If you're going to put out the time and money to take a technical course, make sure you do the learning job right.
- By Ronald Stewart
- November 01, 2001
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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 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
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.