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How To Learn More Outside Of Class Than You Ever Could Inside It

I’m going to give you a list of seemingly random things, and I want to you try and guess how they’re related. Ready? Here we go:

  1. Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) is a feature in iOS 5 that allows the compiler to do memory management automatically, so you don’t have to.
  2. Out of all high school students that graduate in the bottom 40 percent of their class, 76 percent will not will not have a college degree within eight years.
  3. しんぶんでしたか? いいえ、しんぶんじゃありません。いちごでした。

Give up? I know, I know – these things seem totally random. And to you, they absolutely are. There’s nothing that concretely binds them. So what’s the relation?

Simple – they’re all things I learned yesterday.

And here’s another thing: I didn’t learn any of this stuff in a classroom (even though I’m a college student). That’s right – I learned it all on my own. And every single day of the (work)week, I learn more and more new things out of class. In fact, this semester I’m:

  • Learning Japanese
  • Building an iPhone app from scratch
  • Reading at least one book per month

This is on top of my regular class load and the work I do to run College Info Geek (which is considerable). And guess what? You can do this as well.

In this post, I’m going to show you the techniques I use to educate myself without any sort of formal structure, classrooms, professors, or tuition fees.

Are you interested in a subject that your school doesn’t offer as an actual class? Then this guide is for you.

Do you have trouble staying motivated to work on a huge goal, day after day? This guide is for you as well.

Do you want to differentiate yourself by learning things your classmates won’t, develop a work ethic that will have employers knocking down your door, and gain skills that will make your lazier friends envious? This guide is definitely for you.

The practice of dedicated, consistent self-study has been one of the greatest things for my overall personal development. I can tell you right now that I’ve learned a hell of a lot more outside of class than I ever learned sitting in one.

“Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.” – Jim Rohn | Tweet This

The combination of increased motivation (I’m studying exactly what I want to study), a completely customized learning pace, and the use of superior learning techniques has made my self-study possible – and it’s completely possible for you as well.

In this guide, I’m going to show you exactly how to become a driven, motivated self-learner. I’ll show you how to set bulletproof goals that will keep you studying on a consistent basis.

Then, I’ll use two of the topics I’m currently studying as examples to show you how to find the resources you need to learn on your own. Don’t worry, they won’t cost nearly as much as a class (indeed, many are free).

Finally, I’ll wrap up with a few extra thoughts I think need covering, and then kick your ass into gear. However, only you can decided whether or not my virtual foot up your butt is enough to truly kickstart your self-study. I sure as hell hope it is, because this practice can change your life and open doors you didn’t even think were possible.

Let’s dive right into it.

Being Self-Driven

Alright, before we get into any specific techniques or strategies for learning on your own, I have to say this up front:

You must be self-driven!

Seriously, you have to be able to motivate yourself. If you’re the type of person who can’t get anything done without someone breathing over your shoulder or setting deadlines for you, this isn’t going to work.

Now, I honestly believe it is possible for anyone to become self-driven. I hold a firm belief: if you want something bad enough, you’ll make it happen. That’s all part of being self-driven – wanting it bad enough.

So, the real key here is to only commit to learning something that you truly want to learn. Usually, this means picking a topic that you’ll have some practical use for. This isn’t always the case (sometimes you just want to learn something for kicks), but in the case of a consistent, lengthy learning process, it’s best to have a use for what you’re teaching yourself.

In my case, I’m learning にほんご (Japanese) because I love Japan and want to be able to speak to the people the next time I go back.

I’m learning to build an iPhone app because I want to make one for this blog, which will provide more value to my readers (you guys), and also make me feel like a badass.

In the past, I’ve tried to learn things just for the sake of learning them, or because they were on some “list of things every man should know”. Those aren’t very good reasons for learning something, and as a result, I wasn’t very driven.

So, to get started, pick a topic you truly want to learn about, and work up the drive to learn it. This will be the rock-solid foundation of your self-learning endeavor.

