A personal journey of lifelong learning, sharing resources, creating things, and trying to be better.

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A Comprehensive Guide to Self-Learning

Navajo Students Studying Mathematics at Day School | Source

How to unlock the full potential of a new era of education.

For the past few years, the world of MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) has become a fiercely large phenomenon. Across Medium and Reddit you can find great, comprehensive lists of free classes you can take:


This, however, is not one of those lists. With this new paradigm of learning, there comes the need to figuring out new methods of understanding and synthesising what is being learned. There is no curriculum, no consequences, no deadlines. This requires an exercise in self-reliance to institute. The student, in a way, must also learn how to become the teacher.

Creating lesson plan — let alone a learning path for yourself — is no simple task. And following through with it is another thing entirely. I am no expert myself, so take this rhetoric with a grain of salt. The examples I am going to be showing are only my own, as I’m using myself as a case study.

Use It or Lose It

This guide is meant as a way for you to take what you are learning and apply it in a meaningful way. It is not learning for the mere sake of learning — anybody can do that. In fact, that’s what is required of us throughout our schooling years.

The reason we forget what we learn in school is because we don’t use it in our every day life. In fact, that’s one of the biggest complaints people have in school.


One of the most effective methods to understanding the materials that you’re studying is to be passionate about them. This is the beauty of MOOCs — the idea that you can pick and choose to learn exactly and only what you want to.

Don’t jump into a new study without having a plan for it. Whenever you feel discouraged or frustrated, you can take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

There’s plenty of meaningful applications for learning new skills: to further your career, to find a new skill to freelance or moonlight with, or to contribute to a hobby or non-profit cause for the sake of goodness.

When you have a mindset of passion — of having a reason to learn and a future goal to look forward too — it is far easier to focus and digest material on a deeper level of understanding, beyond simply learning from rote.

With so much choice and freedom, it can be easy to try to accomplish too many things at once, only to end up neglecting your studies altogether. This is why it’s so important to chart out a path for yourself once you figure out what you want to accomplish.

Ask yourself how much time you’re able to sacrifice and how much effort you’ll sincerely put into this. Once you have those answers, you’ll be able to plan your own curriculum of sorts.

An Old Prototype of My Schedule

The Elements of a Successful Course

I’m going to break down what I think are the most important aspects when you’re learning something new on your own.

1. The Lesson

The first step is the most important part, obviously. Whether you’re taking an online course, reading a book, or studying another way — you need the content to be able to learn it. However, it’s a mistake to think that this is enough. This is really just the beginning.

2. Note Taking

The second step is to go beyond the course. Note-taking is the most often used method of retention and synthesis of learning. There are many different styles of note-taking — from traditional, to Cornell, to mind-mapping.

The exacts of successful note-taking vary from person-to-person, but I find it’s very useful to begin to index your note-taking with what you expect the themes of your learning are going to be for that lesson, followed by reviewing what the most important things you learned at the end.

There is nothing wrong with a pack-rat mentality of keeping track of everything that you’re learning, so long as it doesn’t detract from you fully comprehending what is most important.

I also suggest that you take notes by hand first — for a few years I tried to take notes on my computer, and found that even though it made organisation and searching a breeze, I felt as though I retained less. Once you have the notes written out, though, I find that migrating them to the computer does help retention and organisation.

3. Flashcards / Quizzes

The third step to better your learning is to then take your notes a step further by converting them into materials that you can test yourself with. This is why it’s so important to make sure you have the most important material kept, so you can easily create Q+A’s for it.

Some courses already have quizzes, which is excellent, but by creating your own, you’re coming up with questions as well as answers.

For flash cards, I recommend the software Anki, and this guide for it.

4. Assignments / Projects

The fourth step is what I believe is the most important. Traditionally speaking, assignments are simply another part of the system. They are usually rather dry, and have no inherent value other than for the course itself.

But with MOOCs, you have the ability to push yourself to use the knowledge that you’ve gained to create your own projects that you can freely share and use. Apply your learn and thus gain something outside of the learning as the reward.

A good example of this is that I’m in the process of making a blog with Jekyll, which has the twofold benefits of learning web development, as well as having a place to document my other learning, which leads into #5.

