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Study Tips: Thoughts to Help You Get The Most Out of Your Cavi Courses

Feel free to add to these with your own ideas!


Paying attention in lecture is clearly the best approach, but there are many things, some out of your control, which can divert you.

Close your email, Twitter, Live messenger, Skype, Facebook and other social networking feeds. It's hard to keep on top of your friends and listen to lecture at the same time.

As Monica Willyard, a former student, and now a Cavi instructor says: "The things you focus on and think about are the things you retain." In a CaviCast from last semester she compares short-term memory to a scratch pad, where information is only temporarily stashed. You have to be attentive to transfer that information to the long-term storage of permanent memory.

Our brains are tuned to rapidly lock on to external stimuli , because our ancestors needed to be ever alert to danger. It's completely normal for your mind to loose focus so you need to protect your study time.

Notes in Moderation.

I've known people who brag their memory is so good they never take notes. Few people truly retain everything they hear, so if this is your tendency, discover if you are truly a memory champion or you simply dislike the act of note-taking. Practice taking notes on irrelevant stuff, like the evening news. It's hard to avoid writing either too little or too much, and you only improve with practice.

Taking notes does three things, according to Monica. Buy phrasing a concept in your own words, it helps your brain move it to long-term memory. By summarizing the lecture, you have your own personal material which is more targeted and shorter to review than an entire chapter. Lastly, taking notes helps you capture questions and terms.

In a recent Cavi cast, Jeanine, another student, said that her brain often jumped three or four steps ahead of the lecturer, and taking notes helped her stay at the same pace with the material.

But maybe you are the opposite; you have a bad memory. Do you tend to write down everything the instructor says? Then you'll be concentrating nmore on taking notes and not focusing enough on lecture.

Instead, try listening with attention and take those notes sparingly. Write important points which will be covered on your test. Note anything you find confusing. Log questions that come to mind. But don't bother to note information you already know well or you feel won't be a problem for you to retain.

Noting questions can be especially useful, because you don't have to struggle to remember them until it's time for asking them near the end of lecture.

And if you have trouble simultaneously hearing the lecture and your computer's voice while you type, speak your notes in to a recorder instead. Some people find the TTS voice in Ventrillo, that announces entries in the chat window distracting as well. Feel free to uncheck the "Enable TTS" box if having it off helps you concentrate.

Boggled By Bafflegab?

Be sure to log words you don't know. Sometimes the difference between getting a concept and being confused is unfamiliar terminology. Whether it is the medical profession or brick laying, Kerry reminded us in a 2008 Cavi Cast that every field, including information technology, is rife with its own jargon. "Don't stuff information you don't understand in to your skull", Kerry says.

No question is stupid. For example, if a half-hour is spent discussing partitioning your drive, and you don't know what a partition is, the details of how to do it will be lost to you. It's better to stop the lecture to ask what is a partition than sit through that half-hour bewildered or perhaps dozing or checking sports scores.

If you come across that unfamiliar word in your reading, stop and use google and/or wikipedia to get up to speed with the needed background. Don't just keep playing the recording or reading because you're studying. You are only studying if you mostly understand what you read.

If you find yourself writing down lots of information, especially if it affects your ability to listen, make time to review the recording of the lecture later. Use your music player's bookmarking features to tag points in the recording where items that will be on the test are discussed. I bookmark places where I need to go back for another listen; then I erase that bookmark when I feel I know that material.

 Some people prefer to take no notes at all and simply listen to the recordings several times. If this seems to contradict what was said before, it does, because we all are different and this article is a collection of ideas from individuals. 

Whether you take too few or too many notes, reach out of your comfort zone and move a bit in the opposite direction.

Use your social networks.

OK, you might do better turning off twitter during lecture, but that doesn't mean you need to become a hermit. Explaining a new concept to another person helps you both clarify its meaning and get in touch with the things you still haven't fully grasped.

Form a study group with other Cavi students, or simply ask someone who thinks like you to become your study partner. Take turns testing and explaining to each other. Share flash card duties. If you like blogging, you have another outlet for connecting.

A study partner is especially helpful if you're shy or learn at a slower pace. Ask on the mailing list if a fellow student will meet with you on a regularly scheduled basis. Don't overlook the possibility of working together on a group project.

Working in a group showcases your strengths. Maybe you are best at remembering obscure facts. Perhaps your skill is in keeping the group on topic. Maybe your strength is that you know where to find answers in the curriculum, take clear notes or make great recordings. One student's greatest asset might simply be that he's got the confidence to ask questions without worrying that others will find him stupid.

That good list of questions also tells you when you uncover answers on your own through the labs, and also gives you intelligent things to ask during lecture. Curious about the differences between S-Video, VCI and HDMI, I was able to surf for the solutions on my own. But sometimes it's fun to have a list of questions prepared beforehand so when an instructor has time to answer them, you know what you'd like to ask.

