Originally published on September 21st, 2011. Edited on September 24th, 2013.
If you’re reading this, you have access to an Internet connection which also means that you have the ability to learn virtually anything you set your mind to! This post is a primer on the basic tools that you can employ to learn things from just about any discipline.
Google is probably the most powerful learning tool we have today. Google will help you to find the sites you need to learn the foundations of the topic you are learning. Use these search templates to get the best results (fill in the ‘…’ with whatever topic or skill you’re trying to learn):
- “How to …”
- “Best blogs on …”
- “… forum”
- “best books on …”
- “… tutorial”
You also can, and should, use the “how to …” and “… tutorial” search templates on YouTube to get visual tutorials.
Google is always my gateway into the world of whatever topic I am learning. It’s how we can find articles, people, and communities with expert advice on the topic. Chances are that whatever questions you come up with have already been asked so search forums or blog comments to find answers. Many communities collaboratively create beginners guides and if you still have unanswered questions just ask, people love the chance to help.
After using Google to search for the best books, compare several lists from multiple sources and make a mental note when you see multiple sites mention the same book. Chances are that the titles appearing on multiple lists are the best and will make for a good launching point. Grab these books from your local library, download them for free (if its copyright has expired) from Project Gutenberg to read on your computer or your Kindle.
Practice your speed reading skills to really start devouring books. Keep in mind that it is important to know when to slow down; do not sacrifice comprehension for speed. I also recommend taking notes every chapter or section to sum up the main points you want to remember and to also copy down any quotes you like. You can also purchase your books if you choose to mark them up.
A dictionary, physical or otherwise, is essential for the autodidact because new words are bound to spring up when learning new things. Most people would just skip the words and forget about them and they point they sought to make. Not us. Look those words up whether it be in a physical dictionary or an online alternative such as one of my two favorites, OneLook and Dictionary.com. No more skipping words or making potentially incorrect assumptions about what they mean.
I know that we all have our preferred methods for taking notes, but there are so many neat tools out there that you might find something you like better. Two things I have played with and liked are a client called Zim and a web-based solution, Springnote. Both of them are based on wikis. You’ll see others if you check out some of the links I provide at the end of this post. Evernote is another super popular note taking tool that works across all devices and is accessible anywhere with an internet connections. Evernote is my personal favorite digital option.
Are you into pen and paper? Me too. The Bullet Journal is the epitome of staying organized and taking notes with pen and paper. I tweaked the method the Bullet Journal uses to make a perfect solution for myself that I currently use for learning, note taking, and task management.
Tim Ferris also has an excellent blog post on note-taking that I highly recommend.
Know Your Objectives
You don’t always need to read entire books to learn things. If you’re only trying to learn X, don’t read the chapters about Y and Z. Use the table of contents and index to find everything about X in the book and only read those parts. If you enjoy the book and the author, make a note of the book for when you or someone you know is looking to learn X, Y, or Z. You can always read the whole book if you want, but, in terms of acquiring a specific skill, you do not always need to.
The same thing applies to websites. Sort blog posts by their relevant tags or keywords. Use ctrl+f (the find command) on any site to search by your own keywords. There is an overwhelming amount of information to sift through for any topic. As autodidacts, we need to learn to filter and process information efficiently, quickly, and effectively if we plan to learn something without the guidance of a teacher. Knowing your objectives is how you guide yourself and distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information.
If you cannot find the answers you need, you need to be able to find the person, people, or community that can, whether they exist online or offline. Once you’ve studied the topic to the best of your ability you will discover that you have some unanswered questions. Find someone to ask those questions and have a discussion. Do not fear asking people for help; an autodidact learns from others all the time. We can’t do it alone.
Being an autodidact, a self-taught person, involves learning from countless other people. The distinction between autodidactism and a traditional education is that the autodidact creates his or her own curriculum and selects the study tools, resources, pace, and so on. The traditional student leaves all of that up to the teacher. Being self taught is the act of taking up the responsibilities of a teacher yourself. It does not mean that others cannot teach you. Learning is a social process. Ask questions.
Sites Related to Autodidactism
Here are some sites that I recommend related to autodidacts (in no particular order):
- Khan Academy – A nonprofit organization that seeks to provide a quality, free education to anyone, anywhere.
- Academic Earth – A collection of videos of college lectures, some free some not, on a variety of subjects.
- Wikiversity – “Wikiversity is a Wikimedia Foundation project devoted to learning resources, learning projects, and research for use in all levels, types, and styles of education from pre-school to university, including professional training and informal learning. We invite teachers, students, and researchers to join us in creating open educational resources and collaborative learning communities. To learn more, try a guided tour or start editing now.”
- Self Made Scholar – Has some great articles on self-education. I found the ‘Free Classes’ part of the site to be useless though.
- TheFreeLibrary.com – TONS of information available here on this site! Some categories have a bunch of crap by random people but you can find articles from scholarly journals for free!
- Online Colleges – This is their list of the ‘100 best self-education sites for switching careers.’ There are some great resources there (I found Springnote through this list) and if my list leaves you wanting more then maybe this list can help.
- TED – This site isn’t specific to education but it does have free videos that are inspiring and thought-provoking. They cover a wide range of topics and may help you on your jurney!
Did I Miss Anything?
Contact through any of the below methods and let me know of any cool tools you have discovered. I’d love to expand this article and give you credit for helping future autodidacts!