Science For Life
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Science For Life

To Learn Better, Create Your Own Learning Projects, Not Take More Courses

And Here’s a Step-by-step on How to Make One

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

For the most part of my life, learning was taken care of by schools and courses. Only when I graduated did I see what a major flaw this is, we were never taught how to learn on our own.

Structured learning governs most of our lives and for good reason. If everyone has to learn on their own, we as humans won’t get very far. I mean, can you imagine learning on your own as a child? No schools to teach you what was right, it would be total anarchy.

But the problem comes after we grow out of our schooling phase and enter the adult world. Where the question of what to learn next is as hard as finding the meaning of life.

How can we expect to learn on our own if we were never taught how to? How many times have you given up self-learning because it was too difficult?

After I graduated from University, I swore an oath that I would never stop learning. That I would never let myself become an old man that was forever stuck in his ways because he refused to learn more.

As you can imagine, it was short-lived. I read books, watched lectures, even tried to attend more talks but they all met the same fate. There was so much material out there but no one to guide you on your next steps.

There is of course the temptation of online courses. Where your learning material and structure were taken care of. They promise that “You will be in the top 1% after this course”. Wouldn’t that be the dream? To offer only your time and money and learn all that you want in return.

The cruel truth is that there is not a single resource out there that covers everything you want to learn.

The only way we can get that is to do it ourselves.

And it comes full circle. How are we supposed to learn on our own?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. But what I do have to offer is a system that I created since I graduated a few years ago. A system that has been refined a dozen times and has helped me with my own self-learning. But, even after so many refinements, it is still a work in progress.

Create Your Own Project

The most common reason behind many of my self-learning failures is uncertainty.

At any point, if I felt uncertain, I would slowly lose confidence and slowly stop learning. Thus, clarity became my number one goal when I sought to create a self-learning system.

Creating your own learning projects is the best way that I have found for maximum clarity. Before embarking on any self-learning journey, I first define its scope and schedule. Then I spend a decent amount of time coming up with a project plan and project reviews.

Let’s start with the scope.

Make a Project Scope (Reason, Outcome, Timeline)

This is where I set my true intentions for the learning project. Much like a yoga session, I think it’s important to define a reason and outcome for the project in the first place.

When I do this, I resist any temptation to google it. I use whatever I know how to define what I want to get out of the project. And I try to be as specific as I can.

Once that is done, I set an assumed timeline for the project. The timeline always changes but I find setting a timeline adds to the concreteness of the project.

I would type all of this down in a word document.

One that I call a “Project Plan”.

For example, my scope for a web application project looks like this :

Web Application Project Scope

Make a Schedule

I work a 9–5 job and any time around that is time that I treat preciously. So I tend to learn in sessions. Therefore, I create a project schedule for those sessions.

I would decide on the session duration and frequency for the project. After creating many learning projects, I have found that the shorter the duration, the more likely I am to stick with it. Even if I increased the frequency of the duration.

For my web application project, I chose 3, 1-hour sessions per week to work on the project.

I could add more but I know myself well enough that if I did, my consistency would drop. So, when you do choose a session duration and frequency, decide on the combination that provides the most consistency.

This may mean you have to tinker around with the schedule for a while before you find an optimal one. But the idea here is to, again, clarify your time on the project.

Make a Plan

After the scope and schedule are made. I take a short break because I know that the project plan takes the longest to make. It is where I do my research, gather learning material, and map out a rough route of the project.

The plan is the backbone of the project. It is what allows me to go through this project with certainty and clarity that I am doing the right thing. So it’s important that I spend a decent amount of time on it.

But it is also very easy to plan too much. I would sometimes try and collect every single resource before starting the project. Collecting resources feels productive and that feeling sometimes prevents me from actually doing the project.

To help me with this, I have found Scott H. Young’s advice helpful. It is to spend around 10–15% of the project time making the plan.

In other words, since this project will take me 3 months to complete, I should spend 9 days planning. This may seem overkill but it ensures that I don’t end up planning forever.

Break The Project Down

To start making a plan, I break down my project into smaller parts, as small as I think it should be.

A simplified version of my web application project looks like this :

Web Application Project Breakdown

I then research and gather the needed materials I think I need for each part.

Aside from the time it takes, this is also the most difficult step for me. Even after doing this numerous times, I can’t help but still get overwhelmed.

With so many resources out there. It becomes extremely difficult to make a decision on what to include. There are two tips that I have found useful in helping me decide.

Eliminate mediums that aren’t optimal and the struggle timer method.

Understand How You Learn Best

Understanding which medium you learn from the best eliminates a lot of options which makes your choice easier. The trick here is to never conform to another learning medium.

For example, I learn the best when watching videos. Therefore, even if I found the “best” book on web applications, I won’t read it until I absolutely have to. I would stick to all video learning resources.

By doing this, you essentially eliminate a huge portion of choices. For the remainder, I use the struggle timer method.

The Struggle Timer Method

This technique is simply limiting your research time and then forcing yourself to make a decision.

To do this, first set a research goal and duration. After the time ends, you must make a decision and not change your answer after your decision. Simply pick one and move on.

Most resources offer 60–65% of what you need to know. The more time you spend on deciding between them, the less value you will get out of it.

This is what I did for my web application learning project :

Research Criteria

I then repeat this until I have covered all of the sections of the project.

With my plan looking something like this :

Project Plan

Technically, I now have all the tools to start learning on my own. But I knew that the project plan, scope, and schedule may change and I needed a way to intentionally make those changes.

That is where review periods come into play.

Make Review Sessions

In the numerous projects I have completed, my plans, schedule, and scope always changed.

In the beginning, I would haphazardly make changes to the project when I wanted to but that led to a distrust in the overall project. I found it hard to rely on something that changed so frequently.

However, there is no denying that change is inevitable. Thus, I decided to make time for it — review sessions.

Reviews are time slots that I use for reflection and making needed changes. I use this time to check on what went well and what needs improving. This is also where I make changes to the plan, scope, or schedule of the project.

Simply dedicate a learning session once in a while to reviewing the project’s progress and future is an effective way to ensure you are on the right track.

In one review, I found out that I needed more time to learn .NET MVC and swiftly made that change to the plan during one of the review periods.

There is no right interval for reviews but I have found monthly/weekly to be useful intervals. I would increase review periods at the start of a project and gradually lessen review periods as the project becomes more stable.

An Outline of How to Create Your Own Learning project

Final Thoughts

As we were never taught how to learn by ourselves, it can be extremely difficult when we try it out for the first time. The uncertainty and the overwhelming choices are the root cause of this.

Creating learning projects is a way to bring some intentionality and structure to this abstract void. But even so, creating the learning project alone can still be difficult.

The good news is that it gets better, the more projects you create because learning how to learn is a skill itself. As you create more projects, you also get better at this skill.

I hope that helps.

Thanks for reading.

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Bradenkoh

Bradenkoh

Engineer. Programmer. Computational Designer. Currently in Sydney.

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