Out of Overload

A Guide for Technical Managers

Chapter 8
Accelerated Learning

The Quest and The Forest

1. Attention
2. Connected Information
3. Properly Structured Information
4. Consolidation.
5. Follow-Up

Traditional Memory Techniques
Model and Skim

Additional Reading

Sometimes you can glance at information, and it seems to flow into your mind. Yet other times you can read a page ten times and nothing happens. You might as well be in another room.

In todayís rapidly changing technology environment, itís critical that you absorb information quickly. If you canít, youíre at a competitive disadvantage. While youíre still untangling the technology, the other guys will be showing their first prototypes; while youíre sorting out the new tools, others will be releasing their first version. Accelerated learning is essential in todayís environment.

Learning is not a random event -- it has a distinct process. With the proper technique, learning can be faster and more long-term than you would have ever thought possible. Both your total recall and your information coverage can improve. On the other side, with the wrong process, zero learning is possible.

Most people experiencing overload have gotten sloppy with their learning technique. Too many things are pulling their attention, and they seldom have time for anything beyond simple reading.

You may already follow some of the following principles. Understanding the rationale behind them, however, will allow you to optimize what you are already doing and adjust when things get hectic.

Accelerated learning involves:

1. Attention.
2. Connected information.
3. Properly structured information.
4. Consolidation.
5. Follow-up.

The Quest and The Forest

Before stepping through the principles, itís useful to understand the context of your study and how it effects your learning. Technologists typically learn in two contexts: one called The Quest, the other termed The Forest.

The Quest

The Quest involves a specific outcome. Your project may require that you learn a unique technology, letís say a certain chip command set, in order for you to proceed. This type of learning is sequential, and in a strange twist, the information is often discarded after the project is completed.

For example:

Bill was tasked with adding a command that moved the stepper motor 30 to 200 steps. He needed to understand the timing delays; the pinouts on the controller chip; and the step request bit formats. Once the project was complete and documented, Bill forgot the details in a few days.

Quest style learning is project-oriented. The end result is more critical than retaining all the nuances and details encountered along the way. It's goal-directed learning with a focus on the end result, hence the heading: The Quest.

The Forest

The Forest context is characterized by the need to gain mastery over a body of knowledge. You may need to integrate an entirely new technology, and your success will be determined by the scope of your understanding. You must be able to see the forest through the trees.

For example:

Linda was appointed product manager for the new DVD line. With all the technology pieces she had to pull together, she needed to see the forest through the trees. Linda had to learn the technology issues, profile the competition, understand pricing levels, and follow the companyís legal guidelines for patents.

If youíre involved in a Quest, you have the luxury of using and discarding information. If youíre constructing a view of The Forest, you want to retain and synthesize most of what you uncover. These differences lead to a variation on the principles for accelerated learning.

Good News

Getting back to the five principles for accelerated learning:

1. Attention.
2. Connected information.
3. Properly structured information.
4. Consolidation.
5. Follow-up.

Letís face the facts. Few technologists are going to follow five steps of anything for very long. Life isnít that organized, and youíre already in overload.

So...once the five accelerated learning principles are explained, theyíll be reduced into two steps that you should be able to fit into your daily routine.

1. Attention.

In order to absorb information, the mind must engage on the topic. If you arenít interested in the material, and if you donít get your mind's attention, you will not learn very well.

The human mind is too good at discarding information for a casual approach to learning. As you drive down the street, most of the details of passing cars, shops, and landscape are discarded. There is too much to retain. Short term memory and selective perception lets humans throw away details. The mind only recalls things that catch its attention. Without interest, the information is discarded.

For optimal learning, itís essential that the topic interest you. If a subject leaves you cold, but you still want to learn the information, you need to change your attitude towards the topic. Changing your view doesnít require you to go against genuine feelings of dislike. It means examining the topic in a different light, with the hope of uncovering a dimension that catches your attention.

For example:

Lou found the new documentation standards boring. A waste of his time. Realizing that this attitude was not helping him absorb the information, he started fishing for a better context.

Finding a new slant wasnít easy. Maybe it would look good on the resume. No. Impress the boss... No way. Lou finally came up with: "There must be some glimmer of truth in each of these parts. Let me see how far they buried it." It was thin, but it played to his cynical view, and it did engage his mind.

-----

Whenever Anne found her attention slipping, she began reading with an "attitude." She mentally argued every point and tried to find the writer's ommissions.

Attention and interest allow the mind to engage.

2. Connected information.

You will absorb new information fastest when it's tied to existing knowledge. For example, if you are familiar with modem protocols, a new modem data sheet will fit into your mind easily. You will absorb it quickly and recall it over time. Connecting new information to your current knowledge accelerates learning.

When no previous connection exists, you must create one. Most likely your knowledge base holds some general category related to the new topic. Itís possible youíll have to review an old Physics text, or think back to your math days. When all else fails, an historical perspective can offer a chronological connection to the topic.

Individuals on The Quest need a strong connection of information. Because they are on a single-minded, pointed thread of research, a weak link disrupts the entire line of thinking. Each progression of thought must be grounded in previous understandings.

