This feature first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
At TestOut we have an informal Pi Day competition every year in March. The competition takes place on March 14 at 1:59 in the afternoon (3.14159 — get it?) and consists of contestants reciting digits of pi (as many as they can remember) and then eating pie. There aren't any significant prizes; it's more for bragging rights. It's also a fun way to enjoy Pi Day.
A few years ago, I decided to try participating in the competition, so I printed out several digits of pi on a sheet and started to memorize. At first, I memorized one line, then another, and then another. Before I knew it, I had memorized 64 digits of pi (all that was on my sheet).
When the competition began, each contestant began to recite pi. I was confident of a win with 64 digits under my belt. Then one of our software engineers stood and began to recite pi. He made it to 30, and then 40, and then 50 digits. I was nervous that my 64 digits was not going to be enough.
Then at 52 digits he stopped and said, "Well, that's all I know." Relieved, I then stood and recited my 64 digits of Pi for the win. I was awarded a small lemon snack pie.
One of the contest organizers boasted that he was going to recite one hundred digits of pi the next year, and the competition was on. I set the goal to memorize 200 digits of pi. Each year the competition gets more intense. This year, it took reciting 253 digits of pi for the win.
Our pi day competition is a silly example, but it illustrates the amazing power of our brain to internalize and remember things if we put a little effort into it. When taking IT certification exams, there is a certain level of knowledge that is just assumed. One way to remember some of the key knowledge you need is through memorization.
Memorization and certification
Memorizing answers to pass a certification exam is largely frowned on. It is much better to know and understand how things work than to just memorize facts. Yet there are still students who try to memorize all the practice exam questions and skip the rest of the learning material.
Those students are usually disappointed when they take the real certification exam and find out the test questions are different from the practice questions. Memorizing all the questions and answers you can find won't help you really understand how IT works and you will likely struggle to pass your exam.
Memorization can be helpful, however, both in learning and in the workplace world, if you memorize the right things. Memorizing certain key concepts can be a real benefit in answering the questions on certification exams. You can build upon those key concepts as you evaluate your response to each question.
For example, a question about a Class B network address would be difficult to answer if you don't know the difference between Class A, Class B, and Class C network addresses. Go ahead and memorize the definition of a Class A, Class B, and Class C network. Then you will understand the underlying concept that will allow you to answer the questions correctly.
Don't waste your time memorizing sets of questions and answers taken from practice exams or other study and training materials. Questions will change, but the underlying concepts won't.
When I was young, I would ask my father for help memorizing something for school. His answer was always the same: Go read it through nine times and then come back and I will help you practice.
As I tried to read through the material nine times, I would find that about the fifth or sixth time I was able to remember most of it already. I don't think I ever made it all the way through reading anything nine times, but I learned a great lesson about the value of repetition in being able to remember things.
Repetition is one of the most valuable techniques to help memorize things faster, but many of us forget to use it. It works well with simple words and concepts, such as memorizing a script or a presentation. Repeat your presentation over and over to yourself in the mirror. Repetition also works well for memorizing pi — I repeat the digits over and over until they are stuck in my head.
In our TestOut products, we usually have a video, a demo, a text lesson, a lab, and practice questions for each section. Each of these reinforce the concepts taught in that section. If you use all of these resources, you are getting the same kind of repetition that my dad taught me, and you will be amazed at how much you remember.
Another popular technique for memorization is to use a mnemonic device. The idea of mnemonics is to use acronyms, music, or rhyming to help us remember. Sometimes we create a sentence out of words that start with the same first letters as the words we are trying to remember.
IT students, for example, are probably familiar with the following mnemonics to help remember the names of the layers in the OSI model. This is a perfect situation to memorize a key concept. Remembering the layers of the OSI model will help you with answering questions on certification exams and with the rest of your IT career.
Layer 7 — Application
Layer 6 — Presentation
Layer 5 — Session
Layer 4 — Transport
Layer 3 — Network
Layer 2 — Data Link
Layer 1 — Physical
If you're memorizing bottom to top (Layer 1 to Layer 7), the mnemonic device is Please (Physical) Do (Data Link) Not (Network) Throw (Transport) Sausage (Session) Pizza (Presentation) Away (Application). If you're memorizing top to bottom (Layer 7 to Layer 1), the mnemonic device is All (Application) People (Presentation) Seem (Session) To (Transport) Need (Network) Data (Data Link) Processing (Physical).
Another popular IT mnemonic is used to remember the different types of fiber optic connectors: shove-and-twist (ST type connector), shove-and-click (SC type connector), and lift-and-click (LC type connector).
When I taught for a couple of years at Utah Valley University, a fellow professor would bring his guitar to his math class and teach his students songs to help them remember math concepts, such as the quadratic formula. Musical mnemonics are one of the best methods for learning content and for long-term retention of information. I still sing the quadradic song whenever I need to recall the formula.
Have some fun and come up with your own mnemonics. Creating acronyms, sentences, and songs will help you remember complex information you didn't think you could remember.
The chunking technique is all about grouping things together so that we can remember them easier. We already do this when we group the digits together in a phone number or a social security number. You could also group things alphabetically, or by type, to help you remember them better.
I use the chunking technique to remember the digits of Pi. I arrange them into groups with three digits each and then arrange these in groups of three also. The first 71 digits of pi, for example, look like this:
314 159 256
358 979 323
846 264 338
327 950 288
419 716 939
937 510 582
097 494 459
230 781 640
These triplets of triplets are then fairly easy to remember — with a lot of repetition. The trick is trying to remember which group comes next. I try to find linkages that help me remember which group comes next. For example, the first digit of the first set is a 3 and the first digit of the second set is also a 3.
Memorize for success
There are many other memorization techniques that you can draw on to help you remember key information. Memorization is an important educational tool that can turbocharge your learning experience and assist your job performance for years to come. Focus your memorization efforts on key concepts that will help you link formulas and processes together.
Information technology changes constantly — as an IT professional, you will continually learn and implement new ideas. Certification is a valuable method of adding new information to your career stockpile while refreshing skills, and memorization will help you succeed at certification.
Despite what you may sometimes hear, there's nothing wrong with memorization as part of your certification preparation. Just be sure to focus on key facts and concepts. Memorizing such information will help you think through and answer test questions, and you will be able to recall vital and useful concepts throughout your IT career.