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How sysadmins can rethink study habits for training or certification

Starting a new training series? You may find the fast-paced sysadmin life changes how you learn and retain information.
Never stop learning in chalk displayed on a laptop

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Most of my recent IT career has been about fighting fires and being pulled into time-sensitive projects. I have strong analytical and troubleshooting skills, and I understand the basics of how my organization operates. I've learned through trial-by-fire, as I battle split-brain clusters and broken storage arrays. When I decided to start new a training series for my position, though, I worried that I might not know how to study effectively anymore.

I've been juggling about five classes and planning for two upcoming trips. Due to these interruptions, I found myself at a loss every time I went back to my classes. For me, repetition is key, so I am now on my third pass through my lesson plans. I've reworked every exercise and lab along the way. I am discovering that, as I get into each exercise, all my older knowledge comes back.

Why did it have to be so hard?

My prior method of learning included reading, working through the tools, studying theory, and sometimes skipping the labs. I tended to slog through my training by just reading the headlines, skimming the text, and then just doing the labs on my own. The problem with this was that I wasn't retaining the content. Going through the training in a linear fashion made retention better, but my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) eventually caused my mind to wander. Focusing on a topic was difficult, especially when I read through familiar materials where my brain insisted, "I KNOW THIS ALREADY."

My ADHD greatly influenced my old learning style. Learning computer systems on the fly and fixing things supercharged my brain. I got used to having instant gratification when learning. And, as I mentioned, my brain checks out on any "I ALREADY KNOW THIS" material.

A new plan

I finally figured out what works for me to transform my ADHD into an asset: Because I have grown accustomed to learning on the fly, I've started doing the exercises and labs first, and then I go back and read the text.

Of course I don't retain it all on the first pass, but my brain is piqued. My ADHD shifts from "I KNOW IT, I DON'T CARE. LOOK OUTSIDE!!! SQUIRREL!!" to "I want to know this and take it apart, extend it, play with these options, and immerse myself in it."

On my subsequent passes, things start to stick, and I'm able to do the work not from rote memory, but from hands-on familiarity and a real understanding of the tools. It takes working backwards for me to be able to get the material down, because that's how support escalations have trained me to learn.

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An epiphany: My learning style changed

By writing and designing training materials for others, it dawned on me that my learning style had changed. I haven't had the luxury of uninterrupted formal study without a customer deadline dangling over my head in ages.

After you've working been in the field for a while, your old ways of studying might not work anymore. You might struggle to absorb and retain information. It's probably not that you're burned out, nor are you incapable of learning something new. It may be that you've adopted a new learning style required by your daily responsibilities over the years. Your brain is adaptive, and it may have rewired itself to learn differently out of necessity.

By taking formal, structured classes, rather than simply diving in headfirst due to immediate operational needs, I'm finding the learning process slower than I'm used to. However, I am really enjoying the deeper understanding of the hows and whys, instead of just trying to solve problems.

I've found the third repetition through the exercises and labs is when it really all clicks and falls into place for me. It's especially satisfying when I begin to transform from memorized steps to conceptualizing my new knowledge because I'm playing with the examples and extending them a little further.

If you are returning to study and struggling with course material after being in the field, try breaking the information down differently, or approaching it in a different order. You may find a new learning method that works for you!

Topics:   Career   Sysadmin culture   Certification  
Author’s photo

Kimberly Lazarski

Kimberly is a Red Hat Senior Storage Consultant focused on utilizing open-source technologies to tackle customer problems. More about me

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