For example:

Linda had made an unfounded assumption on the wave behavior of light, and it continued to nag at her. Every new hypothesis seemed weak. She kept having to relearn sequences. Linda eventually went back and worked through a complete derivation of wave interference. From then on, her mind seemed eager to move forward. Everything fit.

The Forest types, however, need not be as concerned with perfect connections. Since they will continue to collect and refine a body of knowledge, their connections will improve as they gather information.

3. Properly structured information.

This is big. Information must be structured in a way that it can flow into your mind. If the inherent organization of the information pushes your mind into overload, learning stops. The old learning curve goes flat line. There is no gradual decrease of understanding. Learning stops.

Faced with confusion, your mind has its own coping strategies. It will try to consolidate and reshape the information into a system that it can absorb. Unfortunately, this process is often slow, frustrating, and inaccurate. In high complexity areas, it may take years to settle on the right mental model. And, anytime the information changes, your internal model will be forced to rebuild itself.

For example:

As he worked through the database, Tony felt like a human bubble sort. His mind just sat there and spun. He could feel it. Some information just didnít want to go in. If he limited the focus, it eventually made sense. But the process was painful.

Two simple rules, however, allow you to structure information so that it flows in your mind, almost as fast as it can be read. The rules involve organizing information into groups of seven or three. (This principle was also described in the Modeling section, covered in Chapter 7.)

The Seven and Three Rules

When information consists of item lists, they must be organized into groups of seven or less for the mind to accept them readily. If you exceed that number, you are going into overload. Instances with more than seven groups should be reorganized until there are seven or less groups.

For example:

Bob was moving to a project team which used an Object-Oriented approach to design. He needed to pick up the principles quickly.

He started out by listing the aspects of an object:

Property Let/Set
Imperative method
Property Let
Sub routine
Function routine
Property Get
Interrogative method
Property Set

The list was confusing. Bob figured this was a good time to reorganize the material using the Seven's Rule. He started by marking similar items and grouping them.

& Interrogative method
& Imperative method
% Sub routine
% Function routine
@ Property Get
@ Property Let
@ Property Set
@ Property Let/Set

Next, Bob gave the groupings category names.

Objects Methods - Interrogative
- Imperative
- Implemented by:
Sub
Function
Properties
- Get
- Let
- Set
- Let/Set

With the information restructured in this way, Bob wasnít overwhelmed. He then focused on understanding each group.

(For a step-by-step description of the regrouping process, see the Modeling section, Chapter 7.)

The Three Rule

Decisions further limit the grouping structure, as decision points should be held to three items. For the mind to examine elements more deeply than just remembering them, it works best with three or less groups.

The Seven and Three Rule can be confusing. If you are simply recalling information, groups of seven will work fine; if you need to think through a complex decision, it will go more smoothly with groups of three. Sometimes you'll need to take a group of seven that you had used effectively for learning and reduce it to three categories for decision making.

For example:

Lou had a list of seven wiring types.

1. Type 1
2. Coax
3. Phone wire
4. Copper strips
5. Numbered
6. Twisted pair
7. High power

That list worked fine for organizing materials. However, when he needed to identify the entire test layout, seven areas seemed strange. No single item was confusing, but taken all together it was fuzzy. He regrouped the areas into:

1. Wiring Harnesses
- Numbered
- High power
2. Electronics
- Copper strips
3. Communications
- Type 1
- Coax
- Phone wire
- Twisted pair

The three general categories fit. The situation was perfectly clear.

1. Wiring Harnesses
2. Electronics
3. Communications

-----

Linda used a graphics package to model new topics. It was a pleasure to use, especially because she could add areas so quickly. On some projects, though, it didnít take long before she had a very muddy picture. After a flurry of creative sessions, Linda found she had 30 items bunched together. It was confusing.

Fortunately, Linda was familiar with the consolidation process. She noted similar items and gave them a category. Each section became an element in the larger view. She kept grouping and categorizing until no particular section was confusing. Restructured in this way, she was able to grasp it at a glance.

Linda knew the Seven and Three Rule, but she used her confusion factor as the guide. With any sense of confusion, she regrouped the items. Looking back at the results, she found no groupings over eight items and a few with three.

(For a step-by-step description of the regrouping process, see the Modeling section, Chapter 7.)

4. Consolidation.

Your mind needs time to consolidate what you study. The ideal is to study for 45 minutes and then shift to an activity requiring no concentration for at least 15 minutes. Depending on the material, the necessary dead time might be longer. With the right consolidation, your retention and understanding levels will be higher than if you had studied straight through.

Finding consolidation time is difficult in overloaded environments. Most technical study is not a pure, undisturbed process. For those on a quest, learning gets mixed with active problem-solving and experimentation. Pure learning may take place in spurts of two or three minutes. In those circumstances, periods of three or four hours without a break might be the norm.

Whatever the length of the concentration period, however, the fact remains that a dead period is necessary for consolidation. Without that time, you may experience a 30 - 40% drop in efficiency. Dead time doesnít mean shifting to another project. It means doing nothing.

