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I have taken lots of classes where the professor was horrible at teaching and I literally had to become a "self learner". The professor recommended textbooks and there were frequent tests which kept me on track. Consequently, I did well in these courses.

Now, if I try to learn something completely on my own, I try to emulate this model: I pick a good textbook after a lot of searching (making sure it aligns with my goals), I study as I would for a test but somehow, I tend to drop it some time later.

I realize that the lack of the "carrot" causes this. I can't motivate myself to study (though I really need that knowledge) because I don't have a course to pass, credit to earn or test to ace.

What should I do differently so as to learn on my own without giving up? Are there any good models/routines for self learners?

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3 Answers

Let's be a bit careful about assuming it's the 'carrot' it's entirely possible that the 'stick' of failing the course was a big factor.

So let's give you some ideas for some tests you could emulate - it sounds like that's what is really missing here...

An excellent one is agreeing to tutor someone else in the subject - it's amazing how much work one is prepared to do to stay ahead of a student :)

Another is to have the test in the form of a performance - organisations like toastmasters have you give speeches on topics of your choice - giving a talk about your chosen subject and being prepared answer questions will encourage you to do your homework...

A linked answer from How can I learn about complex subjects? is that it's worthwhile spending a bit of time editing wikipedia on your subject - if you're determined to get a subject to a high standard then you end up learning all manner of things (more details at link).

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You're right. The 'stick' could be a huge factor as well. The problem with my field is that there are very few interested students/learners. The wikipedia pages (if any) are barely 5 lines long and I doubt anyone is interested in learning about the things I learn. –  Self_Learner Apr 28 '12 at 10:31
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One good way to make yourself feel like you still have tests to pass and deadlines to meet that aren't entirely in your head is to involve someone else.

If you can find someone else interested in learning the same material, you're in the best situation. Set up regular joint study times, collaborate on the "homework", make up tests for each other at the end of the month, and you should be set. Of course, you'll still be more inclined to give each other leeway on the deadlines than a professor would, but the schedule should still be enough to keep the learning going.

If you don't have anyone like that, another option is to just find someone who's interested in learning anything else, doesn't really matter what, and make an arrangement where you try to keep each other on schedule. Tell each other you'll get through a chapter of your respective textbooks every week, or that you'll spend X hours studying every week, or something, and communicate regularly to check if you're meeting the goals. (If it's practical to still schedule shared study time where you both work on your respective subject and then go out for dinner after you put in your X hours, that can be nice!) Arrange a "test" at the end of the month - just have the other person give you a random set of questions from the textbook's end-of-chapter questions and check your answers with the ones given in the book (assuming the book gives answers! Find one that does, if possible) (note: it would probably be best if you can discipline yourself enough to not read through all the problems in the book so you're not prepared in advance).
Of course, the details of how all this should work depend a lot on your field and learning style, but hopefully you can come up with something that works.

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I treat self-learning differently and look for a variety of things to help address the difference, including:

  • Use a variety of methods to learn the subject, e.g. Books, Videos, Tutorials, Quizzes, Stack Exchange sites, etc. It sounds a bit like you get bored and variety can help with that.

  • Pace yourself and set discipline for your time. Pick the same time each day, say an hour and don't try to learn it all at once.

  • In videos and tutorials, make good use of the 'pause' button to try out things you are being shown, but on your own setup.

  • Join up with user groups if possible. Sharing your interest with others of similar interest will help motivate you to learn more.

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