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Course Creators

Self-Learning 101: Learning How You Learn

How people self-learn and the best self-learning strategies

By Mighty Team

February 25, 2024

16 min read



    We learn so much every day, even subconsciously. And ironically, some people who are in formal education struggle to learn. When was the last time you learned or taught yourself something new?

    And there’s a difference between being taught, and learning something.

    While university education and structured courses still serve as an avenue to learn, it’s easier than ever to engage in self-learning to enhance your knowledge base.

    In this article about self-learning, we delve into how people learn, why self-learning is beneficial, and what practices can help you teach yourself better and learn more effectively.

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    What is self-learning?

    Self-learning is a process in which people proactively self-direct their learning journeys, identifying their own learning goals and holding themselves accountable for reaching them. It takes dedication, motivation, and self-direction to be a successful self-learner.

    We’ve seen self-learning become more important than ever because of the rise of online courses. When people take online courses, there’s always an element of self-learning to it. And with asynchronous courses (pre-recorded), it can be even more challenging for learners to succeed on their own.

    Course Content

    That’s why understanding self-learning is important.

    The key parts of self-learning

    The key components of self-learning are:

    1. Self-evaluation

    In formal education, what you learn and how you learn is often decided by someone else. With self-learning, your learning is tailored to YOUR needs.

    The first step is to find an answer to the question: What do you want to learn? Why? What do I already know? What do I need to know?

    2. Setting learning goals

    Having identified what to learn, setting learning goals is necessary. Having a clear goal for learning means we focus on what’s important. And we aren’t just learning for no reason; we’re learning with intention.

    This is one of the reasons why adults are often really effective at self-learning–it’s easier for them to understand how the learning fits with their goals than for–say–a high school student who might not connect the learning to goals.

    Our minds are tuned to prioritize unfinished goals and desires. Research shows that assigning weight to an activity pushes us to work towards fulfilling it.

    Want to be more effective with goal-setting around your self-learning? Set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) learning goals.

    3. Mobilizing resources

    When engaging in self-learning, finding and using credible resources is crucial.

    Learning resources can include books, peer-reviewed articles, videos, websites, self-paced online courses, and communities of practice. We all learn in slightly different ways, so the resources you choose need to work for you.

    For instance, learning a language? DuoLingo or Babbel should come in handy. Prefer something more experiential? Maybe Lingopie will work better for you. Big on immersion? Traveling to a different country could make you multilingual sooner!

    Duolingo - 2

    4. Learning actively

    Having identified goals and resources, self-learning requires engaging in active learning.

    Reading a book or watching a video might not translate to learning. Active learning involves self-testing, learning, revision, teaching, gaining practical experience, etc.

    5. Evaluating learning outcomes

    Ever pulled an all-night to cram before an exam?
    Chances are you managed to retain information to perform decently on the exam and
    then forgot everything.

    So, how do you know that your learning practices were effective? The answer is simple:
    By evaluating your ability to retain knowledge over time and
    apply it in practice. If it’s done right, self-learning should come with a high retention rate and we should be able to act on and recall what we’ve learned.

    We’ll get to some effective learning techniques below.

    Self-learning statistics

    • In the last decade, the online self-education industry has grown rapidly. According to reports, learning and development has a market size of $370 billion globally.

    • Globally, millions now engage in self-learning through online MOOCs.

    • In the United States, 84% of people said that self-learning and DIY (do-it-yourself) education would become their learning practice as they grew older.

    • In developing countries with large populations like China, India, Brazil, etc about 2/3rds of learners are looking to engage in self-learning and upskill.

    • 89% of L&D professionals agree that lifelong learning and upskilling is necessary for individuals to navigate the evolving future of work.

    • 94% of business leaders expect employees to pick up new skills on the job. Which makes learning to learn a much sought-after skill.

    • For students in university education, self-learning accounts for about 80% of their time. As blended learning becomes widespread, learning to learn is undeniably important.

    Benefits of self-learning

    1. Autonomy

    As Malcolm Knowles said, adult learning is learner-centric and problem-centric.

