How to Improve Your Self-Learning Journey

Get rid of your false preconceptions and understand the process

Mathias Barra
Apr 16 · 8 min read
Photo by Le Wagon on Unsplash

I grew up thinking I needed a teacher to be good in any subject.

I took classes to learn to ski, surf, play trumpet, learn everything in school, and many other things. I regret not learning the power of self-learning when I was younger but I make up for the time loss now, by learning as much as I can on my own.

It turns out I was wrong. Self-learning doesn’t mean learning alone. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a teacher. I see self-learning as having two main characteristics:

  1. You don’t have one fixed teacher
  2. You are your own judge of progress

These two aspects impact tremendously how you learn as a whole. It’s because of these two details that the entire journey ends up being so different from one of taking classes.

I’m now self-learning as much as I can but the main topics on my plate are: getting my driver’s license, learning how cryptocurrency works, and improving my languages (the current focus is on Burmese and German).

All You’ll Use Comes From Others

Deciding to self-learn something doesn’t mean you’ll learn everything without anybody’s help. In fact, it doesn’t even mean you’ll learn anything without external help. If you could learn something without external help, then you wouldn’t need to learn it in the first place.

When you read a textbook, you use its writers as teachers. When you watch a documentary, everybody who took part in its creation is a teacher to you. When you get feedback on an error you made, the person giving it is a teacher to you. Even when you get automated correction like when you learn to code and make a typo, the message telling you there’s an error is, in a way, a teacher to you. And, as a result, so is the person who made the program in the software in the first place.

When I’m studying for my driver’s license, I’m using online resources to find what common questions arise at the test. When I’m learning a language, the creators of the resources I use are my teachers. So are the creators of anything I read about cryptocurrency.

The problem with “standard” learning, taking classes, is that you only get one or a few teachers. If their method doesn’t work for you, you’re stuck. On the other hand, the problem with self-learning is that you get a lot. You have to make your own choices. It might be harder, but it’s more efficient because you can avoid what doesn’t matter to you.

As an example, you can save time and refrain from learning the verb “to engineer” if you don’t need it. Or you can learn it early on if you do.

Manage Your Motivation

Taking classes means you are forced to study on a rather regular basis. If you have 3 classes per week along with homework to do before each, it means you have to study at the very least 4 times per week (if you have class three days in a row). Chances are, however, that you’ll need to study 5 or 6 days a week.

When you take classes, you are forced to be consistent. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it, you have to find some energy to study. That’s the advantage of taking classes but it also has a drawback.

It forces you to study something you didn’t choose. Yes, you may have chosen the overall topic, like learning about cryptocurrency, but if a teacher focuses on explaining Bitcoin while you want to dive into NFTs, your motivation will be lower. And motivation impacts how well you remember.

Being a self-learner also allows you to study content as you prefer doing. Dual-coding — to encounter knowledge both in written and spoken form — is the best way to retain knowledge better but when it’s not possible, you might feel more inclined at a certain time to study through a podcast rather than a textbook, or the other way around.

When you’re self-learning, you are in charge of choosing how you want to study. You can vary at any moment. You can have fun with the knowledge renew your motivation in an original way when you begin losing it.

After I passed the highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT N1), I felt my motivation to learn Japanese slip away. I was tired of so much study so I turned to reading a novel in Japanese. That allowed me to improve a bit more and regain my motivation to learn even more.

And, in the worst case, you can always use other people to fuel your motivation through inspiring content. I love reading about learning Sinhalese or the Norwegian language because it makes me want to thrive as well, even though I’m not learning those. I love Toby Hazlewood’s content on cryptocurrency because I can see his own knowledge on the topic increase.

Get the Right Feedback

Getting feedback is, without a doubt, the hardest task of all when self-learning anything. When you’re alone in your room tackling knowledge you’ve never encountered before, it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone.

You do exercises you find online and have a look at the answers the moment you struggle. Even if you succeed in solving a problem, the answer you find is only one of the many ways possible. Nothing tells you yours isn’t right.

For example, when I create imaginary conversations in Korean, the sentences I create make sense to me. They follow grammar patterns I’ve learned and vocabulary I either already knew or looked up. But it’s only through getting feedback from native speakers on platforms like Journaly or Lang-8 that I can be sure of my errors.

