About this time last year, I started studying for the PMP certification. Going in I felt like I knew what to expect: A two hundred question exam, choose not just the ‘right’ answer, but the ‘most correct answer’ and set yourself some realistic expectations, it’s rumored first attempt pass rates range from 45-65% (PMI doesn’t give out actual data on pass rates).
Having no formal background in project management I was excited to begin the journey, that was up until I encountered the mind-numbingly dry content. Day after day my boss would watch me stare at my educational videos with a lifeless, vacant expression, probably wondering why she hired me and paid for my certification.
While I can concede the information is highly valuable and the PMP certification is an excellent resource for growing your expertise and career in project management; memorizing definitions, formulas, and the exact order of complex processes doesn’t exactly get my blood pumping.
For that reason, I wanted to share some really important do’s and don’ts when it comes to learning to help you get the most of your study time. Having researched a bit of meta-learning I found that people generally go about learning in the wrong way. In fact, the data shows that much of what we believe to be true about learning turns out to be largely wasted effort. On the flip side, the most effective strategies to learn and retain information may actually feel counterproductive and frustrating.
That last point is really important and a helpful expectation to have for yourself. When learning is more difficult and slower than what you may be used to, it can feel like we’re doing it wrong and that there must be an easier way. But that’s just not the case. Learning becomes deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.
Unfortunately, we’ll naturally drift towards methods of learning that are both easier and give us better immediate returns, but do not be fooled, these quick and easy methods of learning show no return in moving information from short-term memory (STM) to long-term memory (LTM), nor do they aid us in truly comprehending what we’re studying.
The rest of this post will go into why I advocate for certain methods over others, but just in case I’ve already won you over and you take my word as gospel, or if you’re just not much of a reader (good luck passing the exam if that’s the case!) I’ll list them out below and you can get right to it:
3 Study Tips
- Retrieval practice
- Space it out
- Get some sleep
Before going into what you should do, it’ll be helpful to call out a few methods of studying you’ll want to avoid. The big ones are: Massed practice (cramming) and the re-reading of text.
These are common methods for two reasons:
1.) They’re easy and
2.) we get more immediate returns.
Unfortunately, easy and quick returns don’t have a high correlation to lasting, long-term memory.
When you’re cramming or re-reading text you’re practicing mindless repetition. Your brain is essentially shutting off and very little learning is actually taking place. We can often confuse fluency or familiarity with a text, concept, or definition with mastery of it. Being familiar with something in the moment by reading it over and over again does not mean you understand it, or that you’re moving that information from STM to LTM to recall it later.
When it comes to the PMP exam you’ll need a thorough level of understanding of the concepts many of the questions will require you to choose the best answer among 2-3 correct answers. While these efforts seem fruitful in the short term be wary of relying on them to help you truly learn the material you’re studying.
In fact, studies show that you’ll forget over 50% of what you’re learning through rote memorization techniques, as opposed to only 13% through other more effective methods.
If we had to boil it down, here are the three big reasons massed practice and re-reading of text won’t help you:
- It’s time-consuming
- Doesn’t result in durable (lasting) memory
- Leads to a false sense of mastery/understanding.
This week, we focused on what not to do. Next week, we'll take a look at the "Dos" for the best steps for successful study for the PMP exam.