    Instead of learning stuff that feels useless (when was the last time you used theoretical calculus anyway?) self-learning allows you to tailor your learning goals to meet your personal and professional needs.

    Need to build a website or cook a three-course meal?
    Self-learning (and very likely YouTube) to the rescue!

    2. Flexibility

    We all value flexibility in life.

    If you’re juggling work, family, and life, committing to attend a structured course that meets five times a week may be tough.

    • Maybe you naturally learn better in the afternoon than in the morning (or vice versa).

    • Maybe you prefer reading to educate yourself rather than pursuing an online course or watching videos.

    Self-learning allows you to select resources that work best for you and pace your learning to suit your requirements and schedule.

    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Livestream Paired Light

    3. Affordability

    Traditional higher education can be very expensive and leave you with years of debt.

    With a plethora of freely available/low-cost learning resources, self-learning often requires far less financial investment.

    If you ever get stuck and need help, you can invest in ad hoc support (tutoring, coaching) or turn to communities.

    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Discovery Course

    4. Personal Growth

    Self-learning requires intrinsic motivation and discipline.

    If you typically rely on external deadlines and rewards to help accomplish your learning goals, self-learning can kick-start a journey of self-discovery.

    You will learn more about yourself - what motivates you, what you enjoy, when you learn best, why you procrastinate, etc. Self-learning will make you a better learner.

    This personal growth that can come with self-learning might be just as rewarding as the skills you actually learn. And it’s a skill that will stick with you for life.

    5. Professional Growth

    In the rapidly evolving world of work, self-learning and upskilling will help you remain competitive and facilitate your career advancement.

    While companies can institute formal learning and development programs, the onus is on individuals to consistently engage in learning and enhance their skill sets.

    Learning a new skill can also help you build an alternate career and income stream.

    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Body Soul Livestream Paired Light

    Some examples of self-learning

    • Watching fitness videos, reading about fitness, downloading a fitness app, and building a tailored fitness routine.

    • Learning to draw, cook, play an instrument, etc. There are many resources and communities that you can use while acquiring a hobby.

    • Watching documentaries and reading books to self-educate about the world. Netflix, National Geographic, and Encyclopedias can all serve as resources.

    • Learning a new language via Duolingo and practicing in a learner community.

    • Enrolling in a one-off mastermind or local community class.

    • Completing a course on an online learning platform.

    Challenges of self-learning (and how to overcome them)

    Setting learning goals: Not knowing where to start and what to learn is the first challenge of self-learning. As you begin your learning journey, it is easy to get overwhelmed. There is so much you don’t know and all of it can seem so very interesting. Our advice? Start somewhere! You can set a one-off learning goal (like learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) or develop a curriculum to master a topic (Motivation).

    Lack of motivation and discipline: When there’s limited accountability or motivation for self-learning it is easy to just give up. Research shows that only a small percentage (6%) of those who sign up for courses on the learning platform EDx actually complete them. Always remember your WHY. This should be a powerful motivator. Need a bit more motivation? Reward yourself once you accomplish a goal. Want to enhance accountability? Ask loved ones to follow up about your learning.

    Limited resources and peer support: The best part about formal education is having an expert to help you in your learning journey. Need resource recommendations? They know the best. Stuck on something? Office hours will help. But there are communities for almost any type of learning; you don’t have to do it alone. Join or build a self-learning community and it will make a big difference for learning goals.

    Ineffective learning practices: If you’re new to self-learning, experiment with your learning practices. It helps you figure out what works for you. This might involve trial and error.

    The science of learning how to learn

    Research on how we learn is fascinating and surprising.

    In the rush of cramming for an exam or working on a deliverable before a deadline, the skill of ‘learning to learn’ does not get much attention. If you’re keen to become a better self-learner, this section provides an overview of some science-backed learning core concepts.

    AND if you’re creating an online course, this is important too. If you understand how to build a course that promotes self-learning, and you build it on the best
    online course platform, you’re setting students up for success.

    Introduce them to your learning practice and check if they work for you!

    1. Self-testing

    Tests can be both exhausting and exhilarating.

