Extreme Education

If you're going to put out the time and money to take a technical course, make sure you do the learning job right.

You'd like to implement some powerful but challenging new software at work, like Active Directory or Exchange 2000. Maybe you want to pass an exam on it, too. So you pull some strings, free up your schedule, and arrange to take a technical course. But are you really going to benefit if you cruise through the class on autopilot?

I've been a Microsoft Certified Trainer for over six years, and I've heard plenty of questions about the products I teach and the exams based upon them. But I've never heard one of my students ask me how to get the most out of one of the very intense and expensive Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) courses that I teach. I suspect it's because everyone assumes they know how to take a training course. After all, we got plenty of practice in school, didn't we? You just sit back and let the instructor fill your head with knowledge, right?

Wrong. A passive approach won't help you absorb knowledge. You need to take an active approach to your learning if you expect the course to help you do your job and pass exams. A few simple steps before, during, and after the course can significantly enhance your understanding and retention of the material.

Before the Course

Get the student workbook
Most training centers will allow you to obtain the course material ahead of time once you've committed to taking a course with them. You just have to ask far enough in advance so that they can order the courseware and have it delivered-often directly to you.

You don't have to read through the entire book before class. Instead, your goal should be to start building a mental framework. Think of your brain as a filing cabinet. Before you take the course and fill that cabinet, use the book to figure out what file folders you need to keep your thoughts organized.

Start by looking over the table of contents, focusing on the chapter titles. Then, glance through the workbook, page by page, reading only the headings. Pay special attention to any page title that appears with a diamond next to it. In MOC courses the diamond bullet denotes a new section covering a broad topic within a module, and the slide will list the topics covered in that section. Watch for these during the class as well.

Glancing through the student workbook this way will not only show you what topics the course will cover, but also how the course material is organized. This will help you start to organize your own thinking about the information you'll be studying.

Leave the Office Behind
I've seen far too many students in my classes lose valuable course time because they had to deal with issues that arose while they were away from the office. All it takes is one problematic phone call or-perish the thought-a trip back to the office during class time. Suddenly, your concentration is shattered, and you could miss that one section that was the main reason you signed up for the course or that lays the foundation for all the material that follows it.

While some of this may be unavoidable, do your best to make sure you won't be distracted. Take some preventative measures. Make sure your backups are working and up-to-date; apply the service packs and hot-fixes you've been putting off; polish off any support tickets awaiting resolution…in other words, clean out your "inbox" as best you can. Make sure your network is chugging along like a happy locomotive before you leave it to run without your loving guidance for a few days.

Next, make it clear to everyone at work that you're going to be unavailable. Treat this as though you're going on vacation. (OK, I know a MOC course isn't exactly a day at the beach, but it's still better than being at work, isn't it?) Arrange to have a colleague cover for you in your absence, if possible. Set up your e-mail with an out-of-office auto-reply, or forward it to said colleague. If you absolutely must look at your e-mail while attending the course, don't reply to any of it unless it's an emergency. Once your co-workers know you're reading and responding to e-mail, they'll inundate you as if you were still in the office.

If you can, turn off your pager or cell phone, or forward it to voice mail, especially during class. Your fellow attendees will thank you or at least avoid doing you bodily harm. If necessary, the training center should be able to take messages for you and pass them along at the breaks.

During the Course

Rest Up
One of the most basic things you can do to get the most out of any training course is getting a good night's sleep, every night. MOC courses are notoriously intense and will tax your concentration. Staying up late won't make paying attention in class any easier. Make sure breakfast is more than coffee and a cigarette, too.

Be an Active Student
Sitting passively in class, awaiting enlightenment, just won't work. You have to be actively engaged in the learning process. Take notes-lots of them. The student workbook is yours to keep and has lots of nice, wide margins and other areas of white space. Use them. Fill them.

Use the software too. I know that sounds obvious, but most students only touch the computers during the labs. Follow along as the instructor performs demonstrations by opening the same windows and dialog boxes. This will keep you focused, give you even more hands-on experience with the product and help the labs go smoothly. But make sure your system will perform as required during the labs by not making any changes during lectures; cancel out of dialogs and don't save changed files. Leave that for the labs.

