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Climbing the Learning Curve: What to Do When You’re a n00b

Climbing the Learning Curve: What to Do When You’re a n00b

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    Chances are, within the next few months, you’ll be asked at least once to acquire a new skill or body of knowledge. If you’re in high-tech, you can count on your entire skill-set becoming obsolete every few years, but even people in less accelerated fields have to keep learning just to stay even these days.

    For example, whether you’re in marketing and PR, corporate communications, human resources, or political campaigning, you’ve had to learn how to use and make sense of social media – a field that barely existed a couple of years ago. That so many companies and individuals still do it badly is no excuse – if you want to stand out in these (and many other) fields, you have to master this new medium, and fast.

    Learning enough about a new field to function, and doing it in a short amount of time, is something I do all the time as a writer. Whether it’s putting together a sales page for a client whose product I’ve never even heard of before or writing an article on a topic I know nothing about, I’m constantly having to give myself a crash course in topics that, a few days earlier, I didn’t even know were topics!

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    Below are some of the strategies I use to get quickly up-to-speed on whatever subject is thrown at me. Not all of these techniques are necessary in every instance, but I know I’ll always be using at least two or three in any given situation. I pride myself on being able to grasp the basics of any topic within a few days (at most) – at least enough to ask decent questions and follow along when somebody speaks about a subject.

    1. Google it.

    Let’s start with the obvious – modern web searching puts a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips, and makes it tremendously accessible. Since finding good information relies on the ability to craft a good search query, I usually start with reference sites like Wikipedia to get a grounding in the general outlines of a topic, so I can start fine-tuning my search queries. I also stay on the lookout for key names and organizations, which can add quite a bit to a web search.

    To improve the quality of information my searches uncover, I will very often add one of these terms to my search queries:

    • howto or how to – If I’m looking for practical advice about a task, searching for “how to” pages will bring me tutorials and walkthroughs, where a more general search might bring me pages and pages of news stories, feature articles, resumes, and definitions to search through.
    • ebook or e-book or filetype:pdf – For real in-depth information, nothing beats a book – except an ebook, which I can download immediately, review instantly, and search within to find specific words or phrases.
    • forum – If the experience of the “person on the street” might be useful – for instance, in tracking down the solution to technological nuisances – forums are ideal, as they tend to contain informal and practical advice from one person to another.

    2. Hit the library or bookstore.

    With my list of keywords and important names in hand, my next step after searching the Internet is to visit a giant building full of books. For academic topics, I’ll try to get to my university library (and most universities – but alas, not all – will let non-students and non-faculty in to look, even if they won’t let you check anything out), though a lot of public libraries have many of the same resources these days. If I’m trying to learn a new skill – like Ruby programming, a short-lived fascination I entertained a couple years ago – I’ll just head to a bookstore. You’d be surprised at how many “Learn X in 24 hours” type books there are out there – if more than a handful of people are interested in learning about something, chances are there’s a how-to book on it.

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    3. Look for magazines.

    Don’t neglect the newsstand at your bookstore (or if you have a real newsstand around, head straight there!) or periodicals room at your library. Most subjects have a variety of magazines devoted to them, ranging from hobbyist mags to academic journals, and spending a couple of hours with a few recent issues can go a long way towards familiarizing you with the main areas of interest in the field. Pay attention to the letters and editor’s notes – these often “explain the explanations” by serving as “meta-discourse” on the more complex material covered deeper in the magazine. Also look at ads, which can give you leads on companies to look up. Finally, note the names of anyone who seems to be hailed as a leader in the field – especially if they are profiled or interviewed.

    4. Find the experts.

    In strategies 1-3 above, you should have amassed a list of names of key experts; Google them and try to find their homepages. If they’re academics, they should have a homepage at their university, at least; if business leaders, look for them in the directories of the companies they work for. If you’re really lucky, they’ll have a personal site or even a blog, giving you access to all sorts of information “straight from the horse’s mouth” so to speak.

    5. Ask for help.

    Once you’ve located your experts, email them or call them, explain your topic, and ask their advice. This won’t work in every situation, or even be appropriate, but you’d be surprised at how helpful people can be when you approach them with respect. I do this all the time to get sources for stories I’m working on, and nobody’s ever held my lack of expertise against me. Have a look at my guide to contacting experts, How to Email a Stranger, on this site.

    Also, don’t overlook Twitter and other one-to-many mediums (including your blog, if you have one). If you have a decent-sized following at Twitter, even a hundred or so people, you’ll be surprised at how much information you can turn up with a 140-character-or-less question. When I bought a Blackberry after 8 years of devoted Palm use, I tweeted to ask what resources I should look at and what software I should install, and within hours I had checked installed a dozen useful programs and was wading through a half-dozen interesting websites.

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    6. Write about it.

    One of the best ways to learn is to write about a topic – even if nobody else ever reads it. It quickly becomes apparent what the blank spots are in your budding new understanding, driving you back to fill in those gaps. Take an hour or two to write a short description of what you’ve learned about your topic – who knows, it might even come in handy as a reference later on.

    7. Make something.

    Of course, you don’t really start learning until you try to apply what you know to a real-world situation. For example, while most programming books have chapters about programming theory, they also walk you through program after program, starting with putting “Hello World!” up on a screen. Making something that works gives you an understanding of the mechanics of a topic that’s far more intimate than just reading about it or listening to someone explain it can – plus, it gives you a sense of accomplishment that helps keep you from getting overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you still have to learn.

    8. Join a group.

    Depending on the scope of the topic you’re trying to learn about, you might consider joining a local enthusiasts group, signing up for a meetup, or even enrolling with a national professional organization. The bigger groups have newsletters, magazines, or academic journals included with membership, and all of them will give you an opportunity to learn about and network with the bigwigs in their respective fields.

    9. Start a blog.

    For long-term learning, a blog that tracks your efforts and progress can be very rewarding. A personal journal is good, too, but a blog has a few advantages over a private journal – one, you’ll be helping others at or slightly behind your level get up to speed, which may well become a kind of informal support group for you all; two, when you make mistakes publicly, you learn faster, especially if readers catch your mistakes; and three, you’ll be advertising to the world that you’re open to advice. If you keep yourself approachable, you might find that the information you need comes to you, instead of the other way around.

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    10. Take it one step at a time.

    Try to keep a good sense of where you are and what you need to learn next – you’re not going to become an expert overnight. Let others guide you until you can make good choices on your own, and recognize your strengths as they develop – and your weaknesses. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and to spend as long as you need at any given level of knowledge. If you’re really serious about a topic, set long-term goals for where you want to be in one year, two years, etc., and develop a plan that will get you there.

    As I said, I have to get a basic overview of a new field every couple of weeks or so, which may be extreme, but that’s the life I’ve chosen. These are the techniques that have worked for me – what about you? When have you had to learn something totally new, and how did you do it? Let us know about it in the comments.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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