    Outside formal education, testing is a powerful means to learn and reinforce learning.

    In fact, research shows that taking a test on a subject before you learn anything about it improves subsequent learning and retention.

    Many adult learners learn through observation and experience. Next time, maybe start your learning practice with a test. This can simply be writing down everything you know about the topic or taking an online quiz. This will help gauge your learning needs better!

    Self-testing throughout learning will help in meeting your learning goals effectively too.

    Building it into your course: Next time you’re designing an online course, start with a zero-pressure brainstorm to see what students know. It’s a great way to unlock existing knowledge and loosen students up for learning.

    Course Delivery

    2. Distributed Learning

    Sure, cramming works great in the short run.
    But if you want to learn better, distributed learning is the way to go.

    Humans have limited attention spans. People learn and retain subjects for much longer when they break down and space their study sessions over time.

    Let’s say you want to learn a topic. You estimate that it will take you 5 hours.

    Rather than a single, 5-hour session, multiple sessions spread across a few days/weeks will help enhance absorption and retention of the topic, making learning more effective.

    A little progress each day does add up to big results.

    Building it into your course: Plan lots of breaks and consider spreading out your learning. For example, for a cohort course, set an hour a week for learning instead of a full weekend.

    Deliver Online Courses - Livewell

    3. Repetition and Revision

    Complementing distributed learning is the strategy of repetition and revision.

    Scientists who studied how memory and learning works initially believed that without use, any learned matter wholly decays from our memory.

    Just because you studied something, doesn't mean you learned and retained it.

    We now know that memory has two strengths. Storage and Retrieval.

    Storage is our ability to remember and use knowledge continuously. For instance, you remember the route from home to work and use it daily.

    Retrieval is our ability to recollect nuggets of information. Do you remember the facts you learned in school? Probably not. But coming across them may spark recollection.

    Both storage and retrieval can be improved with repetition. So make sure your self-learning practice includes revision sessions where you revisit subjects.

    Longer intervals between study sessions are found to improve storage and retrieval.
    So, revisit a few weeks after you study; followed by another revisiting in a few months.

    This will help identify and improve upon weaknesses in your knowledge base.

    Building it into your course: Find ways to come back and revisit knowledge at every stage of the course. It could be a review session at the beginning or ongoing quizzes.

    4. Interleaved practice

    When learning something new, it’s tempting to go all in and focus on ONLY that thing. Research suggests that mixing learning up works better for the brain.

    Interleaving is a learning technique where distinct (and related) skills are learned together.

    For example, a researcher might alternate between data analysis and playing chess. A fitness enthusiast might swing between yoga and pilates. Want to focus on one subject? Reviewing two distinct topics in one study session also counts as interleaving.

    How does it work? Interleaving helps us better grasp each skill/subject individually, and distinguish between them too.

    Our daily lives can be riddled with surprises and uncertainty. Interleaving helps sharpen our brains and prepares us to apply our knowledge under varied circumstances.

    Building it into your course: Switch up your activities and skill acquisition often.

    5. Reflection and self-evaluation

    Reflection is a powerful tool that can help cement and enhance your self-learning skills. Take the time to reflect on your learning experience and outcomes periodically.

    Reflect out loud, by journaling, or speaking to someone who will listen.

    Here are some questions to reflect on your self-learning practice:

    • What did I want to learn and why?

    • Did my chosen learning strategies work for me?

    • Did I accomplish my learning goals? If not, why not?

    • Can I confidently retain and apply my knowledge?

    • What would I do differently when self-learning next time?

    Building it into your course: Get students to reflect on their self-learning practice in class. You’ll get insights into their learning practice and can help improve outcomes too.

    How to teach yourself how to learn

    If there’s one learning technique you must incorporate as part of your self-learning practice, it is The Feynman Technique. Devised by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and renowned educator Richard Feynman, it’s a simple four-step process. Rather than rote learning and memorization, this learning philosophy is guided by the principle of active learning.

    1. Choose and learn a topic

    We’ve emphasized the importance of setting learning goals previously in the article.

    Choose a topic to learn about. Write the title down on a piece of paper.