Also, avoid highlighters. They seem like active study tools, but they're not. For one thing, because highlighting is so easy, you'll end up highlighting too much material. Second, you'll understand and retain information better if you write it down, which forces you to reinterpret it. Third, you're there to get the instructor's informed perspective on the product, not to simply read through the book, highlighting sentences; you could do that on your own.

Ask Questions
One of the best ways to ensure active engagement in learning is to ask questions. This is one of the main advantages of classroom instruction as an educational approach. Once you've completed the course, you'll no longer have the instructor immediately available to answer your queries, so take advantage of his or her presence while you can.

Remember that there really is no such thing as a stupid question; your fellow students are probably wondering the same thing that you are and will be grateful that you spoke up. In particular, don't be afraid to ask the instructor about a specific application of the product in your environment, as long as you can keep the question relatively brief.

This isn't just an opportunity to get some cheap consulting; you might provide the entire class with a valuable case study. Don't worry if your scenario is too specific or unusual and would constitute a waste of class time; it's up to the instructor to decide that, and to move the discussion out of class, to the next break, if necessary.

Speaking as an instructor, I find it strange when students apologize for asking questions. Frankly, I enjoy and welcome students' inquiries, and I always ensure I leave time for them. Questions indicate to me that students are engaged and interested. They also allow me to check for understanding, and to expand on a topic if it's of greater interest to the class than I'd anticipated.

Stay on Track
You're at the training center to take a course, to learn something. Don't let yourself get distracted. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? The Internet.

At the training center I currently work for, the classes have Internet connectivity available. I don't configure the machines to use it, however, unless students ask. I know everyone needs a break from the course material now and then, but I sometimes see students surfing while I'm talking-which is, to be blunt, insulting. If you can live without the Internet for the duration of the course, you'll get a lot more out of it.

Make Connections
You're sitting in a room with a handful of other people who all share the same professional interest. Take advantage of this golden opportunity to network (and I don't mean configuring TCP/IP).

Exchange e-mail addresses and business cards with other students. If you're taking the course to prepare for an exam, find other students in the class with the same goal and look into forming a study group. You don't even have to meet face-to-face for this purpose once the class is over. Thanks to the Internet, you can use IRC, newsgroups, or e-mail to engage in discussions that will help you prepare for the exam. (See? The Internet isn't all bad…)

After the Course

Re-read and Review
Once you complete the course, you'll probably find yourself forgetting more information from it than you can remember. Worse still, you may misremember things, leading you to make costly mistakes when working with the product.

To avoid this, review the course material. You don't have to re-read everything. You just need to go over the sections that are relevant to your production environment-the material covering features you either have implemented or plan to implement. If you're preparing for an exam as well, however, focus on reviewing course material that covers the features you're least familiar with-you know, the ones that could blind-side you during the test.

Keep in mind that most instructors don't cover every single detail in the student workbook. I certainly don't; I don't have the time, and besides, it's counter-productive. Nonetheless, some tiny, seemingly irrelevant detail in the material that went unmentioned in class might matter a great deal in your environment. You can mine these knowledge nuggets by re-reading the courseware.

The best way to retain all that knowledge you gleaned from the course is to put it to work. The first thing you'll want to do is implement all the tips and "shoulda-dones" the instructor shared with you. Next, look into any useful features of the product you want to put into service but haven't.

Of course, you need a playground if you're going to play. Whether you're preparing to take an exam or planning to implement any untried features, you need a test lab. I can't emphasize this enough. I don't care if it's a windowless closet or a home office with a couple of networked PCs. You need a non-production environment to test things, where you don't have to worry if your experiments make the software go ka-blooie. If you need to justify it at work, just ask, "How much downtime is acceptable?" You'll get told, "None." Well, 100 percent uptime costs money, and computers just keep getting cheaper…

Take a Few Extra Steps
Sleeping through a course might have been possible in high school or college, but that approach just doesn't cut it in the real world-especially in the increasingly competitive IT job market. The training center and the instructor can only go so far to ensure that you get the most out of your technical courses. Taking a few extra steps before, during, and after a technical course can ensure that your time away from the office proves worthwhile, and will make your life better once you get back.

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