up and sustain their proficiency, both the technical and nontechnical varieties. Ultimately, we want techies to go beyond studying and really absorb the information they gain, so they can apply it in their work as easily as possible.


As you study, you should keep the following thoughts in mind to really take in the terms and concepts of a particular body of knowledge.


Less is More


You want to learn as much as possible, right? Not exactly. Studying voluminous amounts of information actually can interfere with learning, as the brain can handle only so much new data in a given time period.


For example, a study of American and German high school students showed that the mathematics textbooks used by the former covered close to twice as many topics. Yet, the German students surpassed their American counterparts on math exams. Because they were able to concentrate more of their mental energy on fewer topics, the German high school students were able to apply the knowledge much more effectively.


Hence, when studying for an exam or trying to learn a new skill, focus first on the most essential topics. Then, when you’ve got those down, let your knowledge branch out further into related spheres.


A Good Night’s Sleep


A recent study from the Harvard Medical School involving 48 people between 18 and 30 — none of whom had any sleep problems or were taking medications — showed sleep greatly improves memory. Participants were divided into four groups: sleep before testing, wake before testing, sleep before testing with interference or wake before testing with interference.


The research findings showed people who slept after learning the information — no matter whether their slumber was disturbed — recalled more information than those who tried to remember it after hours of being awake. This demonstrates two things: To retain more, you should study in the evening if you can, then go to bed relatively soon after you finish.


Low to No Stress


Continual discharge of large amounts of stress-related hormones called cortisol can prevent the brain from creating memories and accessing old ones. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline during brief periods of severe stress, which can be great for dealing with these situations.


If these conditions are sustained for very long, however, cortisol is released into the brain, which damages the hippocampus (the section of the organ that creates memories and more or less controls learning). In addition, too much cortisol can shut down the brain’s ability to retrieve long-term memories, which helps explain why some people “go blank” during a big test.


If you want to learn and retain information, then steer clear of excess stress.

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