How to Use Free Resources to Educate Yourself on Nearly Any Subject

We live in an age where there are more educational resources available to the average person than there ever have been before. For the lifetime learner – a label I would definitely apply to myself – the last decade has been incredibly rich with options and tools for providing yourself most of the quality of a college-level education (college has its own perks, such as networking and the overall environment as well as the degree at the end of the journey) for free (or very close to it).

I speak from experience here. Over the past decade or so, I’ve worked through most of a college-level curriculum in several different subjects. Currently, I’m engaged in working through such a curriculum in computer science and philosophy. I haven’t paid a dime in tuition for any of it. My greatest expense has been a pile of notebooks and pens, though I have purchased a few books that I didn’t strictly have to buy.

As I’ve often joked with my wife, my level of understanding of the world and of several different subjects has grown to the point that I now realize that I actually know very little about those subjects and have just scratched the surface. In the words of Socrates from Theaetetus, “I myself know nothing, except just a little, enough to extract an argument from another man who is wise and to receive it fairly.”

So, let’s get down to business. There are undoubtedly tons and tons of free materials available online and offline for providing deep self-education on almost any topic you might want to know about, whether that education is for self-improvement or for improving your career standing. The question is how do you use those resources in an organized fashion to actually build into a strong body of knowledge?

The key thing to remember here is that you won’t earn a degree from this, but you will satisfy personal curiosity, gain knowledge and (in some cases) skills, and sharpen your own ability to learn new material quickly (which is useful in any career and in many aspects of life). Not only that, this is an extremely low-cost hobby, provided you’re smart about the resources you use.

Excited? Let’s dig in. Here’s how I do it.

Figure Out What You Want to Study

This seems like a trite question, but it’s actually more important than you might think.

The problem is that many people come to the conclusion that they want to learn about a very general subject. “I want to study philosophy.” “I want to study genetics.” “I want to study computer science.”

While that can indeed be a goal, the truth is that there’s usually a more specific question or interest behind it. Why do you want to study philosophy? Why do you want to study genetics? Why do you want to study computer science?

If you find yourself with a general interest in a subject, I strongly encourage you to shine up that interest a little by applying some hard questions to it. I personally find great value in using “the five whys” when doing this.

Start off by asking yourself why you want to study this topic. Then, ask yourself why again regarding your answer to that first question, then repeat that three more times. What you’re doing with repeatedly asking “why” is honing the general interest down to the specific topics and questions that really interest you and are triggering that general interest.

What I’ve found in my own experience is that most of the time, my questions tend to point me in the direction of a single high level topic within that broader topic. For example, my questions about computer science led me to the theory of programming languages and my interest in philosophy led me to political philosophy, while my interest in genetics boiled down to how computers are used to model the biochemical mechanics of genetics.

I discovered this by thinking about what exactly I wanted to know about each topic and carefully reading through the high level overviews of those subjects provided on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great tool for getting an overview of an idea and pointing you in the right direction for further learning, which is exactly how I’m using it here.

Usually, those high-level questions, at least for me and for some of my close friends who are also self-learners, actually point to something that’s addressed by specific college classes, not full degree programs.

Find Classes or Degree Program Descriptions Online That Match Those Interests

At this point, you’ll have some very specific topics that you’re wanting to learn more about. What you’re going to want to do next is find college or online courses or degree programs that match the specific questions that you have.

Personally, I consider it worthwhile to look first at the offerings of universities and colleges near your place of residence, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but there is certainly a ton of value in finding classes and degree programs at other universities or even from online self-learning sites like Coursera.

I’ll use Iowa State, which is the major university closest to where I live, as an example. Rather than studying genetics as a whole, I came to realize that my questions about genetics are basically covered in the class BCB 570 (Computational Functional Genomics and Systems Biology), my questions about philosophy are addressed in Phil 535 (Contemporary Political Philosophy), and my questions about computer science were addressed in Com S 441 (Programming Languages).

I found those specific classes simply by Googling terms related to my interests and appending “Iowa State” to those searches. It was pretty straightforward.

Now, most of the classes I find that really answer my questions in a deep way are at the top of a big tree of prerequisite classes. The classes I list above have several levels of prerequisite classes, for instance. The thing is that those classes are assuming that you have all of the knowledge of those prerequisites the moment you walk in the door, so your actual learning should start with the base level prerequisites – the low-level classes that don’t have any prerequisites.

