To succeed as an IT pro, you have to pursue knowledge and new skills on an ongoing basis — even if you have limited time and rusty study habits. Calvin Sun shares a dozen pointers that will help you master — and remember — new material.

He who ceases to learn is already a half-dead man.

— Louis L’Amour

Continuous learning is critical to your career. Technology and organizations change, and with those changes comes the need for you to adapt accordingly. Once you cease learning, technology — as well as your competitors — will pass you by. Here are tips to help you with your learning, regardless of subject.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Frequency trumps duration

The day before your examination, you COULD study for five hours straight. Chances are, though, you’d do better if you instead studied for one hour, or even half an hour, each day during the previous five days. Your mind learns through regular repetition, meaning that a single “cramming” session will be less effective than regular periodic study, even if the total cram time is longer. So focus on increasing the frequency of your studying, rather than duration. You’ll be far better off.

2: Learn actively rather than passively

When reading your materials, don’t just focus solely on what is there. Ask yourself why a certain condition is what it is. Ask yourself what changes would produce a different result. For example, if you’re studying for your Project Management Institute (PMI) certification, and you read about a particular runaway project, ask yourself what you would have done differently.

The most extreme form of active learning is to contact the author of your material with questions, comments, and suggestions. You may not get an answer, but your efforts will reinforce your learning.

3: Try to find a personal connection

If you can relate the material you’re studying to something in your own life, your retention will be greater. Suppose your job involves vendor negotiations, so you’re studying about contracts. You’ve come across the term “promissory estoppel” (the idea that a mere promise can sometimes be contractually binding). You could say to yourself, “That’s like the time my brother-in-law promised to drive me to Boston, so I didn’t buy the cheaper air ticket. At the last minute, he backed out, so I had to buy a more expensive air ticket. That &@#&$ owes me the difference.”

4: Leverage what you know

If you’re trying to learn an apparently new concept, think about how that concept relates to something you already know. Let’s say you’re a financial analyst who’s trying to understand network security. In learning about firewalls, for example, you could try to draw analogies to a bank teller. Or in learning about logical views and data, you could draw analogies to actual song files on an iPod vs. playlists that merely reference those songs.

5: Use the knowledge

To retain the knowledge, you need to apply what you’ve learned. If you’re not on an assignment that makes use of what you’ve learned, talk to your boss about that possibility. Otherwise, take the initiative yourself and volunteer for such a project. You’ll reinforce your knowledge and increase your visibility.

6: Teach what you’ve learned

The best way to master a subject is to teach it, because not only must you know the material, you must be able to explain it as well. In preparing for your class or session, you will realize those areas you need to refresh yourself on. In addition, while you’re actually teaching, you may get questions that make you think about the material.

7: Have someone review your work

“Practice makes perfect,” so the saying goes. Actually, unless someone can observe and correct you, practice might merely make permanent rather than perfect. Every once in a while, check with someone who knows the area you’re studying. That person might have additional pointers for you or can correct any mistaken ideas you have.

8: Set realistic goals

You have a greater chance of mastering the material you’re learning if you set goals for yourself —  and write them down. Make the goals realistic, so that you don’t get discouraged, but force yourself to “stretch” to achieve them. Then, when you do, simply cross them out.

9: Don’t just read; take notes

By taking notes, you involve yourself actively in the learning process. Writing things down reinforces the material you’re studying. In doing so, you can highlight questions you have or even disagreements with the author. You will learn much more than if you simply read the material.

10: Write about what you’ve learned

Writing about the material is similar to teaching, except that you generally won’t have “live” interaction with students. Still, the writing process forces you to verify your knowledge. It also, if done correctly, can raise your professional visibility and exposure, and could earn you some extra money. Besides, nothing beats seeing your name in print.

11: Use your iPod

Your iPod plays more than just music. It can play lectures as well. What podcasts about your subject area can you find at the iTunes store, or elsewhere? Once you sync your iPod, you can listen while you’re traveling or waiting in line. What about converting CDs to iPod format?* Doing so relieves you of having to carry all those CDs in your car and eliminates the risk of losing or damaging them.

12: Break things down

The way to eat an elephant, so the riddle goes, is to do so one bite at a time. Do you have a long audio file that you’re trying to learn? Can you break that file down into smaller ones, perhaps via an audio editor such as Audacity?* By doing so, you can repeat important points more easily because you are rewinding within a smaller file, rather than a larger one.

*These suggestions assume that you are abiding by and honoring any copyright restrictions that may exist.

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