Bonus: Employers absolutely love self-driven people, and they’re always on the lookout for them. Cultivating a self-driven personality through self-study can actually be a great way to impress employers and get the jobs you want!

Setting Goals

Once you know what you want to learn, it’s absolutely vital that you set concrete, measurable goals in order to keep yourself moving forward.

Even the most self-driven person in the world isn’t going to keep up a course of self-study without some sort of goal to work towards – there wouldn’t really be a point!

Now, you probably already have a goal built into the topic you picked – it’s just there by default. If you’re learning Japanese, then your goal is to know Japanese. Simple, right?

Well, not really. Sure, that’s a goal – but it’s a pretty vague one. What does “knowing Japanese” mean, anyway? Does that mean just being able to speak it? Being able to write it? Knowing the meaning of every single kanji? Becoming a Japanese rapper?

And what about time? When are you supposed to know the language – by the time you’re 80, or next week?

As you can see, setting good goals requires much more planning than just picking a topic and calling it the goal.

A great framework for setting good goals is the SMART method. I’ve talked about this method in a previous post, but let’s review it in case you were taking a poop when I published that one and missed it.

SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Let’s take a second to dig into the details of each of these criteria.

Specific – a general goal is a bad goal. Making your goal specific will help you to accurately visualize what it is you’re really working towards and why you’re doing it. “Learn Japanese” isn’t very specific, but “Become conversationally fluent in Japanese so I can go to Japan and make friends” is!

Measurable – define some sort of criteria that you can use to measure your progress towards achieving your goal, and indeed if you have actually achieve it or not! For example, I could say I want to learn all 2,136 jōyō kanji (the kanji that the japanese government says are necessary for functional fluency). With a number to shoot for, I can always track my progress.

Attainable – Your goal needs to actually be attainable. “Build a pedal-powered vehicle capable of reaching space” probably isn’t attainable (though I’d be happy to see you prove me wrong). You should pick something you can see yourself accomplishing. Let the goal stretch your capabilities so you can grow, but don’t make it extreme.

Relevant – Does your goal actually matter to your life? As I said in the first episode of the CIG podcast, you could set a goal to become a boxing champion – you could make it specific (win a Golden Gloves title), measurable (are you wearing the title belt or not?), attainable (you’re already in good shape and have a gym nearby), and time-bound (do it in a year) – but even so, is it really relevant? Do you actually want to beat people up in a ring for a title belt? Do you have a reason to? If so, that’s great – but it’s a good idea to think about whether your goal matters before you start working on it.

Time-Bound – Finally, your goal needs to have a deadline. As you probably know full-well from your last all-nighter, the human brain is motivated by urgency. If you don’t set a deadline for your goal, then all the little daily distractions and “emergencies” that pop up are going to push it off forever.

Many people are so excited to dive right into learning that they don’t feel like taking the extra time to define their goals in this way.

That’s a huge mistake. Yes, it takes a bit of extra effort to set up your goals in this way – but it’ll pay huge dividends in the long run.

When you’re initially excited to do or learn something, you’ll often jump right in with lots of enthusiasm. In those moments, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll lose focus. However, experience should tell you that this “inspirational high” doesn’t last without a solid foundation – and that’s what SMART goals give you.

One last note about goals: I’d suggest not simply relying on your big, huge, end goal. Personally, I break each big goal I have down into a list of mini-goals that I can achieve sooner. As I keep achieving mini-goals, I get closer and closer to my ultimate goal. This way, I can say I’ve accomplished something much more often.

I stalled on developing my iPhone app for quite a while because I failed to do this. I just had the big goal in mind, and as a result, it seemed impossible.

Once I started to break it down – download Xcode and figure out how it works, build a tutorial app, research how to pull internet data into an app, etc. – I was able to start making real progress.

Now that you’ve got your goals set up, let me share with you my ultimate tool for keeping yourself accountable to them…

The Pick Four Method

I’m going to make a bold claim here: at the beginning of 2013, I discovered the best resource ever for tracking goal progress. Bold, yes – but I’m sticking to it.

