Learning to Learn (on your own)

Spencer Kelly

My journey through many a MOOC (massive open online course), and the lessons you can take from it.

Quick disclaimer, it should be noted that I’ve either accidentally written a divine tome about online education… or this advice will only work for some people. Ultimately, everyone has to decide what works for them, and there’s no wrong way to do it.


Before the fall of 2016 I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I had tried acting, taught dancing, ran a Live Action Role Play group, and gotten a marketing certificate from my local Junior College. And after doing all this, I still didn’t like my career options. I wasn’t against college, but it costs a lot of money and I wanted to pursue other options before making that investment.

Up until this point in my life I’d never really considered Computer Science as a career choice. I mean after all, you had to be super smart to do it right? But I had grown out of that mindset over the years and my Girlfriends parents were both CS people so I decided to try it. Computer Science is also a field where skill matters more than a degree, so I could try to do it without paying for college.

Choosing Your First Class

I went through a very long and arduous process to decide on what class to take first. You can find my process below :-)

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t put time into deciding what class to take first, but it’s more important that you start learning, then that you take the perfect class first.

I decided to start with CS50 on Edx. It’s challenging, and the teacher is an amazing speaker.

How to Learn and Stay Motivated

It’s all well and good to start a class, but just starting it isn’t going to get you anywhere. And sticking with it can be really hard.

Here’s where the disadvantages of MOOC’s lie. Most of them are not great at providing you any sort of motivation to complete the course. When you go to college, you have money invested in it, you are living in their dorm, and if you don’t do everything on time, you fail. This provides great external motivation and can help people stick with their education. But MOOC’s don’t have any of those things generally, so how do you do it?

Well unfortunately, the answer is it probably won’t be easy. I’ve been learning online for a year and a half now and there will always be hard times. The most important part is that you keep going. I know saying that isn’t really helpful though, so I’ll provide some tips for getting through lack of motivation, or frustration.

At first, my strategy was just learn when I felt like it and play video games when I didn’t. This was not a good strategy… I ended up spending most of the time on video games, and less and less on coding.

Treat Learning Like A Full-Time Job.

This obviously can only work for people who don’t already have full-time jobs, but even if you do, I’d recommend treating it like a part time side job. To adopt this way of thinking I started myself on a schedule. In the morning I’d wake up and get breakfast. Then i’d hop on my computer to learn, and besides food breaks, I’d only stop at night when my friends were online to play games.

But there was a problem with that too. I was getting burned out. I was stressed throughout the day and I started to give up the regiment because of it. Now that I was serious about my education, I needed to learn to…

Take breaks

Stupid thing to have to learn, I know, but really important. When you get frustrated, go do something else. Preferably something physical like a short walk or even eating something. It really helps relieve the stress and refresh your motivation.

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, stress means you’re learning. If you really push yourself to learn, you’ll get stressed. But at this point in my education, I almost like stress because I’ve reframed it my mind as a good thing. If I’m stressed, I know I’m really pushing myself and learning a lot, and so along with the unpleasant feeling of being stressed, I also feel a sense of victory whenever I am able to keep working through it.

Changing it up

If all else fails, and you can’t keep yourself on task and learning, try changing something important. For instance, changing your environment. When I’m not feeling up to learning some days I’ll head over to starbucks with my laptop and just focus on the task all day. The lively environment (and possibly the caffeine) get me back to my classes in no time. Infact I almost always have my most productive days at starbucks.

You can also change what you’re learning, switch to a different lesson or topic. I don’t mean change fields completely, but just switch the specifics around a bit. But be careful, switching too often (multiple times a day) can really reduce your productivity, and at least for me, became a form of procrastination.

Learn What Motivates You, and Implement It.

As you spend a lot of time learning and move through a number of online classes, you’ll probably learn what motivates you, and what doesn’t (if you don’t already know). And this is extremely valuable because you can start using this knowledge to motivate yourself. Maybe it’s having specific goals every day, or having some sort of project to build. I do best when am on a schedule and so I will set my own schedules, and only choose online courses that have fixed time frames.

Trust That It Will Get Easier, and Keep Going

This is easily the most important thing you have to do to make it in the MOOC world. While I was trying to learn computer science, and later AI, there were many many times when I felt like I couldn’t do it. You can’t let those times get to you. The only time you fail is when you don’t get back up, and push through the hardship.

When I was going through Udacity’s Deep Learning Nanodegree, and later in the Self-Driving Car Nanodegree as well. There were many times when I felt way out of my depth in my math knowledge. I was homeschooled through high school and never took math courses at the Junior College, so I didn’t know Calculus or Linear Algebra (or even advanced algebra and geometry). But luckily, I was able to push through it and learn the math I needed too. After all, I was already learning online, why not just focus on math for a bit?

And it does get easier after a while. You get used to the routine, and being self motivated becomes normal. I still have bad days but I can be sure now that they are just that DAYS, not a pattern of failure or the straw that breaks the camel's back, but just bad days.

And that’s what it’s all about, trusting yourself. If you don’t believe that you can learn something, it probably won’t happen. But ultimately, learning is just about hard work, and you have to trust that you’ll get it eventually.


Spencer Kelly

Written by

I’m a deep-learning student specifically interested in self-driving cars

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