Feedback makes or breaks a self-learning journey.

Scott H. Young, who self-learned the MIT program in a single year, said in his book Ultralearning,

“The best kind of feedback to get is corrective feedback. This is the feedback that shows you not only what you’re doing wrong but how to fix it. This kind of feedback is often available only through a coach, mentor, or teacher. However, sometimes it can be provided automatically if you are using the right study materials.”

My experience with languages and with coding has shown me that’s not entirely true. There are ways to get automatic feedback for things like practicing the driver’s license test online, but most things need feedback from an actual person. That person, however, doesn’t need to be your coach, mentor, nor teacher.

With the use of the internet, you can get quality corrective feedback from people you’ve never met and probably never will. On platforms like HiNative, you can get feedback on your pronunciation in a language. On platforms like Journaly, you can get corrections on texts you wrote. On GitHub, you can get corrections on your code.

There also forums for anything you could think of. If you take part in a community of lovers of that skill, you can get really descriptive feedback for free. You just need to look for it. It might be well hidden but it exists. After all, there’s a forum for all sorts of origami.

Give Regular Exams to Reorient Yourself

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to stay highly motivated forever and improve at a regular rhythm. Life will come in the way and, as a self-learner, you’ll need to push yourself through hardships.

We all had hundreds of exams when we were in school. How many have you had since then? I’m ready to bet you probably didn’t have many.

When you’re learning on your own, you will follow directives from many different sources. As time passes, you’ll realize the well-organized plan you made for yourself when you start doesn’t fit well. You have to reorient your journey.

Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. — James Clear, Atomic Habits

In school, exams allowed us to find our weak points and focus more on those when needed. That’s something too often overlooked in self-learning.

Through doing some practice tests for my driver’s license, I discovered I often confused all the lights at the back of the car. While learning about cryptocurrency, I noticed I struggled to understand how the Ethereum blockchain served as a basis for other cryptocurrencies so I turned my attention to it for a while.

In my language-learning journey, after learning Korean for a while, I realized I needed to focus on vocabulary instead of grammar after testing my abilities in real conversations. I understood the structure of sentences but not what they meant.

When you learn anything, you always need to have a priority to focus on. It’s fine to learn details here and there, but you should always spend most of your time on tasks that bring you closer to your goal.

Teach Others

The impostor syndrome is a beast we all have to deal with at one point or another. The problem with self-learning is that you don’t have an official confirmation you’ve reached a certain level.

If you graduated from learning a language at University, no matter your confidence in the language, you know you have abilities in the language. When you’re learning on your own, you could feel constantly inferior to “real” students of the topic.

To combat this, you can turn into a teacher yourself. Try teaching others what you’ve learned. Find real beginners and tutor them. If need be, ask your friends if they want to be your guinea pigs. See their progress and gain confidence in your own skills.

Each learning journey is different so your “students” will have questions you may have never thought of. They will challenge your knowledge and force you to dig deeper into what you thought you knew. And you’ll learn better that way.

As Alisa Barcan has been teaching about coaching through her writing and YouTube videos, I’m sure she’s become a better coach as well.

Final Thoughts

Self-learners have the best teacher because they have countless teachers and can, themselves, become teachers as well.

Learning to self-learn should really be taught to children as early as possible but, luckily for us, it’s a skill we can get better at with time. I’m glad I discovered it for all it’s brought to my life.

Could I have learned more from classes? Maybe. Would have I had more fun? Doubt it.

Self-learning is fun. It’s flexible. It’s all You. You get to make it whatever you want and tweak it whenever needed. You don’t have to spend a year with a bad teacher as you did in school.

Learn to learn “on your own” today and you’ll be on your way to a magnificent learning journey.

Have fun!

How to be your best self.

Thanks to George J. Ziogas

Mathias Barra

Written by

French polyglot speaking 6 languages. Writer. Helping you learn languages. Get my new ebook →


Make tomorrow better today.

Mathias Barra

Written by

French polyglot speaking 6 languages. Writer. Helping you learn languages. Get my new ebook →


Make tomorrow better today.

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