That resource is a spiral-bound notebook called Pick Four. It’s a goal-tracking method originally created by Zig Ziglar, and adapted by Seth Godin. And it fucking rocks.

2016 Update: The Pick Four notebooks have gone out of print. Here’s a CIG community thread discussing alternatives.

Pick Four starts off by having you define four big goals you’d like to achieve. Then, every weekday for a 12-week period, you write down exactly what you did for each of the four goals and whether you feel that was enough.

At the end of each week, you summarize what you achieved in the week, what went well, and what didn’t.

This is essentially establishing a “streak” – a long succession of days that you actually did something for. When you look back and see all your past successes, you don’t want to break that beautiful streak by writing “NOTHING” on a day’s goal space.

I can tell you right now that both Martin and I get really, really mad when we don’t have time in a day to work on all four goals.

Pick Four

Now, you can easily get a blank notebook and do this yourself instead of paying for the Pick Four book. You could also just keep a log on your computer.

However, for me, buying Pick Four has helped a lot. There’s just something about having a physical tool that I actually made an investment in that keeps me motivated. When I look at that trippy spiral cover every day, I’m reminded that I coughed up $24 for it and I get to work.

You certainly don’t have to do this, but it’s been huge for me.

As an additional benefit, that $24 gets you four Pick Four books – you actually can’t buy them separately. I gave the other three to my friends, which established yet another motivational tool – social pressure.

Alright, so you’ve got your goals and you’ve got your motivational tool – now how the heck do you get started?

Resources for Learning on Your Own

“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” – Frank Zappa | Tweet This

The truth is that all the resources we’ve ever needed for self-learning have been around for over a hundred years, ever since Andrew Carnegie started building thousands of libraries all over America and other countries.

However, the possibilities for learning on your own today are absolutely ridiculous. Not only do we have libraries, but we also have the motha truckin’ internet.

The internet revolutionized how we get information when it first started gaining traction in the public. Instead of going to the library, people could just go online to look things up.

With the invention of Google and Wikipedia, the potential for learning online increased even more.

Now, however, it’s a whole different ball game. Today we don’t just have access to search engines and articles; we now have access to full-fledged online course, innovative learning tools, and basically any person we could ever hope to talk to.

I’m going to use two of my current learning goals – learning Japanese and building an iPhone app – as examples to show you just how many amazing resources there are for learning something on your own.

Let’s dive in!

Learning Japanese

When I visited Japan back in May of last year, I knew almost no Japanese. Apart from learning to say a few words – hello, thank you, excuse me, where the shitter at? – I was walking around like an idiot.

This year, I’ve resolved to study consistently and become truly fluent in Japanese. However, Iowa State offers no classes in Japanese, so I had to do it myself. Here are some of the resources I’m using to do just that. I’ll also break down the cost of any that aren’t free, so you can see what investment you’d have to make if you wanted to go the same route I went.


Because languages aren’t just based on learning the words alone – because they have grammar and complicated rules – I knew I needed a good comprehensive program for learning Japanese – or at least a good textbook.

Since I’m an avid reader of Fluent in 3 Months, I knew right away not to make the poor decision of dropping hundreds of dollars on a program in a yellow box named after a stone.

Luckily, my interest in Japan had led me to start reading this quirky blog called Tofugu. Once I got interested in learning the language, I learned that the founder of the blog also created an online Japanese textbook called TextFugu.


Because of its multimedia-based approach, funny writing style, and innovative progression of material (it’s quite different from traditional textbooks), I’ve been able to get pretty far using TextFugu as my foundation for Japanese learning.

Price: $20/month or just $120 one-time – however, the first chapters are free, so anyone interested can try out a good chunk before buying.

In the interest of full disclosure, I emailed Koichi (the creator) and asked if I could review it in exchange for a free account. Since he’s a hoopy frood who knows where his towel is, he agreed. I’ll be doing a full review soon.


WaniKani is an awesome web app that helps you learn kanji much, much faster than you would with traditional learning methods. It basically gamifies the process, and integrates spaced-repetition (SRS) learning techniques to make kanji stick.

