EP11: Study Plan Creation for Self-learners

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Autodidactic Podcast Season one Episode 11.

This week we’re going to talk about how to structure a study plan when you’ve not got a lot of knowledge about the subject which you want to start learning. So when you first decide, you’re going to learn a new skill rather than rushing out in finding new resources, there’s a lot of things you should do first.

So when you first decide that you’re going to learn a new skill rather than rushing out and finding new resources there are a large number of things you should do first. The first thing you need to do is determine why it is you want to learn this new skill or gain this new knowledge. And then you want to be really clear about what it is you plan to do with this skill or knowledge. So let’s examine this in a little bit more detail with some examples.

Let’s take an example where you have decided that you want to learn cheesemaking. You know the skills you want to gain but how far is it that you wish to take this. Are you going to be doing this just as a hobby in your spare time or at weekends? Are you just going to use it to give some gifts of cheese to people that you know? This will tell you what types of resources you’re going to need and how far you’re going to take it. It should also give you some indication of how long you’re going to have to spend on learning this new skill. Why does this make any difference? If you are going to do cheesemaking simply as a hobby and you were not going to sell the product then you really don’t need to worry so much about government food safety standards. You will not need to know about lavatorial testing for bacteria or viruses. You will not need to know about industrial food processing equipment. You will not need to have any related knowledge about accounting, logistics, refrigerated storage, et cetera et cetera. So this is an example which I’ve just picked out of the air but it does illustrate the levels of knowledge around the skill can depend on what you plan to use that skill to do.

It might be that you don’t have a “practical” skill that you want to learn by simply knowledge for the sake of it. But even here you would still need to try and assess the level which you want to attain. Do you want to have a general knowledge of the subject or do you want to be an expert?

So you really need to understand how you intend to use the knowledge once you’ve gained it. Will you be using it for personal development, problem-solving, general interest, a prerequisite for some others skill you wish to develop, et cetera. This

This is also a good opportunity to try and identify where you are currently at with regards to the skill. Obviously you are a beginner, but you may already have related skills which you do not need to learn. If we go back to the cheesemaking example, if you’re already an accountant then you will already be able to leveraged business related knowledge. You need to assess what prior knowledge you may have about this material because this will help you identify the gaps you need to fill.

So this initial assessment should tell you:

– what is it you want to get out of this self-directed learning.

– What level do you want to achieve once the learning is over with.

– What areas will you need to cover in order to gain the level of knowledge you require for what you want to do

It is at this point you might try and write down what you will now at the end of your self-directed learning. So this is basically the goal toward which you are striving. And it might be something along the lines of. “I will know enough about cheesemaking to make five different types of cheese as a hobbyist.”

Now that you have assessed your goal and what types of knowledge you will need generally you can begin to reflect on the design of your study plan. Remember that your study plan will be an ever-changing ever-growing document. You’re not going to be able to start off listing everything that you will need to know simply because there are things that you don’t know that you don’t know.

Now hopefully on a piece of paper you will be able to write down the skill you wish to learn and the level which you want to attain. You will be able to write down how you will use this skill and any prerequisites or associated skills that you may need to learn as well. At this point we can start to construct a study plan.

At this point it’s useful to sit down with a piece of paper or perhaps this spreadsheet and began to list into columns your current knowledge and any missing knowledge and limitations. This is not going to be an exhaustive list but it is a good starting point for the next step of finding resources.

In the current knowledge column, you will need to explore your assumptions about the subject, any personal experience you already have, any knowledge you may have already gained. Listing your current knowledge should hopefully trigger ideas about what to put in the column for missing knowledge. The things you want to include in your missing knowledge column are things like: who, what, where, when, why, how.

If your goal skill is a more academic one, then it would be useful for you to try and find a syllabus or a course structure for a degree in that particular subject. Many universities provide publicly accessible course pages that contain freely available lecture notes. So these will give you a predefined structure to work with or at the very least help identify gaps in your knowledge.

So if we returned to our cheesemaking example. Who makes cheese in my local area? What are the ingredients I would need? Where would I be able to do this activity? How do I buy ingredients? Where can I find a local tutor? Is it possible to learn all of this from a book? Where can I find video courses? What is the maximum capacity of industrial cheesemaking equipment?

The more questions you can ask, and the more entries you can put into your missing knowledge column, the more you will be able to identify the gaps in your knowledge. And knowing where the gaps are allows you to fill in the gaps.

The final column was limitations. Here you want to try and identify any limits or issues that you will have to overcome. So things in this area would be for example timeframes, budget restrictions, scheduling restrictions, et cetera. For example this might be something you can only learn at the weekend while in your kitchen. Or it might be that you cannot afford to spend more than the cost of five or six books. Or you are limited to only 20 minutes a day for study time.

Knowing these restrictions and limitations upfront will help you when you began to look for resources and to plan and schedule your study. Once you’ve got a nonexhaustive but fairly comprehensive list in your three columns you can start looking for resources.

So where can you find out what it is you need to know? The two main places to find resources are the traditional resources and online sources. Traditional resources include books, articles, film, conversation, mark courses, seminars, workshops, et cetera. Online resources include websites, forums, blogs, wikis, YouTube videos, podcasts, online learning courses. I find the best way to identify the resources that I’m going to need is to go back to the missing knowledge column, select and item from the list and try and brainstorm as many resources as possible. Let’s go back once again to the cheesemaking example.

