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Mastering Self-Learning: Guidelines for Highly-Motivated Middle and High School Students

5 minute read

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Self-learning is gaining knowledge and even mastery outside of formal schooling. Famous self-learners include Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, Richard Feynman, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Malala Yousafzai.

If you’re into math, check out the less well-known Srinivasa Ramanujan. These folks show how self-directed learning can lead to significant and highly innovative contributions across the arts, engineering, math, architecture, medicine, activism, and more.

For most of 2020, COVID-19 made self-learners out of most students. Without the physical classroom, many had to navigate tough subjects largely on their own. Even before the pandemic, YouTube, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and other online resources made it possible to learn everything from telepathically communicating with animals to programming self-driving cars. Learning apps like Duolingo, Khan Academy, Mimo, and TED-Ed brought self-paced learning to our phones.

What is Genuine Self-Learning?

But being forced to learn something on your own (say, to pass geometry during the pandemic) is not like seeking out knowledge on a topic you truly and deeply care about (like understanding your cat or doing an EV conversion on your uncle’s Chevy Blazer Chalet). We’re talking about this latter version: self-learning born out of curiosity. In this post, we’ll explain why this distinction matters. We’ll also give you some great strategies and resources. 

Why You Learn So Much More This Way

Guided by your own passion, you’ll be more motivated to stick with your topic and reach higher levels of learning. You’re more likely to problem-solve on your own when you encounter obstacles. (Srinivasa Ramanujan only had access to one math book, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a math genius.) You can adjust your pace of learning, going faster or slower as needed to master material.  Because the subject is more meaningful to you, you’re better able to retain information. And because self-learning is full of surprises, you become more adaptable. You are also more likely to develop a life-long habit of learning, viewing education as timeless and spanning across disciplines.

Finally, being a self-learner is cost-effective. As Matt Damon’s character Will Hunting says to a college student in the film Good Will Hunting, “You wasted $150,000 on an education you could have got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library".

Setting Foundations For Successful Self-Learning 

Will Hunting makes it sound easy, but self-learning has its challenges. It requires discipline and self-motivation, and it can be time-consuming and lonely. Library books can’t answer your burning questions on demand or alert you when their information is outdated or highly contested. They can’t encourage you to keep going, tell when you’re mistaken, or redirect you if your enthusiasm wavers. You can’t bounce ideas off of them. The same goes for YouTube videos and TED Talks. MOOCs and apps aren’t always free, and their curriculums are limited. 

To help you start your self learning journey on the right foot, we suggest the following:

1. Get in the right mindset to learn

As mentioned before, you should pursue your self-learning in a field or on a topic that you are very curious about. Curiosity, open-mindedness, and adaptability will carry you through possible future challenges like frustration or confusion. It’s simple, really. If you enjoy the process and the knowledge you’re gathering, you are much more likely to stick with it.

Patience and self-kindness are also very important, especially when you have ambitious goals or are tackling a difficult subject. Learning takes time, and some skills will be harder to acquire than others.

2. Spell out your personal goals

A good system to use for this is the SMART goal system. SMART stands for: specific; measurable; achievable; relevant; and time-bound. 

For example, you want to learn programming. You could say: I will become proficient in Python (specific) by completing three advanced coding projects (measurable), dedicating 10 hours per week (achievable) to enhance my prospects of getting into a good computer science program when I graduate (relevant). I will track my progress weekly, seek online courses and coding challenges, and have a portfolio of completed projects by the end of six months (time-bound).

3. Create a deadline and a structured schedule

Next, you want to get a calendar and start breaking down the learning process into manageable steps. Start by setting a few big milestones. For the Python project, maybe your milestone could be 1) master basic syntax, 2) understand data structures, and 3) complete a project. Then, break those down into weekly goals. To build consistency, make sure you allocate a little time every day toward your goal. It’s better to devote 15-30 minutes to it every day than 4 hours every 2 weeks. 

Deadlines motivate you to stick to a schedule. That’s why entering science fairs and other student research competitions or submitting work for publication is a good idea. If you don’t commit to an outward-facing deadline, you should create your own. 

Here are some other tools that can help you manage your time better:

  • Forest: This calming Pomodoro technique app that helps you stay focused on your work and ensure you also take the breaks you need to do your best work. 

  • Toggl: You probably have a lot of other things going on; this app helps you easily keep track of what you’re doing with your time. 

  • Google Calendar: This seemingly simple tool is actually quite robust when it comes to time management features. 

  • Notion: This online tool helps you keep your notes, research, and tasks organized in one space.

  • A big paper calendar for the fridge: Sometimes just going old-school with paper, pencil, highlighters, and sticky notes has its advantages. Exploring the inner workings of time management apps can become its own clever form of procrastination. Seeing your calendar first thing in the morning before you power up any screens is also a great reminder that time marches on.

