Are you looking for a new learning challenge? I have put this guide together to help you design your own self-directed learning journey…

#1: Understand your motivation

Start with why you really want to learn a new skill – understanding your own motivation for learning will stand you in good stead when you feel like giving up (which will probably happen at some point in your self-directed learning journey!).

Define what you want to accomplish, what you are working towards, and what you’d like to achieve. You can start to do this by asking yourself some questions:

What am I curious about? And what would I like to understand better?
How would I like to challenge myself by learning something new? 
What is important to me about learning X, Y, Z? 
How does learning X, Y, Z relate to other things I’d like to achieve in my work / life / relationships with others?
In what ways will learning X, Y, Z allow me to feel more confident / better equipped for my work / life / relationships with others?
How could I use my new knowledge or skills to help other people / contribute to new projects?
How does learning X, Y, Z help me to feel more in control of choices I make around my work / my environment / other aspects of my life?
How might my accomplishments in learning X, Y, Z be recognized by others?

You might find it useful to write some notes for yourself around these questions – these can be useful to look back on as you work your way through learning something new, as you’ll start to see how far you have come, and to remember where your thinking was at the start of the process.

Now that you have a better understanding of the purpose of your learning, you should find it easier to stay motivated in the long-run, and more quickly lift yourself out of situations where you feel frustrated or distracted. Remind yourself that “What I am doing is important because I am working towards X, Y, Z [insert your motivations here]”


#2: Be clear & S.M.A.R.T. about what you are planning to learn

To help structure your learning, try using the S.M.A.R.T. framework to be more clear about what you are setting out to do.

Get Specific about what you want to achieve. Write down what it is you are committing to learn in one sentence. If the topic / subject is too broad, drill down and get more specific – break it up into different areas if necessary and choose one to focus on first. It is worth taking some time to do this before starting to search online, to really understand your focus and save time in the long run.

You need to be able to Measure your learning. This could be about spending a certain number of hours a week on your self-directed learning activities, or it could be about being able to achieve a particular thing – for example, “I want to be able to successfully use the Lasso tool in Photoshop”, or “I want to be able to write a 300 word blog post about Radical Pedagogy” or “I want to be able to sew a patchwork cushion following an existing pattern”. Making your goal measurable means you will know when you have achieved it, and gives you milestones to work towards and celebrate.

Ask yourself whether your planned learning goal is actually Achievable. You might need to put certain things in place to make sure that you have enough time to focus – including having a suitable space to work / study in, that you make time in your schedule to give over to learning, or you might need to arrange childcare or have other resources in place (eg internet access, headphones, or a device that you can use when you need to).

If you have found online learning difficult in the past, start small – with a low level of time commitment that you build up gradually and/or involve other people in your commitment to learning. Work out what you need and put this in place. You can also adapt and alter the Specific / Measurable parts of your goal to make the whole thing more Achievable (eg choose a smaller initial area to investigate or master).

You need to make sure whatever you are learning is Relevant to you. This relates back to really understanding your motivation – if you are learning something *for* someone else, you will be less likely to actually follow this through. If you are learning something feel you *need* to understand because it will allow you to do X, Y, Z you will find it much easier to commit your time and energy.

Set a Time by which you aim to have completed your first learning goal – this could be by the end of this week, within 2 weeks, or within a month. It is best to set short-term goals for self-directed learning as you will be regularly setting and re-setting new Specific goals. Your S.M.A.R.T. goals will probably relate to larger / longer self-directed goals which are less specific (ie your overarching motivation) and have an unknown timeline (as it stretches beyond 30 days, for example).


#3: Get organised with your time & tracking your learning

Part of the attraction of learning in a self-directed way or learning online may well be that you can engage with learning at your own pace and on your own terms, rather than the more structured classroom-based educational settings. However, to get the most out of your learning, you are still going to need *some* structure and you are in charge of deciding on what form this takes.

You might want to make a regular appointment with yourself – for example “I am going to spend 1 hour learning about [X, Y, Z topic] on a Wednesday after work, between 5-6pm”, or “I am going to listen to a podcast on [X, Y, Z topic] on my morning commute and take notes” – set yourself an alarm or use Google Calendar appointments, Trello tasks or features in a similar app as a reminder.

If you find it hard to be disciplined with yourself, try combining or chaining your learning task with a regular activity that you already undertake (like the examples above), or as a direct replacement for another activity or associate with an activity that you really enjoy – eg “I am going to watch 2 x 10 min learning videos rather than (or before) watching [X, Y, Z television programme] on Thursday evenings” or “I am going to listen to a podcast on [X, Y, Z topic] while I go out for a walk in the park”.

You will gradually work out how long your blocks of learning time will need to be – you might need to block out 2-3 hours in a row, or you might prefer small short bursts of learning activity that you fit into your daily schedule. You can use a Pomodoro timer to check in with yourself on whether you are still focussing on your topic, or to remind yourself to take a break.

To track your learning, it is worth quickly recording the following things (in a notebook, or easily accessible document):

  • What source have I been engaging with? (eg link to webpage, video, online course etc)
  • Quick Summary of what is being discussed
  • What ideas have come up while watching / reading / engaging with this?
  • What do I know now that I didn’t know before?
  • Anything I’d like to research further? Or links to follow?

If you are super-organised, you could set yourself a weekly / monthly review point to look through these notes. Relate your observations back to your current learning goals – adapt the scope, time to measure of your S.M.A.R.T. learning goals if you need to.


#4: Make a public commitment to your learning & buddy up

It can be hard hold yourself to account when you are setting out to learn by yourself. To help you out, I’d like to invoke the first rule of D.I.Y. “Don’t Do It (By) Yourself”. Making a public commitment to your learning is a good first step – tell other people what you are intending to do. This might be a friend, a family member or a colleague. Ask them to check-in with you on your learning, and perhaps to remind you to stay on track with your goals when they see you getting distracted.

You can take this a step further by buddying up with someone you know to commit to learning a new skill together, or to learn new things alongside each other – agreeing to check-in with each other regularly, to hold each other accountable and share what you are learning.

Alternatively, if you don’t know anyone who’d be interested in learning with you, or alongside you, you could join an existing online study group through MOOC courses (via sites like Coursera or Future Learn – or join / set up a group that meets face-to-face in your local area (try using or online via Google Hangouts.


#5: Apply what you are learning in real-world projects

Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to learn is through a real-world project. If you are looking to improve your event management skills, organise an event. If you are interested in writing for change, apply what you are learning by writing & publishing a manifesto, a policy initiative or an opinion/editorial (op-ed). If you have challenged yourself to develop your graphic design skills, volunteer to do the layout for the invitation / poster for a friend’s upcoming party. If you are learning about setting up a business, present potential business ideas to someone you know using tools like the Business Model Canvas.

Find a way to make your learning practical – if what you are learning helps you to solve a real-world problem, it will help you maintain your motivation and test out your new skills & knowledge. You might find that giving yourself a deadline, or signing up for something (like arranging to give a presentation, or helping someone else out) can also help.

Similarly, you could apply your learning by teaching the topic or skill to someone else. Whenever you attempt to teach something, it forces you to plan, think and act on what you have learned yourself. Through this process, you can also learn and understand better what you actually know, and how far you have come in developing your own understanding.

This might be the scariest step – but it is also probably the most worthwhile!

What are your experiences of self-directed learning? Are these ideas useful for you in planning your own online learning? What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below…

Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel works on a range of arts and education projects, has a long-term interest in creative approaches to community development and runs workshops, teaching & training sessions for a range of formal & informal groups including students, arts practitioners and communities – contact me for more details. Find me on twitter @RachelDobbs1