Best of all that list of questions can add richness to your group experience, because you can either ask or answer and be a full participant.

Though several people cannot submit the same identical lab, Cavi encourages students to work together to share tips. If you are having trouble, say finding some information on the Internet needed for one of the worksheets, get together with other students and learn how they navigate difficult sites or how they use alternate search engines.

Use Uncommon Learning Strategies.

Learning is a dialog. You are more than a vessel in to which information is being poured. You retain that information best when you interact with it. As Luke, a former student said in a recent Thursday chat: "taking notes helps you engage with the material and turns it in to a two-way process". So keep lists of questions and comments about the readings and lectures. Tell your family and friends about the course, and the new information you picked up. Ask other people questions about the material, for example if your uncle is hooking up a monitor , and he's a tech, ask him about different refresh rates and video resolutions.

Don't be afraid of silliness. To keep the colors of PS/2 mini-DIN connectors straight, I remember that Deep Purple has some great keyboard riffs. This helps remind me keyboard connectors are purple. Mice are alive and green is the color of life; this is great for remembering green is the color of the mouse connector.

What's Your Learning Style?

Your primary learning channel may be auditory, visual or kinesthetic. Even blind people can be visual learners, requiring Braille or Large print to master information quickest.

To retain dry information, try connecting it with something you already know. Kerry illustrated this with a story: instead of telling students that Molex cables should be plugged in only one way, his tale about smoke pouring from a computer that belonged to a person who plugged the Molex in up-side-down was much more memorable.

If you can get access to Bookshare, do it. Sometimes it helps to read the same explanation written by another writer with a different style. Cut and paste relevant passages from these technical books directly in to your personal notes.

Joshua, another student likes to imagine himself actually working with the material he's studying so he's not just memorizing some dry facts. He noticed when reading fantasy fiction, how easy it was to remember names and details about a variety of characters. This happened because he got very involved in the fantasy and became a part of the story. You can imagine yourself troubleshooting computer problems or installing components and become part of your own story as well. "Make it more real for yourself", Joshua recently advised in last semester's study skills chat.

Even a pure auditory learner can get tired of hearing the same voice. Try listening to a previous year's lecture on the same topic.

Or try a new synthetic voice. JAWS users can download a variety of high-quality voices from Freedom Scientific. OpenBook and Kurzweil users also have access to quality synthetic speech. Even users of NVDA can find free voices through searching the net, and there is other software that will read out loud using a variety of speech engines both free and paid. It's quite reasonable, for example, to ask your rehab counselor if they could purchase a few of the higher quality voices for you, especially if you have a learning disability, a hearing impairment or are simply new to vision loss.

Go hands-on.

Engage with real hardware if you can, by investigating old or broken computers, or working on newer ones if you feel confident about it. You might be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, visit your local computer shop and ask if they can let you take a broken computer apart, but the worst thing that will happen is that they refuse.

Make a Plan

A plan is an intention with teeth. Maybe you intend to do a lab this weekend. But without a plan, it's less likely to happen.

For example, your plan might state that Saturday morning, you're going to do a bit of housework and by ten in the norning settle down at your desk and disconnect the phone for two hours. You'll get on the internet and complete a worksheet by noon.

Or, the plan might include that you're going out to pizza with friends Friday night, but because you are free that afternoon, you'll hole up in the school library to listen to a lecture recording and go over the notes.

Plans state specifically when, where and how. Plans should not be so ambitious that you avoid them. For example, if your plan included skipping the Friday pizza night, you might ditch the whole plan because you quite reasonably wanted some time to hang out with friends.

Plans also map out your study path. For example, mine looks like this:

  • Read the curriculum. Don't take notes but do write down questions.
  • Attend lecture. Write down anything that I didn't remember reading about.
  • Read the curriculum a second time. Take notes.
  • Listen to the recording of the lecture, or a past lecture if borring. Clean up and improve personal notes while listening.

For me that's a huge chore, so my personal plan breaks it in to half hour segments -- one or two each day. I hate long marathon study sessions, but because I know they depress me I don't constrict myself with a plan which forces me to endure one.

Also, if a friend arrives from out of town, or I come down with the flu, I only miss a bit of studying, which keeps my personal plan flexible and lets me still have fun.

 Not everyone learns well from just listening to lectures, or having a speech synthesizer "rattle at them" as Kerry says. Keep changing your approach to learn about your own learning!


Read the curriculum (the chapter notes) before lecture. You don't have to stress about understanding every little point, but be sure you are familiar with the notes, so you'll have good questions to ask, and so the audio lecture will feel more like review rather than being all new material.

