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My Own Model for Learning New Things

In 2020, I decided to improve my business skills. I am not talking just the ability to negotiate. I wanted to practice how to program and use business software. Am I an expert? No, but I don’t need to be. I need to just be competent to get the job done. That’s what started my journey.

I focused a specific set. I wanted to learn Excel, Python, and AWS. But I knew Excel had something like 200 formulas, while the possible combinations of lines of code could be endless on Python. Services on AWS were no better at over 100. I didn’t even know their names. But I had to start so I focused on what is used most often.

I learned first the top ten formulas in use in Excel. Then I chose a handful of most popular charts and conditional formatting (another popular feature). Next, I turned to more commonly used line of code in Python such as declaring variables, for loops, and arrays. I practiced with those. I finally turned to AWS and spent my time on the most used services such as S3, EC2, and RDS. I learned how to deploy instances, manage databases, and backup large files. It wasn’t as hard as I imagined.

The key to learning, as you may have guessed already, was focusing on the parts of the skill that were most common. I completely ignored the less used parts of Excel such as math and trig functions that almost no businesses use. I also didn’t bother with combo or 3D charts. They’re seldom used. Same for Python. I didn’t bother with while loops since they’re not as popular as for loops. I paid no attention to else statements either since they’re not used that often. And with AWS I didn’t even bother with exabyte storage service or ground station for satellites. Why would I learn any of that if I would never use it?

But that’s not all I did. Focusing on the most common parts and features was a small part of it. The other ways I acquired the skill quickly was using my own model for learning. It’s a way to acquire the skills quickly and make the skills stick. How does it work? Simple. Let me explain.

There are really only three parts. In the interest of keeping the article short, I will briefly touch on them now. For starters, there is variety. This means always vary the medium you are using. I often would start on YouTube, watch a brief tutorial, take a couple notes then move on. That’s one medium. Then I would go on coding websites and practice exercises. That’s a second. Finally, I hired a tutor to walk me through how to build my own notebook and graphs. That’s a third. When this ended, I would move onto another.

What’s the point? The point is you can learn quickly by varying the medium. Rather than a skill taking months, I was able to retain it in a matter of days and weeks (most of the time one week). It stuck around in my head much longer, more so than staying with just video tutorials. But, as I’m sure you’re going to ask, why is it so effective?

For one, I don’t believe that because someone is one type of learner, they can’t possibly learn another way. If you’re known as a visual learner, yes you can use videos and pictures, but why not audio as well? You may excel at pictures because that’s most comfortable and easier for you. But so long as you’re not suffering from hearing loss, listening to content can also lead to remembering information to. You hear the words sounded out, you may even be able to visualize them, and you slowly grasp how that example explained the concept. I’ve known many people who are regular visual learners switch to audio for a day or even a few hours and automatically grasp a concept they had been struggling with over video and with pictures. It was just easier to hear someone speak it rather than see it because the image wasn’t clear enough. It just didn’t have enough details to understand so they switched over.

Second, every medium has its own limitations. Video allows you to see the skill being performed. It does not allow you to practice it. Audio allows you to hear the sounds such as notes you want to learn. It doesn’t allow you to see them being played. Playing it allows you to learn it hands on. It doesn’t show you how a more skilled person may do it or a faster way they achieved the same result. There is always something inevitably missing so why not get the best of all the mediums by varying them? My personal favorite is using a video tutorial, listening to a tutor, and practicing hands on.

Back to the model. The second part is relevance. Any material you consume should be relevant. What does this mean? It must be updated. It must match the current version of software being used. It should reflect how others are using it such as top businesses and professionals. Any content such as a tutorial that is beyond 5 years old, I automatically disregard. Technology moves too fast that even five years is ancient by now. Even the small differences between versions of Office can be enormous at times such as the ability to add content to SharePoint or publish documents online. Don’t waste time with old guides. They won’t align with what you’re currently doing.

The third part is outcomes. This part is probably one of the more important pieces to the model. You have to know what you’re trying to achieve. What’s the goal you want to reach? If you want to be able to build items for your portfolio then it’ll become much clearer what set of skills you will need. For example, after looking online what formulas businesses use in Excel, I created a spreadsheet showing how the top 10 formulas are used. I then picked the most popular charts to display the data. If you’re going for a job interview you know may ask you to demo how you can build an app, focus on those functions or loops in Python that can build it. You have to choose the skills that match the outcome. This is an effective way to ignore most of the material out there you will never use ever.

In summary, there are three parts: variety, relevance, and outcomes. I consider all of them equally important. Variety for its ability to derive benefits from multiple mediums. Relevance for ensuring the content you consume is updated and matches what is currently in use. Outcomes for being goal oriented and focusing on what you want to achieve. But remember you have to actually do it and do it daily if possible to reinforce your learning so practice hands-on when you can. I’ve found this model to work extremely well at all points of learning whether I was a beginner or an even an intermediate level. Apply it to your own life and see how it works for you.

Jerome John is a graduated of Crafton Hills College, the University of Redlands, and Western Governors University.