How To Learn A New Subject

Recently in my degree curriculum at the University of Phoenix, I had two classes in a row about Networks and Telecommunications. I was thrilled on the one hand to learn that I knew more than I thought, yet disappointed on the other hand to not have learned as many new concepts as I had expected to. The week we spent on network security, for instance, turned out to cover concepts that I was already familiar with.

The classes were very interesting and our instructor had a lot of experience and passion for the subject matter, so we had a good time and learned a lot. The instructor drove us pretty hard and hit us for grammar and spelling errors on our papers. We had a lot of "hands-off" instructors, but this guy really got involved and drove us. In the end, we appreciated it.

During the final class, one of my classmates asked the instructor how to learn more about "networking". That inspired me to write this blog entry, although there has been a time gap from concept to product. I see questions like this all of the time. I participate in several discussion forums and newsgroups, and often see new people show up asking what they see as a very simple question which actually covers a very broad subject. On PocketPC Thoughts.com, for instance, people routinely show up with the question "Which Pocket PC should I get?" On some of the time management sites and newsgroups, newbies often show up asking similar questions about how to get started. Most of these questions aren’t really answerable to any real degree of accuracy because they are too broad and only bely how little the questioner knows about the subject.

And so, back to my classmate’s question about networking, what is a good answer?

The first thing I would recommend is to spend some time clarifying exactly what you want to learn about networking or another subject. Sometimes it helps to decide what you want to learn about the subject. Rather than think of networking as a broad and ill-defined concept, give some thought to what exactly you would like to get out of study. Are you interested in how computers talk to each other? Do you have a Windows PC and a Macintosh and you want to share files between them? Would you like to set up a wireless router? Once you define what exactly you want to know, you can narrow down the information that you want to study.

The second thing I would recommend is to find some professional or even hobbyist sources of information for your subject matter. Pick up a magazine or find a blog to read. Maybe you can find a discussion forum. Find a book. You’d be amazed how many people with a lot of experience maintain blogs or hang out in discussion forums just to help out newbies. If you’re interested in programming, Joel on Software is a great resource to get started with.  Any words or concepts you come across in your reading can be run as searches on Google (or your choice of search engine) to find more information. It’s possible to spend an entire afternoon following rabbit trails generated by a blog entry.

Next, learn by doing. Take what you’ve learned and if possible, put it into practice.

Forth, and I only mention this because it may actually be available to somebody, find a user group or a mentor. I know, this one is often not possible offline. I would love to find an experienced Linux user who had time to stop by my house and help me out, but that’s always tough to do. But, maybe you can find somebody. You can sometimes find strange ways to meet other users, however. I taught the senior high Sunday School class last summer at my church, and found a couple of fellow geeks heading out into the world. Since then, when we have time we’ll share tips and war stories with each other.

It’s not very hard to learn a new subject. You just have to decide what you want to learn, find a source of information, and start studying. You may even find that you have no real interest in the subject and move along to something else. The internet makes it easy to learn a new subject.

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