It’s worth your while to spend the time to piece all of this out now. Figure out all of the prerequisites for the class you’re interested in, then figure out all of the prerequisites for those classes, and so on and so forth until you have a list of classes that will lead up to the main class you’re interested in. In some cases, this list can include a dozen classes or more – that’s a good thing, because it means you’re going to get a thorough understanding of all of the steps that lead up to the ideas you are interested in.

The purpose of all of this is to build a learning plan for yourself. You’re essentially using the free resources – degree programs, course descriptions, and syllabi – that colleges put online to build a specific learning plan that will take you from a high school level to answering the challenging questions you have in your mind in a thorough way.

Find Online Course Materials That Fill Those Requirements

So, you’ve identified an outline of a course of study that will take you from where you are now to understanding and answering your questions. What’s the next step?

The next step is to start focusing in on the first leg of your learning journey. You’re going to want to essentially “take the class” without actually taking the class.

You can do that by finding the course website for the first course on your list, but also finding similar course websites for matching courses at other universities.

Let’s say, for example, that you were starting off with an introductory computer programming class – in Iowa State’s case, that would be Com S 227. You’d then find the syllabus for that class, which could be found with some searching, and see what textbooks the course requires and what notes and other course materials are available on that website.

But that’s just the start.

Use Online Course Materials from Multiple Parallel Classes

The next step is to find similar courses at other universities to see what they offer. For example, with just a bit of Google searching, I found that MIT 6.00 was a very similar course that offered an abundance of materials online, including video lectures and detailed lecture notes. That’s going to be a very effective resource.

I usually spend some time doing this, finding online course materials related to the area that I’m studying from lots of different schools and from online sources as well. I find that places like Coursera, edX, and even iTunes U can be great sources for course materials.

What usually ends up happening is that I find a “best” course among all of the ones that I look at, usually one with video or audio lectures available and plenty of available lecture notes, and use that as my backbone, supplementing with materials I find elsewhere. In this case, I’d probably stick with MIT 6.00’s materials.

At that point, I’d basically just take the class on my own schedule, going through the lectures and taking notes, doing all of the reading, and trying to tackle all of the programs and projects on my own to the best of my ability.

Use the Library (and Other Resources) for Books

Obviously, most courses require textbooks and those textbooks can be expensive. You have a few options here.

First, you can simply check and see if your local library actually has the book or can get it for you. The availability of these kinds of books varies widely from library to library and whether other students have already borrowed the book.

If that doesn’t work out, you can look around for similar books that your library may have. While page references won’t match up if you’re using a different book, it’s very likely that the books will cover the same material. Try to find the suggested books from different classes that are similar to the one you’re following and see if those are available at the library.

For example, the textbook mentioned in MIT 6.00 wasn’t available, but I did find that one of the suggested alternative books, Introducing Python by Bill Lubanovic, was in fact available from the local library, so I would effectively use that as my textbook for the class as a supplement to the lecture notes.

You can usually find something that will aid you through the course materials via your local library and interlibrary loan programs.

Ask Permission to Sit In on Classes (If Available)

If you live near a university, it might make sense for you to work through the materials of a class in parallel with students actually taking the class. If you’re doing that, you can ask the professor of the class if you can sit in during the class to learn more about the topic. I’ve never yet found a professor who said no to this request – they’re usually thrilled that there are people out in the community with enough interest to do this on their own just for self-learning.

Of course, this won’t allow you to take the exams, do the projects, or earn credit for the class, but it will give you a lecture environment to absorb the material.

Notes, Notes, Notes!

For me, taking notes is an absolutely vital element of the self-education process. The process of rewriting an idea in my own words with pen strokes across the page forces me to carefully consider and reconsider the ideas that have been presented to me. That usually leads to tying the new idea in with things I’ve already learned, making valuable cross connections in my mind. This isn’t something that happens when I’m just listening to a lecture or reading from a book – the note-taking adds that extra step of really processing the information.

While I do have a fondness for nice notebooks (I actually love Baron Fig notebooks), for the purposes of just taking bundles of class notes, any old cheap notebook from the dollar store will do. I actually like to use loose leaf paper myself, putting it in a binder when I’m done with it. The exception to this is when I’m studying math and physics topics, where I’m pretty insistent on using graph paper because of the things I’ll have to draw.

I basically don’t listen to lectures or do any reading related to the topic I’m studying without a notebook open in front of me so I can jot down notes as I go.

