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✦ How to learn a new skill online

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Image copyright: Alex Citrin-Safadi
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  • Walter Frick
By Walter Frick

Executive editor

Published

Whether it’s for our job prospects or for our personal growth, we need to keep learning new skills. It keeps us curious about the world, exposes us to new things, and is critical to the all-important growth mindset.

Luckily, it’s never been easier to do so, thanks to the proliferation of online courses. English speakers with an internet connection have access to an endless array of educational content—the trick is finding the time to use it.

But to get the most out of that content, you can’t just open your computer and watch a video. We know because we’ve taken dozens of online courses, read learning tips and research—even taken a course on how to learn. The evidence is clear: Adding a bit of structure to the experience by setting goals, finding the right courses, building habits, and remembering what you learn, can make the difference between a few idly wasted hours and a truly transformative experience. We’re thinking mostly of work-related skills, but a lot of what we’re recommending can work for learning anything.

Here’s how to learn new skills online, from goal-setting to note-taking to our favorite platforms.

Set a goal

❓ The first step in learning something new is deciding why you want to do it in the first place. Are you looking for a new job? A career change? Personal enrichment? Write it down somewhere. Knowing your why will help you decide on everything else. And writing it down will help keep you motivated if you get off track.

📅  Next, set a goal for yourself. Be specific about both what and when. If your learning goal is long-term, like learning a new language, that’s great, write it down. But then break it up into smaller chunks. We recommend setting a goal that you can feasibly accomplish in your first four to eight weeks, which incidentally is about the length of the optimal Coursera course, according to the company’s research. “Become a data scientist” isn’t achievable for most people in eight weeks; reading a book on data science or taking a stats class probably is. In our language example, maybe you could try to have a simple conversation.

For more on writing good goals in general, try here or here. But remember that setting a goal is the easy part. The hard part is setting yourself up to achieve it.

Find a course or project

📱 Pick a platform. Where you look for courses, projects, and tutorials depends on what you’re trying to learn. But the best online education platforms offer content in short chunks (five to 20 minutes not two hours); track your progress; and test your knowledge as you go. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Coursera: Classes from top universities on a wide range of topics, plus guided projects and online degrees.
  • edX: Founded by Harvard and MIT and now owned by edtech company 2U, edX also hosts a wide range of university courses and online degrees.
  • Khan Academy: Free, nonprofit, and especially good for learning math.
  • Codecademy: An easy place to start learning to code, right within your web browser.
  • YouTube: Home to a seemingly infinite number of lectures and lessons, but gauging quality can be tougher.
  • ClassCentral: A search engine for online courses.
  • Five Books: Find book recommendations on a wide range of subjects. (For free copies of classic books out of copyright, try Project Gutenberg. And don’t forget about public libraries!)

⚖️ Strike a balance between guided and project-based learning. In a recent blog post, software developer Josh Comeau distinguishes between “guided” and “unguided” learning. Lectures and tutorials are forms of guided learning; building a website of your own design is a form of unguided learning. His distinction is akin to the idea of “project-based learning,” often associated with John Dewey, an American philosopher who thought we learned best by doing things. “If you only follow guided resources, you’ll wind up in tutorial hell,” says Comeau. “On the other hand, if you focus entirely on unguided learning, it’ll take forever.” His post has good ideas for striking a balance.

🎓  Decide if you need a credential. A lot of online courses are free to audit but charge for some sort of certificate of completion. Do you need one? If you’re learning for the sake of your career, consider whether there are other ways to demonstrate what you know. Does your current job involve the skill, such that you could list it as part of your experience on your resume? Could you create an online portfolio to show off a project? If the answer to either of those is yes, you might not need to pay for a certificate.

Set a schedule

Now it’s time to make time for whatever you picked.

⏰  The trick to remembering something new is “spaced repetition—basically, practice over time. That’s why cramming for a test is a bad way to learn; even if you pass the test you won’t retain the material. To really learn something new you need to come back to it again and again over days or weeks; each time the ideas get stronger in your long-term memory. So it’s better to devote small chunks of time more regularly to learning something than a few, longer ones. Even 10 minutes several times a week is better than blocking off a full weekend. Think about when you’ll have focused time without interruptions and, ideally, with the mental energy to learn; block that time on your calendar.

🍅  Use the pomodoro technique to beat procrastination. Procrastination is the brain’s solution to the pain of something you don’t really want to do; it switches your attention away from the task at hand. To overcome procrastination, try the pomodoro technique: Set a timer for 25 minutes and plan to take a short break (maybe even with a little reward) as soon as the timer beeps.

🛌  Last thing: Get some sleep. Enough rest will boost your focus and retention, and reduce how much you procrastinate.

Write it down

Learning something new puts you at risk of the “illusion of competence.” It’s the sensation of nodding along as the professor talks, feeling like you understand the material when you really don’t. The solution is active learning: As you progress, you need to review and reflect on what you’ve absorbed so far. There’s no one right way to do that, and some online courses will have it built in through the quizzes and assignments. But here are three approaches to active learning to consider:

👶 The Feynman technique: At Quartz we’ll occasionally use the heading “Explain it like I’m 5” when explaining a topic. That, in a nutshell, is the Feynman technique, named for the study habits of the physicist Richard Feynman. The point is to overcome the illusion of competence by proving to yourself that you understand something well enough to teach it. The blog Farnam Street describes it this way:

1. Pretend to teach a concept you want to learn about to a student in the sixth grade.

2. Identify gaps in your explanation. Go back to the source material to better understand it.

3.Organize and simplify.

🂱 Flash cards: They’re a classic for a reason. Write down what you’re learning either in the form of a question/answer or term/definition, one on each side of the card, then quiz yourself.

📓 The Cornell note-taking method: Separate a piece of paper into three sections, like the picture below. As you’re learning, take notes in the right hand column. When you finish, write the main ideas, new vocabulary, or any questions in the left column next to your notes on those subjects. Then write a summary of the entire lesson at the bottom.

Image copyright: Alex Citrin-Safadi

Keep learning

  • An entire online course about learning. Watch Learning How to Learn from professor Barbara Oakley on Coursera. We relied on it heavily for this email.
  • Note-taking research and best practices from Harvard (pdf).
  • Never say “I’m not a math person.” This article from Quartz by economist Miles Kimball explains the problems with that phrase. It’s not too late to learn some math!
  • The best online courses of all time: ClassCentral’s rankings.

Sound off

What’s the hardest part of learning something new?

Choosing what to learn

Making time

Keeping up the habit

Have a great weekend,

—Walter Frick, executive editor, membership

(latest online learning find: 3Blue1Brown math videos on YouTube).

One 📕 thing

👀  Is speed reading real? Lots of researchers think not, but in this Obsession email and this video Quartz dove into the science and spoke to some researchers (and exceptionally fast readers) who swear it is.

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