“A Novelist In Business School”, is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.
I’ve always thought of myself as an excellent learner. I enjoy staying curious. But my innate curiosity doesn’t have a lot of bearing on formal education, because on my own I can be an educational dilettante. If my ability to learn something new doesn’t matter I can say I’ve learned it without actually gaining any knowledge.
Fortunately one of the professors in my first semester of my MBA program was aware he was teaching people who have been away from education for a while. He recommended, along with his coursework, a book called Make It Stick. This book is all about learning effectively and maximizing the time you can put into learning.
The book resonates strongly with me, and has shaped the way I study over the past year and a half. Looking back, it sheds light on experiences I’ve had but didn’t have any formal language to describe.
The thrust of Make It Stick is that we learn best when our learning is put to the test, that frequent practice of new knowledge engrains that knowledge us, and halts the progress of forgetting far better than just repeated exposure. In other words, re-reading a text doesn’t help you learn it all that much, but testing yourself on a text will force you to learn it. While I dislike this as much as anyone (what do you mean I’ve been wasting my time????) I can see how it’s true in an example from my own life.
The Twelve Steps of Laser Printers
When I was young in my career I was given the opportunity to get my A+ certification, a certificate that says you are more or less competent to do desktop support and repair. This certification asks you to identify and diagnose a wide variety of computer parts and issues. One of the more relevant and intricate things it asks about is laser printers. Anyone who has worked with a laser printer knows that they are sometimes finicky beasts, and there are a lot of moving parts in there that can fail on you mysteriously. At the time I was tasked with supporting some ten or twelve such beasties, so the information about what was going on inside them was immediately relevant to my job, and I was tested on it informally every time I was asked to get a laser printer working again. Beyond that I prepared myself a series of quizzes based on the steps of laser printing, forcing myself to recall all the steps at random intervals along with all the other things that I was being asked to learn.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing exactly what Make It Stick recommends. According to the authors, repeated practice (or testing), varying your topic of study, and varying the intervals of study are the key strategies for actually learning something new. Which might be why, nine years after I left my desktop support job, I can still identify all the steps and parts of a laser printer’s paper path.
I’m trying to do the same thing as I go through school. It’s an interesting challenge, because each topic, each class, demands a different type of study. Note taking strategies that worked in my Accounting classes are less useful in marketing classes. But the process, the act of conscientious, meticulous note taking and reviewing still matters, still works.