Do Lots of Problems

If you’re taking a class that focuses on solving problems – math, statistics, computer science, and so on – it is well worth your time to fill your notebook with as many practice problems as you can stand. Do that calculus problem, then do another one very much like it, then do another one, and another one. The point is to make sure that you understand the problem solving process on a very deep level.

What If You Get Stuck?

Eventually, if you’re studying on your own, you’re going to get stuck on something. You’re going to be digging into a topic and suddenly realize that you don’t really understand what’s going on.

In a normal classroom environment, it’s easy to handle this. You simply ask your professor or your TA for help. However, you’re self-learning. You’re not in a classroom environment. What do you do then?

Here are some of the strategies I use.

Back Up to Firm Ground and Progress Forward Slowly

The first thing I do when I realize I’m getting confused is to back up a little bit. I’ll stop whatever it is that I’m focusing on, whether it’s listening to a lecture or reading a book related to that topic, and I’ll rewind to a point where I’m sure that I fully understand everything.

From there, I move forward slowly, very slowly. I’ll stop and look up word definitions if I need to, or I’ll look up specific topics that might help me figure out what’s going on. That’s usually enough to get the ball rolling again and clear up my confusion.

Ask Questions and Discuss Ideas in Reputable Online Forums

Another useful strategy is to get involved with an online forum dedicated to the topic you’re interested in. Usually, the people who congregate in such places are much like you – they have a deep personal interest in the topic, want to talk about the topic, share information about the topic, and sometimes have their questions on the topic answered.

There are many, many, many ways to find such forums out there. One way is to find a small community devoted to your specific topic on Reddit – many of the small communities there can be very useful. You can also simply do Google searches for communities related to your topic.

Once you find such a place, however, it’s well worth your time to be a good citizen while there.

Be an active member in those forums. Don’t just show up, ask a question, read the answer, and then leave, never to appear there again. Not only is that not particularly helpful to that community, it’s also less than helpful to you as well. People who do that usually get a much lower level of attention to their questions than active members, and you’re also leaving a valuable opportunity for idea exchange on the table, which is really one of the most valuable parts of these online communities.

Answer the questions that others have that you can answer. One great way to prove your value and build a reputation in such a community is to give a sincere and detailed answer to someone else’s question. If something pops up that you clearly understand and can explain, take the time to explain it. Not only does this build your reputation in that community, it also helps you by making you organize your ideas in a smart fashion which reinforces what you’ve learned.

Be respectful and polite and avoid flame wars and trolling. Online discussions have a nasty tendency to sometimes turn negative and devolve into conflicts. Don’t be a part of that. Keep it positive and avoid flaming others or making comments just to get a reaction.

Email Appropriate Professors

A final strategy you can use – though it’s one that I would use only as a last resort – is to email the professor of the class (or a teaching assistant) with your question. The reason I’d hold this until last is that, quite often, professors won’t answer your question unless you’re in the class – and sometimes not even then. Some professors love to help – others really, really do not.

Not only that, this method gets close to crossing the line into leeching, since you’re asking for a service for free – getting an answer from a professor – that others are paying for in the form of tuition.

Use this as a last resort, but don’t demand or expect amazing results every time.

Let Your Own Curiosity and Interests Lead You

What will often happen as you progress through these topics is that your interests will slowly change. You very well might stick with one area for many years, and that’s great, but you might also find your interest in that area flagging.

That’s okay. If you find your interest flagging, move on to something else. What are you interested in now?

From there, you can start this entire journey over again.

Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning, I absolutely love using this style of self-learning as a primary hobby. For starters, it’s a very low cost hobby – you’ll burn through some notebooks, but that’s about it. You’re not going to be laying out a lot of cash here.

However, the real reason this hobby stands out is that it’s incredibly helpful in your life, even if you’re not earning a degree. For one, it improves your overall body of knowledge, which is nothing but helpful. For another, it improves your ability to absorb new material quickly, which is a key part of many professions. Top performers in many fields get there because they’re able to absorb new material quickly, and that’s the exact skill you’re practicing with self-learning. Not only that, this hobby sates your curiosities like no other… but it also constantly gives rise to new ones.

If you have a curious mind and have an interest in lifetime learning, there’s almost no better hobby than the kind of self-directed learning that I’ve laid out here. It’s incredibly inexpensive and provides an endless source of things to learn and ideas to process.

Good luck!

Related Articles:

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.