When youíre in overload, doing nothing isnít much of an option. To insert periods of dead time, you need to be clever.

For example:

After an intense session, Anne walked to the other end of the building and back. She forced herself to stop thinking about the problem. Nobody interrupted her, and she got ten minutes of dead time.

-----

It seemed silly. Ed found he could schedule consolidation time by taking a break at 10:30. Heíd go down to the cafeteria for a bagel and then brush his teeth. At that time the lunch room had few people, and there was no one to talk to. It took about 15 minutes and was mindless.

-----

With all the interruptions, Tony had difficulty finding dead time. To allow for at least some consolidation effect, he walked to lunch everyday. He forced himself to stop thinking and notice the trees and birds. On the commute home he put on soft jazz and spaced out.

Consolidation is easier if you are learning a whole body of knowledge (The Forest style). To understand an entire topic area, such as, component libraries or RISC architecture or LAN design, you're already setting aside time for study. Youíre forced to structure your time to take notes, collect articles, and analyze your understanding. Adding 15 minutes of dead time is a minor adjustment.

Those on a Quest need to be more creative in their consolidation efforts. Since projects, by nature, are filled with interruptions, it's important to work quiet times into your operation at the slightest opportunity.

5. Follow-up.

In order to retain your grasp on the information you learned, some review is necessary. Refreshing the principles keeps them alive. Otherwise, your hard-earned knowledge will fade.

If youíre on a project quest, you wonít do much review. Youíll just never get to it. A case can be made for retaining your information, but finding time for it will be an uphill battle. So be it. If youíre putting most of your energy into projects, donít worry about the review stage. You can always fall back on your documentation.

If, however, youíre building a system of information (The Forest style), review is critical. Your knowledge must be refreshed regularly or your base for new information will weaken. Absorbing information is not enough. You must retain it. If you don't, itís like vacuuming without a collection bag.

Almost any style of review is adequate. Flipping through old notes, rereading your summaries, evaluating new books on the topic, or conducting training courses, they all work.

Traditional Memory Techniques

High technology concept thinking does not fit well with traditional memory techniques. Recall techniques are good for just that -- recall, but they can hinder consideration of complex technical problems.

Traditional memory triggers, such as, linked lists and scene associations add more information to your model. In the long run, these memory aids add more to remember. Tying optical fiber types to a living room scene can help you recall 15 types, but as you begin to conceptualize new arrangements, you have sofas and chairs bouncing around in your image.

These memory recall linking systems introduce a competing model into your thought processes. Your concept sketch of the circuit or the algorithm is the model you need to be seeing. Anything else in the picture is a distraction.

For example:

Anne read through several books on modeling, and noticed that they often exceeded the Seven and Three Rule. The models would put fifty or more boxes on a page. To her surprise, Anne found she would remember most items when she sketched out her study in this way, even though the items were clearly over the limit. This ability to recall seemed to contradict the overload theory.

Monitoring this process, Anne began to notice that she remembered items by their position on the page. It was as if she had created a linked list with power capacitors on the upper right, slow discharge ones on the bottom, etc. Over time, Anne added items and moved them around. After a few moves her recall dropped to almost zero. It was strange. She figured that once the position links were broken, she slid back into overload. Anne went back to regrouping them according to the Seven and Three Rule.

Model and Skim

When youíre in overloaded, thereís something about doing a five-step process that doesnít sit well. It will feel like another chore. That needs to change if youíre going to weave the principles into your life.

Except for minor variations between The Quest and The Forest learning types, each of the five principles is key to accelerated learning. They canít be reduced.

Combining them with modeling, though, simplifies implementation. The end result is so simple, it can be your life-line to accelerated learning, no matter how overloaded you become.

1. Attention.

The act of sketching out a model catches the mindís attention. Even starting with little interest, by the time youíve drawn up a few relationships, the subject has your attention.

2. Connected information.

By its nature, modeling connects information and concepts.

3. Properly structured information.

Once you notice yourself slipping into overload, you'll recognize there's too many items to absorb. It becomes a natural step to regroup and reduce the modelís complexity. Youíll find that working through the Seven and Three Rule each time isnít necessary. For that reason, structuring doesnít require a special step.

4. Consolidation.

After fitting in consolidation period for a few days, youíll begin to pause after intense study naturally. The breaks and dead times will become part of your routine. Again, this isnít a specific step.

5. Follow-up.

Review is a step you can't omit. If you have a working model sketched out, review can consist of a quick glance at the material. Skimming last monthís models once a week is not difficult -- it could be done in ten minutes, at the most. The key is the model sketches. There is no text to plow through, no reams of data to reread. The sketches save you. Set a time once a week to skim through your models, and your review is covered.

If you have absorbed and practiced each of the five steps, you can boil down the accelerated learning principles to:

1. Model everything.
2. Skim your sketches once a week.

Additional Reading

Make the Most of Your Mind by Tony Buzan. Simon and Schuster, 1984.

The Mind Map Book by Tony Buzan with Barry Buzan. Penguin Books, 1993.
This introduces the use of color to reduce overload in complex models.

What Smart Students Know by Adam Robinson. Crown Publishers, 1993.


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