Here’s a quick overview of the site:

By using WaniKani, I don’t have to sit around studying kanji from a book or making my own flash cards. By using an SRS system, WaniKani knows exactly when to quiz me on each kanji, which results in the best retention.

Price: $50/year for TextFugu users. WK is in beta right now, so non-TF users don’t currently have access. Also, the first two levels of WK are free, and they take a few weeks to get through.


I mentioned the SRS learning technique in the last section – if you don’t know what that is, here’s an overview:

SRS is based around the idea that recall is more important than memorization in learning. Instead of trying to put things into your brain, you should try to get them out (recall them) for the best results.

SRS tries to make you do this by asking you to answer a question right before you’re about to forget it. Of course, no system can know the exact moment that you’re going to forget something, but SRS does a pretty good job at guessing by increasing the time between asking you questions depending on how well you know them.

Anki is my absolute favorite SRS application, and it’s essential to my Japanese learning. With Anki, you create (or import) decks of flashcards, and the system quizzes you on them. If you get a question right and it’s easy, you can tell Anki to ask you again much later. If you got it, but it was hard, tell it so and it’ll ask you again in the near future. If you get it wrong, it’ll ask you again in the same study session.


As you keep getting questions right again and again, the interval will increase. For example, I have a few kanji that I won’t be seeing again for several months.

Anki can be used to learn literally anything – programming language syntax, the U.S. Presidents, European capitals, etc. I use it primarily for Japanese, but it’s incredibly flexible.

Price: Free – there are apps for PC, Mac, Linux, and a web app as well. The iPhone app is $25, though.


I subscribe to Audible so I can have audiobooks to listen to when I go to the gym or on a bike ride. Well, last month I got my monthly Audible credit. As I was browsing around, debating what to buy with it, I had a thought:

“Why not see if there’s something here that can help me learn Japanese?”

Sure enough, I found a great Japanese learning course that I downloaded. Now, in addition to TextFugu and my SRS systems, I have an audio course that allows me to actually listen to a native speaker.

Price: $15/month for a subscription that gives you 1 credit a month. However, Audible offers free trials for new users. Since this Japanese book only costs one credit, this resource is actually free! (as long as you’re not already an Audible subscriber)


This is another awesome website that is enormously helpful. The concept behind Lang-8 is almost like that of pen pals – but on a larger scale, and focused on language learning.

Once you create a profile on Lang-8, you can write journal entries in the language you’re trying to learn. Then, native speakers of that language will read your entries and make corrections and suggestions. And guess what – you can do the same thing for them!

Lang-8 is also somewhat of a social network, so you can add people as friends and send them messages. I’ve also noticed that many users will list their Skype name, which means there are a lot of potential partners for real-time conversational practice (as well as just making friends!)

Price: Absolutely free!

So I’ve got five awesome resources that are allowing me to learn Japanese on my own. Total cost? If you count the Audible book as free, then it comes to just $170 – that’s $107 less than the cost of just one credit at Iowa State University! (and most classes are 3 credits)

Now, let’s move on to the next example.

Building an iPhone App

When I was signing up for this semester’s classes, I realized something: I only had one MIS elective class left to take. Awesomesauce!

Unfortunately, the only class available for me to take was a Java programming class that met from 6-9 PM on Thursday nights. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of three-hour classes that meet at night.

But then I had an idea. I remembered that my friend Pat Flynn from the Smart Passive Income blog had an actual iPhone application developed so people could read his blog and listen to his podcast straight from their iPhones.

I absolutely love Pat’s app and use it all the time, so I figured that College Info Geek could use an iPhone app as well!

Also, I thought I’d one-up Pat just a bit by building the app all by myself instead of outsourcing it 😉

I took this idea to the head of the MIS department at my school and pitched it as an independent study course that would replace the night class I didn’t want to take. Luckily, he thought it was a great idea and accepted.

