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15 Secrets of the Most Successful Self-Learners

by Staff Writers

For many curious folks, their impassioned yearning to soak up as much of the world’s wonders as possible completely transcends the boundaries of a traditional classroom. Armed with an insatiable lust for knowledge, they set out to acquire it on their own terms, although a few pointers obviously can’t hurt before departure and landing! Not every possible technique will necessarily stick with all self-motivated learners, of course, but the only way to find out is to test them. Try some of the following and experiment with what works in a more independent educational setting.

  1. Take advantage of open source and courseware

    Learn for free via resources like iTunes U, YouTube EDU, Open Culture, MIT Open Courseware, and many, many more examples of open source and courseware. These free (or low-cost, in some cases) offerings provide everything from overviews to entire classes for self-motivated learners wanting to pick up pretty much any subject imaginable. Run searches for a particular area of interest (along with “open source” or “open coursework,” of course) and see what all is available.

  2. Set clear, attainable goals

    Because self-directed learning doesn’t involve a formalized syllabus, it’s up to the individuals themselves to whip up their own solid goals. Realistic, solid goals, of course. Make sure to outline what all needs to be done in order to achieve them and allow for some flexibility. And after crossing off the first round, start establishing more challenging follow-ups. Let them grow off one another in order to receive the most comprehensive look at the subject possible.

  3. Library membership

    Along with providing excellent supplements to open courseware classes, public libraries (and academic ones) often hold free or cheap classes on a wide variety of subjects — usually related to hobbies and computers. While they might not necessarily go as in-depth as those taught in a more formal setting, they can kick-start intense self-learning and open themselves up to other strategies and perspectives. A library card stretches quite a bit, so take advantage of what the local system has to offer when embarking on an independent educational voyage.

  4. Self-assessment

    Teachers don’t set goals for self-learners, meaning they certainly can’t measure just how well the content sank in through tests. So the effective solo student needs to know how to assess a skill set before moving on to the next lesson. Tie them in with what you ultimately hope to accomplish for the best results. Many open courseware programs, particularly those offered through colleges and universities, come bundled with their own tests, but they might not necessarily line up with the patron’s personal goals.

  5. Be realistic

    Just like more “traditional” learning spaces, the self-guided classroom will inevitably hit some snags, whether expected or not. Before jumping into a new subject or hobby, understand that the reality and the fantasy likely won’t align. Some facets might prove entirely too difficult to fully grasp. Sometimes emergencies crop up and disrupt the flow of learning. Just go with what life has in store — sticking to a rigid schedule will only inspire stress and anxiety when one should be feeling interested and engaged.

  1. Be self-aware

    This tip obviously ties into facing self-learning with a realistic outlook. Analyzing your strengths and weaknesses beforehand will prevent the metaphorical biting off more than you can chew, making the whole process less nerve-wracking. Bumps will still crop up on occasion, but courses will still go on far more smoothly if you know where your limits sit — or put forth the effort to challenge them, fail, and accept that they either require some other stimuli to change or aren’t exactly negotiable.

  2. Time management skills

    Self-learning requires as much of a time commitment as the individual allots, from minutes to hours a day. Keeping to a schedule and minimizing distractions will help the material ingrain itself more efficiently. Virginia Tech recommends writing down the week’s major events and goals as a viable strategy for sticking to a more definitive timeline. The school also thinks managing it like a to-do list is also a great idea, as striking out completed tasks makes it even easier to see what’s been done and what still needs doing.

  3. Motivation

    Obviously, the fact that you’re even interested in self-learning in the first place denotes some degree of motivation already. Sticking with an educational regimen is another thing entirely. Find what drives you best of all and apply it to a brand new undertaking. Pick The Brain believes staying upbeat and navigating through goals with flexibility, clarity, and a knack for keeping yourself going builds the confidence needed to press forward on a project and hopefully succeed at it.

  4. Get some rest

    New York University researchers made note of the relationship between rest and memory, which the savvy self-learner should heed. Taking time out for relaxation (not necessarily involving sleep) bolsters the mind and makes it easier to retain information. When a self-learning session grows too overwhelming, pause and engage in something low-key instead. Yes, even if it hasn’t been scheduled. Doing so will serve as a refresher, making more difficult undertakings a little bit easier afterward.

  5. Go mobile

    If finances allow (of course!), set up learning sessions on the go with smartphones and tablet PCs. With so many free and low-cost apps available — not to mention browser capability — self-motivated learners have plenty of resources for supplements and full courses alike. Try TED and eHow as a broad start, and run searches for more subject-specific goodies. Don’t forget all of the useful productivity apps out there, too!

  1. Eat brain food

    Keeping with a brain-healthy diet, like the one outlined by Dr. Mehmet Oz, keeps the most essential organ as balanced as it can be — a necessity for self-motivated learners. Operating at peak efficiency increases the cognitive functions essential to absorbing and retaining the lessons at hand. In addition, it fosters better mental health, which boasts some all-around benefits beyond the academic.

  2. Exercise

    Engaging in some form of physical activity keeps more than just the heart healthy; the brain also receives the exercise it needs to best process every bit of external stimuli. Aerobic activities in particular sharpen those cognitive abilities, and when paired with a nutritious diet, make a body well-primed for learning inside and outside the “traditional” classroom setting. If you feel too energetic to rest in between sessions, consider taking a walk or a run instead.

  3. Challenge yourself

    The Daily Beast’s Sharon Begley rightfully points out that no universal approach toward cognitive boosting has been discovered; even exercise and diet can harbor exceptions. But she explains that one of the more effective strategies involves learning new skills, which seems to nurse neuroplasticity better than focusing on ones already in place. Putting forth the effort to try something different physiologically alters the brain, according to her research, making it expand and capable of picking up even more information.

  4. “Outside-the-box” thinking

    Literally thinking “outside the box.” The old cliche about creativity boasts some basis in reality, come to find out, as 2011 research conducted on NYU students proved. Those with the more unorthodox approaches to the tasks at hand usually sat outside the assigned cubicle, leading researchers to wonder if confined spaces lead to confined thinking. Not every strategy works for every self-learner, of course, but it might be one to consider when searching for innovative solutions.

  5. Tune out negativity

    All self-learners need to stay realistic, of course, but be warned of lurching too far into cynicism. Stay upbeat and positive when studying and realize that no shame exists in stopping a session — or even the equivalent of a full course! — if it simply proves too much to handle. Walk away knowing yourself and your abilities a little better than before; and remember nothing says you can’t pick up and try again later!