Read the chapter curriculum again after the lecture. This will help you clean up your personal notes by correcting factual and spelling errors. If you have trouble concentrating for long periods, or simply have family or other activities that interrupt you, study in small bites. I often read a single section of the notes, or listen to just five minutes of a lecture at one time. Get good at creating bookmarks both in your audio player and in your browser so you can quickly return to your last stopping point.

Make use of chapter summaries.

At the end of each module, the summary reminds you what was covered. It can help you quickly pinpoint what you already know and which parts of that module you need to read again, or ask about. Cavi instructor Grace reminded us in last semester's study tips chat that we should look through the summary before taking the chapter exam.

Don't Go Through the Motions.

 If you find yourself falling asleep when trying to listen to a lecture, stop listening, and stop pretending to yourself. Take a walk, enjoy a snack or brush the dog. Return to the lecture when you feel more awake. Knowing when to stop is just as important as being able to get started.

Or take a tip from student Janine, who doesn't stress about knowing the material. She deliberately listens to recordings in bed, while falling asleep. Next night she rewinds back to the last thing she remembers and starts listening again.

If feeling sleepy is a common problem, you might be trying too hard. Do some light housework, or knit while listening. Many students find that though it's not fun to scrub the bathroom or listen to the lecture, doing them both together makes each task more pleasant.

I once tutored a student in German who memorized one new vocabulary word each morning while shaving, and never forgot to post that word on his mirror the night before.

 Monica talks about making a rap song featuring the different types of RAM we need to memorize for one exam. I personally cannot stand walking on my treadmill unless I either have a Cavi lecture or a good nonfiction book to concentrate on while I walk. Get creative and invent a new way to make it stick!

And speaking of treadmills, nutritious meals, 8 hours of sleep, regular exercise and an overall balanced life contribute as much to good study habits as the study time itself.


Use your commute productively. If you get stuck on long bus, train or paratransit rides, bring your portable mp3 player with audio lectures you need to review.

During the lectures, the instructor often gives quizzes. Keep track of the questions you missed. If it is too hard to write while listening to the lecture, use a digital or tape recorder.

Test Yourself. As you read through notes or listen to lectures, stop periodically and invent your own test question. Even if you know the answer, it helps you retain information by speaking it out loud. If you are in public, say on a bus, pretend you are making a cell-phone call if you feel self-conscious talking to yourself.

Write out a set of test questions for yourself, then wait a week and get a friend to read them back to you. Do you still know the answers?

Another fun thing to do is leave yourself a test question on a voicemail. For example if you always forget that 480 MBPS is the maximum data speed for USB 2, or that SATA cables contain seven pins, when you're away, leave yourself a voicemail with the question and another with the answer. When you get home tired after a long day, see if you can still remember. It only takes a couple of minutes and gets a little studying in without you having to commit to a huge block of time.

Break learning in to chunks.

If you struggle with a long module, commit to mastering one piece of it at a time. I'm often asked how I know the hundreds of keystrokes in JAWS and the applications I use. I made myself master one single keystroke per day when I got started.

Go over a new chapter by skimming the curriculum and deciding how many hours to spend on each piece. For example, today I'm working on memory chips, types and memory modules, and I'm spending about fifteen minutes, but I'm going to work on it four different times today.

Use old-school tools too.

If you like Braille, make some flash cards, especially covering facts you keep forgetting. If you like cassette recorders, make a tape of yourself reviewing information in the lectures. If you like messaging, text some facts to a friend. If you have some vision, large colored notecards and wide felt-tipped markers for printing keywords can be useful. Be creative and make studying interesting by reviewing the information in different ways.

Monica uses the smart playlists of iTunes to automagically sync new lectures to her iDevice. I like to keep an MP3 of a high-quality synthetic voice reading the actual curriculum on my digital recorder. A friend who works out at a gym where he's concerned that his mp3 player might get stolen records his lectures on to cassette tape and uses an old-fashioned walkman which nobody wants to snatch these days.

Know Yourself.

Don't let someone else tell you how you should study. For example, many people with ADHD study best while cooking dinner or raking leaves. Others need to sit perfectly still in a quiet area away from distractions. Just because your brother can study with music blaring or your kid can't do homework unless everyone is silent, doesn't mean you need the same setup. Don't let your mom, your rehab counselor or a friend tell you how you should study because everyone has a different learning style.

For example, Geraldine, a former instructor admitted in a 2008 Thursday chat, that her favorite study time is after midnight when her husband and dogs are sound asleep. Others like to get up an extra hour early, and still others simply ensure they have scheduled a specific time and location for studying. Others like to be sitting in an area with no clutter, and have the comforting ritual of a pot of tea, or simply ensure they first open all the windows on their system that they'll need for study. Then they feel ready to start with windows open for notepad, the lecture files and the curriculum.

Burt, another student likes the excitement of studying in a variety of places, so try parks, cafes, or simply a different room in your house.

