Useful tips for self-learning/becoming an autodidact?
August 17, 2010 2:51 AM   Subscribe

Useful tips for self-learning/becoming an autodidact?

I've always been into reading about a wide variety of subjects from politics to science. But I've noticed a lot of the time I'm not able to recall or apply much of what I've read. I've got about a month and a half until I start school again. Until then, I want to learn (or at least begin to) a new language, more about guitar (e.g. scales), and math. How do I go about teaching my self things successfully (in general or specific to the goals I mentioned above; e.g. keeping a journal)? And what books, tools, website, or etc. would you recommend?
posted by meta.mark to Education (10 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Here is my experience. I entered college as a "non-traditional" (read older adult) student who, like you, had read widely but without a satisfactory sense of exactly educating myself. I studied a broad liberal arts program because I was advised that this would prepare me to continue learning all my life and give me a context for continuing my own education. Where I had been trying to gain knowledge more or less randomly without much ability to classify and relate what I read, I found the program of study giving me a good outline and furnishing my mind with reference points for better understanding the world and enough of a framework to gather knowledge and confidently approach critical thinking on the issues that interested me. What I had lacked was not so much particular information as an ability to recognize and determine the relevance and value of new information. I have been very grateful ever since for the multitude of introductory and intermediate and upperclass courses and honors seminars and symposia that furnished my mind just enough to navigate this exciting information age.

Before I entered, I did spend the summer learning the greek alphabet and as much grammar as I could. I bought the one=page laminated "cheat sheets" with the vocabularies, phrase lists of the various divisions and key concepts for several subjects (psychology, anthropology, philosophy, etc. that I would be studying--just learning the vocabulary was a help,)
posted by Anitanola at 3:25 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you want to know how to retain what you learn. You already have the interest and the follow through to read things, perhaps now it is about acquiring the skills to remember the information. I just googled "Retain what you learn" and there seem to be a lot of useful websites out there addressing this.

Hopefully this will help, I too am hoping to improve these skills and thanks for introducing me to a new word - Autodidact, hopefully I will be able to retain it!
posted by lilyflower at 4:08 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this applies, but I come to think of the saying "use it or lose it".
In my experience, I frequently indulge in som obscure subject, become fairly informed about it, but often can't remember more than the broad outlines years later unless I've actually used the knowledge in some practical way. One way to cheat this mechanism has been to (sub)vocalize teaching the subject matter to an imaginary student/listener. This somehow helps me burn the subject better into memory.
posted by Thug at 4:29 AM on August 17, 2010

Keep a notebook! (or several) It's the ultimate tool for any learner, in my opinion. I use mine to write down interesting quotes/passages, definitions, keeping track of lessons, and so on.

Something about the act of physically writing stuff down seems to make recall easier, not to mention that you've got a record of what you've already studied, so you don't need to struggle to remember anyway. It's all right there any time you need to reference it.
posted by Theloupgarou at 4:29 AM on August 17, 2010

You need to read with the intention of remembering and recalling. Also, use tools to aid you. For example, notes are useful. Personally I use SUPERMEMO but there are similar tools out there.
posted by gadha at 5:16 AM on August 17, 2010

Take notes and write summaries, or better yet write essays on your thoughts on the material. Really put some effort into it. Teachers don't make students do such things only to grade them, but also because writing about something, making an argument about it, is a good way to apply what you've read.

For math, get a textbook (or a Schaum's outlines if they have it for your subject) and do the problems. If you have troubles retaining the ideas, do more problems. When I taught math, the one difficulty I had with the students was that they were smart enough to do the problems with me there. But when it came to quiz time, they would get stymied. And it just came down to practice. They hadn't done enough problems to get a feel for the ideas and hadn't developed the "muscle memory" to instantly implement whatever algorithms they learned.
posted by bluefly at 6:06 AM on August 17, 2010

Hard to navigate, but there's some good books buried away here:

posted by zeek321 at 6:07 AM on August 17, 2010

I would recommend narrowing your focus a little bit. A very important element of learning is habit, you need to get to the point where you're comfortable picking up a pencil and working through a few problems or messing around with your guitar while you're watching TV. The first few weeks of learning everything are generally slow going, but once you get in the habit of thinking in that mode, things will improve.

If you're learning something from a book, especially skills like the ones you mentioned, be sure to spend at least as much time practicing as reading. Understanding math is one thing, being able to actually work through a problem properly and without mistakes is a product of practice. I'm not sure what level of math you're at, but I've failed more Calculus courses than I can count with on one hand and didn't pay attention when I was supposed to in high school, and am studying my way (hopefully) to a math minor. I highly recommend this reading list, as well as this book for math.

If you habitually think about and practice the things you learn, you should begin to retain wonderfully.
posted by angusiguess at 6:40 AM on August 17, 2010

Incremental reading and using an SRS helped me.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 8:52 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All great answers - thanks everyone!
Here are some goodies I found for you guys :)

For learning languages:
Foreign Service Institute



Everthing else:
*Kahn Academy
MIT OpenCourseWare
Tufts OpenCourseWare
Carnegie Mellon
University of Reddit
Youtube EDU

*I highly recommend this site; there is A LOT of content on it
posted by meta.mark at 2:56 AM on August 18, 2010 [11 favorites]

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