5. Share Your Work

Once you have finished a course, you have not only have you improved your own learning by creating all of the above resources, but you now also have the opportunity to share them with others.

Create a blog or use other social media to share what you’ve learned and what you’ve made in the process. Find others that you can collaborate and study with. Build a community of learners and creators. There is no reason to go at this alone.

See Also: Show Your Work!

Additional Tips

  • The best skills to learn first are ‘meta-skills’, such as learning how to learn, time management or other skills that you can use in your studying.
  • Figure out a system and stick to it. Once you have a schedule made, find a way to link it to your created materials, as well as any other important information. (My personal recommendations would be OneNote for Windows, or using Sublime Text w/ Markdown for Linux.)
  • When you’re writing about what you’ve learned, don’t be afraid to add your own personal story or information — conglomerate multiple sources of learning for a more thorough discourse.



Create Your Own by Filtering Out Everything Else

The only thing common in the routines of every supposedly successful person is that they’re all different. You have to figure out what works for you. The worst outcome is trying to duplicate the schedule and habits of somebody famous — and then when it doesn’t work out — blame yourself and get demotivated. Results vary wildly. The specifics of success are not universal, and neither is anybody’s abilities or strengths.

It can be difficult to realize this when you read multiple articles claiming that there’s one thing that all successful people do — blog posts that say that everybody would benefit from a new, sensationalized pattern or practice.

What is universal are the abstract, conceptual foundations behind success. For example, figure out what you think is: 
1) Important to do.
2) Enjoyable to do.

Then, it’s a matter of figuring out how to carve out the needed time. This is wildly different for everyone. A lot of people looking for something more in life don’t have the luxury of extra time or income, and it’s foolish for so many writers to neglect this obvious fact.

Noise vs. Quality

In order to figure out what works for you, you need to spend time on you, and less on other things. Read less material that makes you doubt yourself.

In only a short amount of a time, society as a whole has gone from a sparse amount of information available to far too much instead. It’s far too easy to get consumed with consuming as much media as possible — but the amount of usefulness quickly plateaus.

Watch less television, read less articles (like this one), play less video games. Allow yourself to be extremely selective of what you expose yourself to on a daily basis —with the sheer multitude of media, there’s no need to subject yourself to anything low-quality or biased.

Ask yourself if what you’re consuming is doing one of the following:
1) Inspiring you — giving you motivation to do something good.
2) Educating you — giving you knowledge to do something good.
3) Entertaining you — giving you time to relax and synthesize.

If the answer is no to all of the above, then don’t be afraid to disregard it. You’re not going to be missing out on much. Use the time you’d regularly spend reading/watching/playing non-useful things to create instead. Or at least find something that does one of the above three things.

The Magic of Iteration

Notebook BesideSource

Publishing More Often

Write today, and write every day after that — but how should writing be published? As a creator, the responsibility for what you put on display is in your hands. While that responsibility is one that has extensive freedom, but still requires an amount of apt judgement.

There’s a fine balance in how often you publish what you write — it’s a double-edged sword. Nothing good comes from proudly displaying the first bad thing you come up with. Impulsively posting every thought you have to Twitter only can lead to a lot of white noise. Even worse than that, though, is thinking that nothing is ever good enough to show off at all. A lack of posting eventually leads to a lack of creating, even privately.

The Feedback LoopSource

This is where the magic of iteration comes in. There’s a concept in business called minimum viable product (MVP), which is the rough draft of a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future development.

I believe this concept can be applied to writing and any other creative work. When inspiration strikes and you have a good idea, work it out into something and then share it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be *good*. Reach out to others and ask for their response — ideas only grow stronger when they’re shared and ego is let go of.

And so when you stumbled upon something, show it off. Do this over and over again. A lot of what you do will fall flat or fail — but this is true no matter how much work you put into. There’s probably more luck in this equation than hard work.

Build up a personal repertoire — with iteration, you’ll eventually find that you have a large bulk of good work. Look for common themes and pick out what you consider your best. When you finally find something that resonates with a large amount of people — expand on it then. Do the methodical research others aren’t willing to have the patience to do.

Compile and release this more extensive work — it’ll pay off. This essentially leads to the same path as if you were writing something this large privately the entire time, but with the added benefit of having more feedback from others — and well as seeing what succeeded 
 and failed within the short-term.

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