Do Think out of the box. If one technique isn't helping, stop using it and try something else. Give up on the study ideas that aren't working but never give up on studying!

Don't take on more than you can handle. People who drive get places faster. Students without disabilities can often read textbooks quicker. Younger people often have more energy. Smarter people catch on faster than the rest of us. Busy people have less time. Remember these realities when you are tempted to take three classes and four volunteer assignments in one semester. Just because your friend can party all night and get straight A grades in seven courses doesn't mean you can, and stand up for yourself if you are pushed to take on more than you know you will do effectively.

Eliminate pesky commitments. Have you always baked cookies for a co-worker's party or babysat your new nephew on your sister's anniversary? Do you find yourself washing your wife's car, running to the post office or returning ten phone calls instead of studying? Some commitments are unavoidable, and only you can decide which ones you need to ditch. Perhaps it's time to have groceries delivered, or to ask your teenager to wash the car. When I took my Cavi course last semester, my husband learned how to wash his own laundry, and even sorted and put away all mine as well. So get brave, and say No to requests occasionally, and ask for that all-important family support.

 You may need to apologize and explain that you have to study to get out of commitments that prevent you from giving this course the time it deserves. It's your future, so don't let others take advantage of you.

Adjust the Attitude.

Geraldine, former instructor and self-proclaimed "study nut" describes how challenging herself does make her study time fun. Also being flexible is the secret to her success. But lest she procrastinate, she doesn't try to be flexible every day, as she sets aside very specific times and locations to get the work done.

Why is the word discipline used to mean both punishment and the ability to stick with and complete a task? As kids, we often saw doing homework as discipline in the punishment sense. It was something that teachers and parents made us do, so we hated homework because it kept us from having fun.

Those labs help you really understand the material. And having a grasp of the material is what helps you pass the exams with less stress, and go on to earn more in a solid career. And the career gives you life satisfaction that lasts longer than an afternoon of play. Once you start getting in the study groove, it can actually be fun!

You might put off the assignments when you are afraid of making mistakes. But though Failure was not an option for Apollo 13, it's accepted at Cavi. You'll simply get help with redoing a lab that gave you trouble.

So welcome those worksheets as opportunities to practice skills before you have to get tested. Do a lab as soon as you feel confident in your knowledge to at least give it an honest try. If you get behind in labs, remember that this is not the kind of reputation you want to develop on the job. You will want to be seen as efficient and dependable, someone worth keeping who deserves a raise.

But if you do get behind, remember the positive meaning of discipline. Simply apply a bit more and don't discipline or punish yourself for putting it off. You are not doing this yet for real in a paying job, and there is time to practice being more organized and responsible tomorrow.

Goals are for Goof-Offs

If you still find yourself sleeping through or getting distracted during lectures, your attitude could still be at fault. If you put off studying between lectures, perhaps it's because you need a destination. When you hop on a bus, you are usually headed somewhere: to work, school or out for something tasty to eat. When you study, it helps to daydream about your future destination. For me it's working from home with a job that pays well with excellent benefits. For others, that destination might be feeling the confidence that comes from knowing they are a topnotch computer tech. For others, being able to comfortably support a growing family, or provide for a child's college education is key. Getting off government support is certainly a worthwhile goal. The point here is that having a destination makes it easier to undertake the journey.

Resist the all or nothing thoughts that plague everyone of us. Even if you screwed up last week, that doesn't justify you giving up today. We all make mistakes, or even deliberately avoid something important. But tomorrow is new, where we can be on time, on target and get with the program. Even alcoholics take recovery one day at a time.

Focus on your strengths. It's easy to think about those areas where you are weak. But you can often use a strength that others don't have to improve your comprehension. Maybe you aren't very technical, but maybe you are good at concentrating. Maybe you are poor at concentrating but you are very creative. Perhaps you easily connect with people, but have trouble retaining what you read. The social person will want to ask others to help them learn. The creative person will come up with new ways for mastering material. The person with great concentration will simply study, study, study!

 And one last point about attitude: kill the negative self-talk. We're not born organized or full of will power. Some of us are talented and can play the piano as children, but even seniors who have never touched the keyboard often take up music in their later years. But these oldsters didn't gripe that in their youth they lacked the genius of Mozart.

Nothing about you is set in stone. If you find yourself constantly thinking that your memory is bad, or that you are dumb, take a page from any self-help book out there and recognize that you are what you believe.

Monica suggests instead of asking "Why can't I understand this binary stuff" ask "How can I learn this information about the binary system?" Replacing why can't I with the better phrase "How can I" goes a long way towards a positive approach to study.


This has been a long article, because I kept running across tips I wanted to include. Read it again when you feel discouraged.

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Page last modified on July 22, 2012, at 09:00 AM