Tricking our brains into passing that Technical Certification
During my career I’ve written a lot of technical certifications – some I’ve passed, and others, well, I’ve not passed! But throughout all of this, I’ve really honed in on a few tips and techniques that I find I use time and time again! There are a ton of blogs that outline people’s experiences with certain exams – Recently I’ve written my own for the AWS Solutions Architect, AWS Certified Developer, and Certified Kubernetes Administrator exams I’ve taken. Most of the time, these types of “experience” posts really focus on the technical aspects of the exam – what you should study, what you need to know about, what you don’t need to know about – but they don’t really cover off how to study, or best practices to take in all the information you need! And let’s face it – certification these days comes with blueprints and study guidelines that literally include everything about the product/software being tested on – which can be just a tad overwhelming! How are we supposed to cover everything about a product – and how are we going to retain the copious amounts of information out there…
What works for me may not be for you…
First up, I do want to say, that a lot of the different topics I’ll cover from here on in are really what works for me – I recognize that we are all different, and we all learn differently as well – so take the rest of this with a grain of salt. That said, let me dive into a few tips and methods that seem to really help me learn:
- The Pomodoro Technique
- Not giving a #$#@ about the small things
- Learning things slowly, learning things differently, and sleeping!
So yeah, the above methods are really some of the main ones I apply when I’m attempting to learn something new or retain information. But let’s face it, we are all in IT here and we are all very curious people – so simply explaining what some of these are just isn’t enough for me – I wanted to dive further into these things! For the most part, we all understand what these methods are and what they entail – but the real question on your mind should really be why do these things work? What is it about these things that really help me learn – and to explore that, we really need to take a step back and understand how we, as human beings, learn…
How Humans Learn
Yeah, I know, we are heading down a rabbit hole here – but honestly, diving into new concepts and learning new information excites me – embrace that rabbit hole! So, after doing copious amounts of research about how humans learn, guess what – I’ve discovered that humans learn…..wait for it…..with their brain – SHOCKER!
Alright, so nothing groundbreaking here – we learn with our brains – but this doesn’t really help us out here does it? Let’s take yet one more step backwards (That’s two steps back for anyone counting) and talk for a bit about how our brains work, more specifically, how they learn…
How The Brain Learns
Disclaimer: I’m not a neuroscientist – I’m just a guy who has read a lot about this stuff and find it fascinating 🙂
Our brains control our ability to think, to talk, to feel, see, hear, walk, remember things – they even control our breathing! Basically, our brains keep us alive in more ways than one! The brain is just a wonderful machine inside our heads that works in unison with everything else and is constantly learning…learning that touching the top of that woodstove is bad, but eating that ice cream is good – just not too much of it, that’s bad! And the component within our brain at the root of all this learning is a neuron!
Neurons basically have four main components; Dendrites, Cell Body, Axons, and Axon Terminals. And these components are all used to provide connectivity and communication within our brains. How you may ask? – Well, in laments terms, the dendrites sit around waiting for information to be sent to them, once they get it, it gets processed and sent down through the neuron’s axon, and finally sent out through the axon terminals. Where is sent to? Well, other neurons of course – We don’t just have one neuron sitting around within our brain, we have billions, and we are constantly generating and forming new neurons. These neurons are constantly communicating with each other, sending information through one neuron’s axon terminals into the dendrites of another neuron, and so on and so forth.
That said, these neurons aren’t physically connected, there is a space between them – and it’s this space between the one neuron’s axon terminals and another neuron’s dendrites which is the real key to how we learn – and this space is called a synapse. Here’s where things get crazy – Synapses aren’t on a 1:1 scale with our neurons either – basically, each neuron has roughly a billion synapses connecting it to other neurons. So to summarize, we have 1,000,000,000 neurons, each with 1,000,000,000 synapses which leave us with roughly….a metric crapton of synapses! And that’s a good thing because within the synapse, lies the key to learning…
The Synapse Runs The Show!
So to recap, a synapse connects two neurons together – and it’s through the creation of these synapses where we begin to develop new pathways for our neurons to communicate with each other – and the quicker the pathway to these synapses, the quicker we can retrieve the information we desire, or the faster we recognize that we are in danger.
All this said Synapses and neurons are stagnant – they don’t just sit around waiting to be filled with knowledge. While we are learning new things the neurons inside our head grow and turn and weave throughout us in efforts to form new synapses, new pathways, and new connections, creating new areas to store information and faster pathways to retrieve it!
To help illustrate this, let’s take a look at a simple math question, 2+2 – Now I know we all know the answer immediately without having to think about it at all, and that’s because we’ve done this multiple times throughout our lives (or it’s been drilled into our heads by our Grade 2 teacher). But for someone just learning, they might take a path as shown below:
Basically, their brains go through a variety of actions, sending signals from neuron to neuron, through the synapses until they ultimately come up with the answer. That said, as we do this over and over again, we begin to grow our neurons and form new synapses, and when faced with the question again, we simply retrieve it from our synapse.