    If you wish, begin with self-testing. Write down what you know about the topic.
    Otherwise, draw on resources and begin with learning everything there is to know.

    2. Teach it to yourself or someone else.

    Write down everything you learned about the topic on a page.

    In very simple language, eliminating all jargon. As if you are teaching a small child.

    This will help you gauge how much you’ve learned. If your explanation is not clear enough to be understood by a child, chances are that your understanding is not complete.

    The famous Albert Einstein quote rings true:

    “If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself”.


    Image: Sketchplanations

    3. Identify knowledge gaps

    From the teaching exercise, identify what remains unclear. These are the gaps in your learning and areas of improvement.

    • Revisit your learning resources and begin to fill in these gaps.

    • Find new sources of information - books, videos, collaborative learning - to further build your knowledge base.

    • Iteratively go back and forth between learning and teaching yourself.

    The second and third steps serve as repetition and will help reinforce learning.

    4. Organize and simplify

    Consider your explanation of the topic.

    Organize the information better and simplify it. Does it give you the complete story?

    Create analogies that will make learning stick for you. Research shows that connecting information to prior knowledge improves retention.

    For instance, we all likely remember that proteins are the building blocks of life

    Coming up with your own learning analogies can be fun!

    If there’s still something you don’t fully understand, go back to step 2.

    Otherwise, revisit your explanation periodically to retain knowledge.

    Secrets of learning to learn

    1. Understand how you learn

    Self-learning requires self-awareness.

    Every person learns a little differently. So experiment with your learning style.

    You might prefer to read or watch information. You might need instruction and a structured course. You might learn better in a group. You might learn better alone.

    Once you reflect on how you learn, you can steadily implement what works best for you.

    2. Learn actively

    • Take a quiz or write a reflective essay.

    • If you’re a visual learner, create mind maps.

    • Teach yourself and others - maybe even create a video.

    • Apply your learning in practice - side hustles can be great.

    • Build a learning community of practice. We have whole posts dedicated to communities of practice and community-based learning.

    3. DO NOT Build a routine

    Almost every other article about self-learning emphasizes the importance of consistency and building a study routine.

    • Find a place where you can study every day.

    • Minimize distractions. Cut down on social media.

    • Schedule to study at the same time. Stick to it!

    Sure, you can do that.

    But, if we follow research on the influence of context on learning (for example, Steven M. Smith's work), NOT following the same routine and allowing some distractions are found to help individuals perform better.

    It also helps retain skills for a longer period.

    So, switch up your routine sometimes.

    Learn at home, in a library or in a new café every week. Play music or not. Study alone or with friends around. Feeling bored? Take a 10-minute break to scroll your socials.

    Committing to learning is important. But your self-learning practice does not require military precision. Varied routines will help you perform well in (m)any conditions.

    4. Interruptions are GOOD!

    Research suggests that interrupting yourself in the middle of learning improves retention over time and makes you more focused on accomplishing your goal.

    Think about it. If you have been working on a difficult project, you might have felt stuck at times. Taking a break and stepping away from the task can do wonders.

    Consider writers, artists, musicians, scientists, etc. Stepping away from work is often a conscious strategy that helps overcome blocks and keeps the creative juices flowing.

    Deliberate interruptions and incubation enhance learning and development.

    5. Sleep well

    The brain works best when you rest!

    You’ve probably heard this a lot. Evidence suggests that sleeping well improves your ability to understand, recall, and retain what has been studied.

    Don’t scrimp on sleep. For beauty and knowledge.


    Whether you’re in formal education or navigating a professional career, self-learning is a valuable skill. It will help you succeed in the rapidly evolving world of work.

    We hope this article has equipped you to confidently embark on your learning-to-learn journey!

    And if you’re launching a course, these strategies will make for a better course that serves you and your learners.

    If you’re looking for a place to build a course that boosts self-learning, come build on Mighty! You can bring courses and community together, building in engagement and discussions. Whether it’s a live cohort course or a pre-recorded course built on Mighty’s LMS, you can create a learning experience that helps your students succeed.

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