Learning - Make It Stick

June 07, 2020 |
Photo taken by @kihomizuno

Some 5 or 6 years ago, the company that I worked for wanted the junior staff to obtain the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification. It would help us become more marketable for projects. If a client sees CISSP on a resume, the belief was that they would be more likely to hire that person. A few of my coworkers either didn’t take the exam or failed it, but one that I considered a rival passed the exam on her first try. This motivated me to stop procrastinating, dig my feet in and give passing the test my full effort. I put some pressure on myself and decided to schedule the exam two weeks out. With the short time I gave myself to take the exam, I had to formulate a game plan. I would watch videos on the topic, take notes on things I thought were important, and if something wasn’t sticking, I would dig deeper and look for outside sources that would help with my understanding. Utilizing the testing site the tutor provided us, I took a practice exam every day, quizzing myself first on the recently reviewed chapter and then taking a quiz on all chapters up to that point. The CISSP is described as “a mile wide and only an inch deep,” because the topics discussed are significant but they do not get too much into the nitty-gritty. That mile wide is a lot of information intended to show understanding in a wide range of material. I took a week off from my then job in Minnesota and headed to New York where I scheduled to take the exam. I walked into the testing center a little nervous but went into that test room and came out victorious. While walking out the team behind the desk handed me my results and screamed “Who! Mike Jones" (https://www.youtube.com/…). Truly a memorable experience. Last year, I took a test for a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) tool named Splunk. Simply put, the tool is capable of organizing and making sense of everything going on in your network. If a server is down, privileges are escalated, any signs of hacking occur, Splunk will capture that info and inform. My strategy for studying this time was massed studying, cramming, and memorizing as much as I could. Now I wouldn’t call the Splunk Administrator exam difficult, it was just dry. I failed the test 3 times before passing. After the third failure, I questioned if I was capable of ever passing another certification in my life. A bit extreme I know. I eventually passed but it left me wondering why with more time to study and the exam being easier, did I fail so many times. During the month of May, I read “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The book has changed the way I think about learning and teaching. And it explained why I did so well on the CISSP certification but so poorly on the Splunk certification. Even before that, it made me realize why a lot of what I learned in school never… stuck. For a long time, I looked at any failure as detrimental. If the results of a task weren’t going to be perfect or as near to perfect as possible then I didn’t want to touch it. “A focus on looking smart keeps a person from taking risks in life, the small ones that help people rise toward their aspirations, as well as the bold, visionary moves that lead to greatness.” Failure gives us the ability to learn from our mistakes, thus bringing us closer to our goals. I’ve mentioned it before but I like the quote from the game Celeste that reads “Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!” If you’re reading this, your failures have not killed you. You can learn from them. Keep going. Celeste is teaching all those that play, the growth mindset. The belief that we can improve upon our talents and abilities over time. Even if we failed at something now, that does not mean we will fail forever. This is important because it reminds us of our ability to solve problems as long as we continue working towards problem-solving. “In the school of life experience, setbacks show us where we need to do better. We can steer clear of similar challenges in the future, or we can redouble our efforts to master them, broadening our capacities and expertise.” There are factors that contribute to our intelligence that we had no control of. What your mother ate while pregnant with you, whether you were read to as a child, and whether the growth mindset was instilled in you at a young age all factor into our intelligence. The good news is, even if you weren’t born into a family that knew of all the ways to increase your intellect, it is still possible to do so. “More than IQ, it’s discipline, grit, and a growth mindset that imbue a person with the sense of possibility and the creativity and persistence needed for higher learning and success.” Think about when you first learned to drive a car. Maybe it wasn’t smooth due to all you had to be conscious of while on the road. Ensuring you’re not going too far above or below the speed limit, watching out for pedestrians, checking rear view mirrors before switching lanes. But eventually, it becomes second nature, and driving becomes simple. So is the case with any learning endeavor you embark on. Learning is going to be hard. Don’t be discouraged. I’m currently learning French and I feel that I am progressing, but it is difficult. Through daily effort, the neural routes in my brain that lead to the information I need are becoming stronger. Playing guitar is probably the most challenging thing I’ve done. I’ve been practicing at a minimum 4 times a week at 30 minutes a clip. What I’ve seen happen is my brain and fingers moving faster as one, especially when practicing scales. “Don’t assume that you’re doing something wrong if the learning feels hard. Remember that difficulties you can overcome with greater cognitive effort will more than repay you in the depth and durability of your learning.” Getting back to the car analogy, when you get your license and are driving every day, you are testing yourself every day. “Can I drive this car without hurting myself or anyone else?” Testing yourself is an important force on your journey to proficiency. Have you ever read something a few times and thought that you had it committed to memory, only to see the related question show itself come test time and everything is gone? This is the problem with massed practice, the learning pattern where information is absorbed in large chunks at a time. Massed practice is how I studied for the Splunk certification and the results showed its ineffectiveness. This method gives us the illusion that we are learning when in truth the information is only being stored in short term memory. How much of the material you studied, have you kept? Or does it all start seeping out of your mind the second it is no longer needed? Don’t just read and read and highlight in between. Give yourself quizzes, take breaks to think about the topic and when you’re not studying, try recollecting what you studied and make sense of it in your own words. Whatever you don’t understand by quizzing and recollecting, go back and learn more about that topic. Learning is not only for people in school. If there is something that you want to do that will help with your happiness and feeling of fulfillment, go out and learn it. Embrace the challenge of rewiring your brain in learning that new material, constantly test your levels and you will see the fruits of your labor pay off. No matter where you were born and how you were raised, remember that your intellect is not fixed. All that’s required is effort.