As illustrated, our brain formed a synapse between two neurons, which basically gives us a faster route to the answer, no finger lifting, no counting involved. Test this out, give your kids a math question, something harder than what they are used to but not out of reach and just watch – they will get silent, and the wheels begin turning. They will take their time and ultimately come up with an answer. When they do, ask them again, then, again, and again – Certainly their short-term memory will have formed the proper synapses to give you the answer over and over without having to calculate it again…
Eventually, we end up with synapses being formed allowing us to learn about a number of different things, be them super important in the terms of our careers and certification, or emotionally dependent based on how great crispy, freshly cooked bacon tastes. So with a basic understanding of how our brains work and learn, we can now circle back to some of the techniques used to form these synapses.
Learning to Learn Better
Everyone learns differently using a variety of methods. Do what works best for you. With that, I’ll dive a few methods that work really well for me, but more importantly, explore some science behind how and why these things work…
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a very popular time management technique utilized by millions of people – and there is a big reason for that – it works! Basically, it involves strict, short, focus periods of time to complete a task. Simplified, it can be accomplished by doing the following:
- Decide on a task to work on – write it down
- Set a time for 25 minutes
- During that time, work only on your specified task
- When the timer ends, checkmark your task
- Take a short break, maybe 5 minutes or so
- Repeat until you have 4 checkmarks
- Take a bit longer of a break and then do it all over again!
This may seem trivial, but myself and a lot of other people have had great success with it. Some tips I’ve learned along the way while implementing Pomodoro are as follows
- Break up your larger projects into smaller attainable chunks
- Minimize distractions like email and slack notifications – shut’em off!
- Start with a shorter work time than 25 minutes, maybe try 10 minutes…
- Try not to go longer than an hour at a time.
Pomodoro will not only help you accomplish and learn things, but it will also greatly help with your time management, and perhaps, more importantly, scoping out projects and estimating completion
Science behind Pomodoro
So, why does this little apple timer technique work? Well, number one, as much as we like to brag about our ability to multitask, the straight-up fact is our brains can not focus on more than one thing at a time. It may seem like they do, but in reality, it’s just super fast at task switching. There’s a great book I read a while back about this called “The Myth of Multitasking” if you want to go deeper.
So we know that we don’t multitask, we just “switch task”. Well, the more we switch tasks, the more energy our brains end up consuming. When we consume more energy, we end up requiring more and more time to recover from expending this energy. So when we are trying to DM someone on slack, while watching new emails coming in, while reading a study guide, we are basically expending more energy than we need to, which in turn, will give us a little mini burn out, which renders our time wasted – focus on one thing, and only one thing!
As far as the breaks go, as small as they are, they also play an important role. While we are learning, we have some crazy pre-frontal cortex action going on. When we shift and take that break, whether it’s as simple as getting up for a drink of water or going for a small walk, our brain shifts into a resting mode. When we are in resting mode, activity increases in the hippocampus – the area of the brain that stores memories. In IT terms, taking that break allows us to dump all of the information in our write cache (prefrontal cortex) to our main storage (hippocampus).
And finally, breaking down large tasks into smaller obtainable tasks presents some benefits to our learning as well. If a task or project is scoped too large, it quickly becomes overwhelming. This activates pain centres within our brain and can cause us to actually procrastinate. If the tasks are smaller, our chances of completing them increase. And when we finish something, no matter how small, we get a little buzz of dopamine, vessels in our brain dilate, and we generate more fuel. Something as small as simply putting that checkmark on the piece of paper, or even thinking about putting that checkmark can kick off this process. Don’t overwhelm yourselves…
Not giving a #$%^
Let me break this down a little further – what I mean by not giving a $%^# is really not worrying about the little things and being in the right frame of mind before we begin trying to learn new things. Basically, don’t worry about things you can’t control, things that don’t really matter, and what other people think. Ultimately, all of these things will impact our ability to learn in a very negative way. For example, if you are trying to learn the ins and outs of K8s networking but all you can think of is how messy your office is, it’s probably going to be a waste of time.
That said, simply not giving a @#$$ is most certainly a hard thing to do – especially with how our brains work. The more we fixate, the more we worry about certain things causes our brains to retrain and rewire themselves, associating worrying with learning – ultimately, our brains change and begin encouraging us to worry about stuff. The good news is we can reverse this process as well – the more we put things out of our mind, the more we begin to worry less, again, our brains rewire themselves to encourage learning…
I get it, easier said than done, but here are some things we can do to encourage this…
- Do worry about things that are important – don’t be too carefree. If something is that important to you then it should probably take priority over whatever it is you are trying to learn anyways
- Do resolve high priority/time crunch tasks first – We all are working on multiple things with different deadlines – don’t let them sneak up on you! There really isn’t a point in studying for something if you are just going to fixate on a report you have due at the end of the day – stop, get it done, and come back to learning later!