Let’s suppose that one of the things you had listed as missing knowledge was “how do I find recipes?”. Again using paper or a spreadsheet or whatever your preferred method, write down this question, or gap in your knowledge and start to think about howt ACTIONS you could use fill in that gap. So using this example we might brainstorm items such as:

– Buy a recipe book.

– Search for recipes online.

– Go to the grocery store and look at the ingredients lists on all of the cheeses.

– Join a local cheesemaking club and swap recipes.

– Find a local cheesemaker for tutoring and recipes.

So without a lot of effort I managed to come up with five different ways to fill that particular knowledge gap. And it was one question and of hopefully many. So using this technique if you had managed to come up with 20 or 30 questions, you may have potentially a 100 to 150 different avenues to explore.

Now that you have a large number of avenues to explore you can start your official study plan. I recommend that you use a spreadsheet but you can do whatever you please. Your study plan should include the activities that you want to do and a deadline for when they will be done. You should try and have three plans. So if you’re using a spreadsheet you can have three workbooks and these are labelled Today, This week, This month. There is optional fourth workbook called future where you can list all of the things that you will need to learn but not this month.

The today workbook is simply a todo list. And you list out the things that you are going to do today. This can include actual study, but you should also include resource searches, resource evaluation, et cetera. Having a list of things that you’re going to do each day will help you estimate the amount of time is going to take you to get through the list.

The workbook labelled this week should be a list of all the activities you are going to do in the first column, and then seven columns with the name of the weekday as the header. And then you simply put an X on the grid to show what day of the week you will be doing which activity.

The workbook labelled this month should have a list of all the activities you are going to do, and then the week number that it will be done, 1-4.

So using this spreadsheet or paper if you prefer, make up entry into one of the three workbooks for the actions that you identified based on your questions. So one of the actions I thought I was by a recipe book, I’ll put that in the today workbook. I’ll put search for recipes online into the today workbook. I might put go to the grocery store and look for ingredients into this week. And everything else I put into this month.

Now that you’ve started your study plan it simply a matter of continuing to update it as you learn more things. Before we move on to how to keep your study plan updated, I would just like to point out that this simple exercise done before you start studying will help you enormously.

After you have done some of the actions from your planning session you might have some resources which you can start to do the actual studying. For example you may have downloaded a textbook from one of the free online distributors and you want to start studying. Looking back at your constraints column let’s assume that one of those constraints was time. You only have 20 minutes each day for textbook study. With this in mind open the textbook and do a swift evaluation of how long you believe each chapter will take you to study, generate questions, and take notes related to the chapter. Then determine how many chapters or what percentage of a chapter you can get done in the time constraint that you have. Then you need to map this into your study plan schedule. You may determine that you can complete the entire textbook within one month if you do one chapter every two study period. So then you just need to schedule that in. And having this in your schedule allows you to not get yourself overbooked. It means that you can stagger the purchase of resources, for example additional textbooks, until after you’ve completed this one.

One thing to note when you get online resources is that the Internet is awash with information produced by people with varying experiences and opinions. You should be sceptical of any resource that you get online. You should try and ensure that you get peer-reviewed academic databases, for example Google scholar or world cat if you’re looking for reliable resources. Now Georgetown University has a guide to research and evaluating Internet content. I’ll put the link in the show notes but it’s worth reviewing it.

Each time you complete a resource you will most likely identify yet another gap in your knowledge. When this gap has been identified it’s worth doing this exercise again on a smaller scale to identify what resources, time, et cetera, are required to fill this gap. And in fact you need to evaluate if you should even bother to fill the gap.

As you progress with your study plan you need to be constantly assessing whether your learning is successful. So revisiting your initial evaluation of missing knowledge or gaps is useful to see if you are getting the results from the efforts that you put in. You should be assessing what went well and what didn’t, and trying to determine how you could improve efforts processes and outcomes in the future.

You should also be assessing your knowledge against your goals. There is probably an infinite amount of things you could learn but if you already know enough to have attained your goal should you continue studying? The decision to continue studying is obviously yours based on how close you are to your goals.

Another problem that you may have is if you’re not assessing yourself against your goals, you might discover that you had gone off on a tangent and you spent five months studying something that really wasn’t particularly relevant to your end goal. So you need to work with your end goal in mind and be constantly assessing what your resource is you’re using and the study that you’re doing and the time and effort that you’re putting in against that goal. And it might be that you decide that you want to revise your goal.

You decide that you want to take this further than your initial goal. So if you’re cheesemaking example, you had initially thought you would be a hobbyist. But now you just decided that you want to do this is a full time job or start a company doing it. This constant evaluation will help you work through your knowledge, knowledge, gaps and your study plan, and you should be constantly reassessing your study plan as well to make sure that it’s working for you. and it’s worth trying to improve your study plan. Improve your scheduling, Improve your notation. Uh, improve the way that you identify resource is etcetera. So always be trying to improve what it is that you’re doing against your study plan.

Okay, that’s it for this week. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me at Rick@autodidactic.info and I’ll try and help you or make a podcast about any future requests that you may have next week. I’m going to try and delve a bit deeper into resource evaluation on how you can evaluate resource is that you may get online. How you can evaluate traditional resource is before you buy them on. Just generally go through how to pick out. The best resource is for what you need for for your studying to attain your goal. Thank you very much for listening

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