Active Learning Techniques To the Rescue

Learning without a curriculum or textbook can feel overwhelming. While a syllabus packed with things you don’t care about is annoying, it does tell you exactly what you need to study next. Self-learning is not so clear-cut.

Luckily, active learning techniques can give you a path. These methods force you to think critically rather than passively. Here are a few examples.

1. Project-Based Learning (PBL)

In Project-Based Learning, you create something to address a problem or need out in the real world. Some examples: building a community garden, entering a CRISPR experiment into a science fair, giving a theater performance about a historical period, creating a marketing campaign for a food shelter. You will learn new skills and information and search for new resources as needed to complete the process.

1. The Feynman Technique

The renowned Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman came up with this study and learning method to help himself and later his students understand complex scientific concepts. In essence, the idea of the four-step Feynman technique is to attempt to teach the subject that you’re learning to a layperson who has no prior knowledge of your subject. By trying to explain concepts in plain, simple language, you begin to spot gaps in your own knowledge. When you find yourself struggling to explain, go back to your reference material to try to improve your own understanding. Use as many analogies or everyday examples to simplify ideas. It may seem strange, but explaining subjects in the simplest terms requires the deepest understanding.

2. Journaling or blogging

Keeping a journal or blogging about your learning journey is great for many reasons. As you write things down in your own words (similar to the Feynman technique above), you naturally strengthen your understanding of complex material. Your writing also serves as a document you can showcase later. Documentation also serves as a helpful resource if you need to rethink your goals or schedule.

Example resources and tools: paper notebooks, Squarespace, Medium, Wordpress

3. Information graphics

You can also create mind maps, flowcharts, storyboards, diagrams, or simple lists to help you master new terminology or understand cause and effect relationships.

Example resources and tools: Mindmeister, Figma

4. Flashcards, self-quizzing, and presentations

In the absence of classroom quizzes and exams that require you to prove you’ve mastered your subject matter, you can use these methods to boost your recall. They also chunk information into smaller units so you can pace your learning and uncover weak spots. Presenting your learning at science fairs, conventions, in YouTube videos, or other public spaces also helps motivate you with deadlines and good social pressure.

Example resources and tools: Quizlet, Khan Academy, Google Presentations

Overcoming Self-Directed Learning Obstacles

As mentioned earlier, self-learning takes a lot of grit. Here are some tips to help you move past three common obstacles.

1. Procrastination

  • Make sure your subject matter is something you are really passionate about. Your excitement on the topic will make you much less prone to procrastinate.

  • Commit to a convention, science fair, publication deadline, or some other external deadline that heightens your sense of accountability. 

  • Find an accountability buddy or mentor who can encourage you when the going gets hard.

  • Keep your calendar visible so that you can get a clear picture of how much time you have.Your SMART goal and schedule should help make each next step feel clear and manageable.

  • If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, just commit to spending the next 10 minutes working on your project. Getting started is often the biggest barrier.

  • Make sure your workspace is comfortable and inviting.

  • Gamify your progress with a tool like Habitica.

2. Loneliness

  • Find a teacher, study buddy, or mentor with whom you can discuss your self-learning goals.

  • Start or find a community of self-learners where you can all check in once a week to discuss your progress.

  • Join a related workshop or seminar to augment your solo learning.

  • Volunteer in an organization where you can make use of the new skills and knowledge you are learning.

  • Try studying in a coffee shop, library, lab, or studio space. For some people, working in public helps keep them more focused.

  • Practice self-care as well as self-learning! Make sure you get enough exercise, sleep, and relaxation time. Seek the advice of a counselor or therapist if you’re in distress. 

3. Distraction

  • If you work at home, make sure your workspace is comfortable and quiet. 

  • Put a sign outside your door that lets people know you’re working. 

  • Hide your phone during your work sessions. 

  • Use an app like Freedom to block out social media and other distractions. 

  • Use the Pomodoro technique to help ensure a period of deep focus. 

  • Also take breaks because your brain actually requires resting (or diffuse mode thinking)  in addition to focused learning in order to consolidate information and skills.

Continuous Self-Growth With a Helping Hand

The ability to self-learn is something you can carry with you for the rest of your life. But you don’t have to get started alone. The Polygence mentorship program can match you with just the right person to empower your self-learning journey. Check out the subject categories that speak to you and read the bios of research mentors who specialize in those areas.

Thousands of students have completed life-changing projects with Polygence. Kirthi had this to say about her mentor: “I had not done a project before in this area, so I was a bit nervous about the learning curve, but my mentor's patience, encouragement, and knowledgeable advice made the process more fun and facilitated my learning, while also giving me the freedom to discover things on my own. Overall, my mentor was supportive, encouraging, knowledgeable, and helpful.”

Ready to research with an expert and on your schedule?

Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own. We also offer options to explore multiple topics, or to showcase your final product!

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