- Do focus on the task at hand – Similar to #2 we all have multiple things we are working on – but focusing on one task at once has many benefits – if you are interrupted with something else, jot it down, and come back to it later – give your brain the luxury of only having to focus on one thing!
- Do whatever it takes to get yourself into the right frame of mind – If you find that you just can’t put that sink full of dishes out of your head and you really don’t feel like doing them, well, do something else to put it out of your mind. Basically, be aware of yourself, and what helps you clear your head – for me, a quick walk often completely prepares me for whatever is ahead.
The science behind not giving a #$%^
So why does this help us in terms of learning and retention? Well, the biggest issue revolves around stress – you see, when we experience stress our “fight or flight” mode kicks in within the brain. When we are in this panic mode, no matter how small it is, our brain gets rewired and our thought-provoking, learning, focus cells within our pre-frontal cortex essentially shut down. Instead, our brain re-routes this energy to our most vital, life-sustaining organs such as the heart and lungs. From there, our brains begin the process of telling us to create something called cortisol to help alleviate this, to help calm us down. While this may sound like a good thing, and it is in many ways, cortisol disrupts our brain’s natural ability to regulate our synapses – and as we’ve already established, no synapses, no learning.
This is good in many ways, especially if we are faced with danger – and this is why people are often confused and delusional after major accidents. That said, when we are trying to learn, all the while allowing ourselves to enter fight or flight mode over something small, like a messy kitchen, we are essentially wasting our time our synapse regulation highly deteriorates. So, either put that messy kitchen behind you, don’t give a $*#&$ about it – and continue on. That said, for some, this is a very hard thing to do – if you need to, go clean it up first, then get back to studying afterwards.
Learning things slowly, learning things differently, and sleeping!
Alright, there are a few things to unpack here, but they are all great tools for me. First up, learning things slowly – what I mean by this is don’t expect to sit down in one giant 16-hour blitz trying to “take it all in”. There is a number of studies that show that cramming, or packing it all in, is actually one of the least effective ways to learn something. When we do this, we are basically training our brain to simply memorize or recite the material. A better way, plan ahead, break down your learning in smaller sections. I for one like to make a plan similar to the following:
- Monday – Study and learn thing #1
- Tuesday – Review thing #1, study and learn thing #2
- Wednesday – Briefly go over thing #1, Review thing #2, study and learn thing #3
- Thursday – Briefly skim thing #2, review thing #3, study and learn thing #4
- Friday – Go over things #1 through #4
Secondly, learn things differently – what I mean in this case is try not to focus on just one method of learning – read books, read blogs, watch videos, attend in-person training, get hands-on. While we all have a preferred method of learning, it’s important for us to activate different parts of our brains by taking information in through a variety of media. Yes, go ahead and focus on the one that works best for you, but mix it up a bit. I for one seem to retain information best when I actually read it, and then try and explain it to others (kind of like I’m doing now).
And lastly, Sleep! If you read a lot of “how I passed this” or “how I passed that” blogs, you’ll see a common occurrence – the night before the exam, they got a good night’s sleep. The importance of this will shine in the following section…
Why do all these things work?
Well, let’s start with learning things slowly – this can be better described as the spacing effect. By spacing things out, and actively reviewing things the next day we learned the day before, we remind our neurons that this information is super important, and they react by actually storing that information! The more we activate the retrieval of information, the stronger the synapse becomes and the less likely our brains are to simply discard this information. Eventually, we grow new dendrites and form synapses to permanently store everything
As far as learning things differently, well, we already kind of touched on it. Basically, by taking in information through our eyes, through our ears, through our touch we get different parts of our brains working and accessing this information. This is kind of similar to the spacing effect, in the fact that when we read about something, then hear it mentioned on a video, we are again getting that repetitiveness of engaging neurons – basically, we trick our brains into thinking that this information is important.
And lastly, we have sleep – while we sleep there is an insane amount of increased activity within the hippocampus and neocortex, both providing storage for long-term memories. Basically, while we sleep our brains take all those experiences and learning that we experienced throughout the day and move them into long-term storage.
In the end, the human brain is an amazing thing. I for one had no idea about some of this stuff before I jumped into exploring it all. We constantly have these crazy, Stranger Things Underworld-like, snake things growing throughout our head and body storing information for us – it’s wild to think about – and it’s absolutely amazing to think about why all of this works – we can essentially learn to learn better! Try reading this again tomorrow, and maybe the next day, then the following day see how much you can recall – I think you’ll be amazed! In the end, ignoring the small stuff, making your tasks obtainable, constantly reviewing what you have learned and prioritizing sleep can go a long way in ensuring you can pass that next certification.