But now I’d hit a roadblock – I had absolutely no idea how to develop an iPhone app, and no teacher to show me how! So, I went back to my trusty old internet connection, and luckily I found…


If you’ve ever heard of, you’ll already be a bit familiar with how Treehouse works.

Essentially, Treehouse is a video training website for people who are into developing websites and mobile apps. Treehouse has two types of courses available:

  • Projects: In these courses, you learn the subject by building a completely functional example project along with the teacher.
  • Deep Dives: These courses go deep in to the details of a topic so you can increase your understanding of it.

What I love about Treehouse is that they mix in quizzes and code challenges into their course. This is something Lynda doesn’t do, so I generally prefer Treehouse when it comes to subjects both sites offer.

By going through the Build a Simple iPhone App course, I was able to build a full app in just one weekend. Along the way, I finally learned how iPhone apps are put together, and I now have the confidence to move forward on the CIG app.

Price: $25/month. I was lucky enough to be one of the Treehouse scholarship winners, so I have free access for two years. When that time’s up, I’ll definitely keep paying, though.


Since I’m a writer for WPTuts+, I decided to mention MobileTuts+ as a great blog for iPhone app tutorials.

Really, though, there are tons and tons of blogs out there offering high quality app-building tutorials. If you want to build something, there’s a blogger out there that can probably help you learn how.

You can also check out YouTube, as there are lots of great video series on building iPhone apps.

Price: Free.

I might need to look into a few other resources to reach my app-building goal, but for now the total price is $25/month (discounting my scholarship).

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Other Learning Resources

I used my goals of learning Japanese and building an iPhone app as examples for finding resources, but I’m willing to bet that your goals will be different than mine.

That’s why I wanted to take some extra time to give you a general list of great online learning resources that you can start with.

Check out:

This is just a taste of what’s available. There’s a huge list of other online resources over at UnCollege that you can check out as well.

Additionally, realize that the internet is full of resources – blogs, ebooks, forums, etc – that you’ll be able to find on your own. Tons of new content is created every day, and all you have to do is find it and use it.

Lastly, don’t forget that libraries still exist. The internet is great, but there’s still a lot that can be learned from a good book.

Getting Help

We’ve gone over lots of different resources you can use to kickstart your self-study adventure – but what happens when you run into a snag and need some help?

Since you’re learning by yourself, you can’t rely on professors, TA’s, or classmates. But that doesn’t mean you’re in this alone – there are still ways to find a helping hand.

Forums and Question Sites

Just as the internet is a great place for actual learning resources, it’s also a great place for discussion. People are always looking to lend their knowledge personally to those who need help.

Question and answer sites like Quora and Stack Exchange are great places to start if you have a specific question you can’t find the answer to.

There are also probably a dozen or more dedicated forums for your chosen topic. All you need to do it Google “Your Topic” + “forum” or “message board”, and you’re likely to find something good.

Social Networks

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter aren’t just good for catching up with friends and Instagramming pictures of your “epic” chicken parmesan.

If you have a good network built up, then asking a question on a social network might just get you the answer you’re looking for. I’ve been able to find answers to lots of questions just by tweeting them out.

When I see someone with a really big following tweet out a question, sometimes I won’t even bother answering unless I see it the moment they tweet it. That’s because I know someone has already gotten to it. People always want to impress those with a big following. Want proof? Click the date on my friend Tyler’s tweet to see the replies…

That may or may not be very helpful to you right now, but it serves as a good reminder of the benefits of building a network and working on your personal brand. Not only do you open up opportunities for yourself and impress people, but you can also get people to answer questions!

Get a Study Buddy

If you’re a student at a large public university with 20,000+ students like I am, odds are that there’s someone else on your campus who wants to learn the same exact thing you do.

If you can find that person and reach out to them, then you can become an invaluable resource for each other. Not only can you ask each other questions and help solidify each other’s learning, but you can also help keep each other motivated.

empty lecture hall

Two of my roommates are actually learning Japanese along with me. We definitely don’t sit at a table and study together, but since we all learn a little differently, we provide valuable insight for each other and motivation to keep studying as well.

