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You're Studying, But Not Retaining. Why?

Sep 6, 2018

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You’re Studying, But Not Retaining. Why?


Pop quiz. Log 100 = ?

Unless you are a mathematician (or total nerd) you probably don’t know the answer. Now, ask any high schooler and this question is low hanging fruit. A logarithm, the snarky high schooler will quip, is simply the inverse function of an exponent, measured in factors of 10. Meaning 102 =100 so Log 100=2. Duh.

The point of making you suffer through the above high school flashback is that we were all exposed to logarithms before earning our diplomas, and knew how to do it then. But, since we haven’t used this mathematical function since then, we don’t know how to do it now. Studying is the same way. We lose our ability to study efficiently because we haven’t studied since…college? We lose our mind muscle memory.

If there is a long gap between your last and next exam, it can be difficult to get back into good study habits and practices. So if you’re re-learning how to study, here are a few tips.

1. Study!

Not a typo. The first study tip is to study. But this is not as obvious as it sounds. It’s also not as easy as it sounds. That’s because learning is hard work.

Studiers with bad study habits will resort to “Osmosis Learning”— simply information intake, followed by a slow trickle of information loss. Osmosis (another high school concept) Learning can take the form of reading a textbook like it’s a Harry Potter novel or watching instructor-led videos as if they are a binge-worthy Netflix show. In both examples, retention is not happening because studiers are passive with the content. “Looking over content,” “just watching,” “re-reading,” “highlighting,” and “sleeping with my notes under my pillow” are all fruitless efforts dressed in the borrowed robes of real studying.

Real studying is when studiers actively engage with the learning content so it sticks. “Engaging” with the content can come in the form of taking notes (and then studying them later), having a friend or family member quiz you on your notes, utilizing flashcards, or making connections between the the new content and prior knowledge. These are all examples of a study best practice known, in the learning science world, as “forced recall.” The idea is that you have to practice recalling the information. The more you pull out or access the content from where it is stored in your memory, the more likely it is that the content will move to your long-term memory.

In sum, don’t be like an intrusion detection system passively inspecting your CEH content. Be an IPS! Engage with the content. Only then can you shift it from your cache to non-volatile memory.

2. Use Practice Questions the Right Way.

Speaking of forced recall, testing yourself with practice questions is a great way to actively engage with the content and improve retention. That said, practice questions can be used inappropriately and actually damage your learning. 

The first, most important, thing to remember about cybersecurity certification practice questions is that the questions you see on exam day will be different than your practice questions. Memorizing questions is not a helpful study activity. When you get a question wrong, don’t memorize the answer and then think that you now understand the content. Rather, read the questions and understand why you got it wrong. Study the concept or principle behind the question, not the question itself.

On a related note, another bad habit of test takers is to re-do the same practice questions over again. Say you get a 40% on a 10-question quiz. You review the correct answers and then, the next day, do the same 10 questions and get a 100%. Wow! you just increased your content knowledge and improved your score from 40% to 100%; look how much you can learn in one day! Wrong. Your scores are artificially inflated. The data is misleading because you are seeing questions for the second time. In fact, it’s expected you get a 100% the second time through questions.

A better study practice is reviewing the concepts behind the previously incorrect questions, as mentioned, and then generating a fresh set of new questions in the same knowledge area to see whether your studying paid off and your scores improve.

3. Get Help.

As noted in our first two tips, studying can be hard. It takes a lot of time and self-discipline, but you don’t have to do it alone. Here are a few ways that getting help can help:

  • Study with a partner. This can improve willpower and accountability. Teaching the concepts to each other is also another example of forced recall.
  • Consult someone who has experienced what you will soon experience. As the Chinese proverb explains, “If you want to know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” Talking to someone with test taking experience can help you understand important lessons like question structure, important test themes, and testable material.
  • Get a tutor. In addition to all the benefits listed one bullet above, a tutor can customize a study plan for your preferred learning modality and make your studying efficient and effective. This will not only help you pass the exam, but also retain the information to make you a better cybersecurity professional.

CyberVista’s certification preparation courses can help, a lot. Learn more about CyberVista’s resources, including tutoring here. Happy studying!

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Written by Sam Meisenberg