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How do I Learn Access?

The question came as a private message, actually phrased, “How can my employee learn Access?” It seems that as part of her duties, the employee was tasked with taking over an Access database created by another employee. Regardless of the cartooncircumstances this is an excellent question. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

learning curve

Access beginners often become discouraged when they start to realized that the learning curve is actually quite long and involved. “Learning Access” is quite unlike other learning they may have experienced. Frequently a question that seems to be quite simple leads to several other questions at a more fundamental level. Each of those questions can lead to yet additional even more fundamental questions.

background knowledge and skills

Frequently “learning Access” as in learning how to manipulate things within the Access environment, is only part of the issue. I can teach you the simple mechanics of designing and creating forms and reports from the perspective of how they will look, the size and relative position of their components in a few hours. Those skills, however, barely scratch the surface of “learning Access.”

Identifying the right tool for the job is an important skill that can save you hours of frustration and wasted effort. To identify the right tool you first need to understand the job, then you need to understand the possible tools. The Crabby Office Lady has an article with some guidelines about whether Access or Excel would be the better tool for particular jobs.

Think of it this way. I can teach you to use a calculator, how to press the keys to make numbers appear on the display and how to press the operator keys to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, reasonably quickly. But, unless you know what combination of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division you will need to apply to solve your immediate problem, knowing how to use a calculator, how to punch numbers, won’t really help you much.

Access is like that on a grand scale. Unless you learn or already know, how to analyze data, and organize it according to relational data design principles, knowing how to create a table and add fields to it, won’t get you very far. Unless you learn, or already understand, the math behind the business problems you want a database to help with, knowing how to create calculated controls on forms and reports also won’t get you very far.

Not every database involves arithmetic calculations, of course, but there are many skills that go into developing a database application that go far beyond merely having “learned Access”.”

learning by doing

There is nothing quite like experiential learning to build and enhance a permanent knowledge base. Identify a problem and then work at devising a solution. Unfortunately, if you are doing your experiential learning all on your own, what you learn and what may become a permanent part of your skill set, may not always be the best or even the ‘right’ way to solve your problem.

Experiential learning can also be a frustrating process. You may run into roadblocks that, once you have overcome them, seem to be quite inconsequential but, until they are overcome, stop you dead in your tracks. Sometimes the solution is a simple as missed dot or a missing space.


There are a number of on-line or DVD based courses available. However, as good as their content may be, such courses, are unable to rephrase or modify how they explain topics in response to questions you may have. If you run into a concept that you have difficulty understanding, you may find yourself beating your head against the proverbial stone wall if an on-line or DVD course is your only learning resource.

I have to confess that I have a somewhat biased opinion when it comes to computer training courses. I facilitate instructor led training sessions for Office applications. I believe that such courses have a distinct advantage over on-line or DVD courses precisely because learners can ask questions, can say, “I don’t understand that point,” and the trainer or instructor can rephrase the explanation, suggest alternative analogies, or otherwise help the learner overcome hurdles in a timely fashion.

Check out courses that may be available through your local community college or other adult training facilities. If you live in or near my part of the world (north-eastern Ontario, Canada, pay a visit to The Enterprise Centre Computer Software Training & Development web page to see details on the training sessions we offer there.

Quote of the Day
Recommend to your children virtue; that alone can make them happy, not gold.
–Ludwig van Beethoven

print resources

Even in today’s electronic age, hardcopy books and articles can be excellent learning resources. I have found that no one book is the best for me. Where one book or author may do an excellent job on many topics, there may be other topics that one particular author or book does not touch or explains in a way that isn’t clear to me. Reading a different author’s treatment of the same subject frequently gets me on track.

In the recommended reading section below, I have listed two books that I have found helpful in understanding Access and what it can do.

on-line resources

In the past, newsgroups, and more recently on-line forums are excellent learning resources where you can ask questions about specific problems you are having and get helpful answers and suggestions. Although you may have to register in order to post questions, many on-line forums are free. In fact, I suggest you try the free forums first. Again, my bias may be showing, but one of the best Access forums is, where I am an administrator. George Hepworth, author of one of the books recommended below and several of the co-authors of the other book are UtterAccess members, moderators, or administrators, and frequent posters at UtterAccess.

recommended reading

George Hepworth’s Grover Park George on Access is a good introduction to relational database concepts in simple layperson’s language. If you are already comfortable with relational concepts and want to see more of Access in Action, you might find Microsoft Access Small Business Solutions a worthwhile read.

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