Other Notes

Before I wrap this guide up, I want to go over a few other quick things that I think are important to consider if you’re starting a self-learning adventure.

Where to Study

When you take a class, you usually have a a dedicated area where that class meets. Now, I know you do your homework wherever you want, but you at least have a sort of “home base” for that learning subject – a place you have to go.

You don’t have that benefit when you’re learning something on your own. You don’t have a schedule that says, “Go to this room at this time, or you work at McDonald’s for the rest of your life.”

Well, I think that’s kind of important. With self-study, you can work anywhere you want – your room, the lawn, the top of a mountain – anywhere that the resources you need are available to you.

However, if you work in the same place where you do other things, then you’re liable to get distracted. I think it’s a good idea to consider choosing a specific area where you do your work.


If you’re in college, this is easy – there are tons of places to work. I actually have several regular tables I use in my school’s library. I’ll do Japanese at one, move to another for iPhone development, then move to a chair in the Reading Room to read my book, and so on.

By doing this, I’m training my brain to think of each area only as a place for doing specific work – and it works. This is why lots of college experts will tell you not to study in bed, by the way.

So think about where you’re going to study. I believe it matters. If you need some inspiration, feel free to check out my helpful list of study spots.

Making Time

To be honest, the WHEN is probably more important than the WHERE when it comes to self-study.

Lots of people choose to study something; many make goals, find cool resources, and get all excited about learning.

But then they never make time for it.

Make no mistake: if you’re going to learn something amazing, you’re going to have to put a good amount of time into it.

I’ll echo something I said earlier in this post that applies here:

“If you want something bad enough, you’re going to make it happen. So the question is: do you really want it?” Tweet This

That’s really the main part of it. I know way too many people who “want” something, but they don’t want to put the time into it. That tells me the don’t want it bad enough.

If you want something bad enough, you’re just going to have to shut up and put in the work.

However, I think it’s important to also establish a routine, which will help you to build solid habits. Even the most dedicated people can get thrown off of a self-study schedule by random things that come up in everyday life.

If you have a set schedule, you can avoid this. For me, it’s, “First thing in the morning, I read. Then I study Japanese.”

There’s no instance of the word will in that sentence. I just do. And you must do as well.

Teach What You Learn

Lastly, I offer one final idea for you to consider, which is this:

Why not teach what you’re learning?

You probably know that teaching a subject is a great way to solidify your own understanding of it. Since this is the case, why not do it?

A really easy way to start teaching the things you learn to others is starting a blog. Since you control your blog, you don’t have to stick to a schedule or posting frequency – you just write when you’re inspired.

I actually started College Info Geek as a freshman for this very reason – I was interested in getting the most out of college and learning innovative study techniques, and I decided it would be cool to teach other students what I learned.

In addition to simply helping other people out, you also start to establish yourself as a knowledgable person on that topic – and eventually, if you get far enough, as an expert. Being an expert definitely has its perks 😉

There are a number of ways you can start a blog, if this is something you want to do. If you want an easy, hassle-free way of doing it, then setting up a blog on Tumblr or can work nicely.

If you want to have complete control over it and be legit about it, or if you already have your own personal website, then you can use a self-hosted WordPress blog. That’s what I do.

Don’t know how to build your own blog? Check out The Complete, Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Successful Blog, the guide I wrote on the subject. I’ve tried incredibly hard to give you as good of a head start as possible with it.


We’ve gone through the whole process of setting up a self-learning system. We’ve talked about motivation, setting good goals, finding resources for learning, getting personal help, and more.

However, just reading this article isn’t going to do all the work for you.

You know what you want to do. You have the resources and a plan.

Now it’s time to execute.

To achieve your goal, you must get started. Take the first step today, and don’t look bad. Do it! Or else I’ll force you to listen to the Gummy Bear song for the rest of your life!


If this article inspired you to start your own self-learning adventure, then I have one thing to ask of you: Please share this article with someone you think could benefit from it.