How to learn on your own

Created by: Roger Grosse
Intended for: everyone

We all have cases where we want to learn something outside the school context. Maybe you need to pick up some skills for your job. Maybe you're trying to learn skills for a side project. Maybe you read something surprising in the newspaper and want to know the details.

Unfortunately, today's educational system up through college is based on micromanaging the learning process, and it does little to prepare you for independent study. (talk about Ph.D.?)

(talk about Metacademy)

Here are a few things this roadmap does not cover:

  • The humanities. While there's value to being cultured and well-read, I don't have any particular advice in this area. Most of what I say is oriented towards STEM subjects, and maybe some related areas such as cognitive science. If your goal is to be generally well-read, you might want to check out Mortimer Adler's excellent book, How to Read a Book.
  • Unschooling. Managing your own education in its entirety is a tall order, but some people manage to do it. I admire the initiative they have taken, and hope that Metacademy can contribute to making it possible. But I went through a traditional education, so I have no advice to offer here either. This roadmap is oriented towards people who have something specific they want to learn.
  • Test prep. If you need to take the MCATs next week, there are lots of other resources out there. I'm assuming here that you have a real desire to learn something -- either for its own sake, or because you need it for some other end.

In short, this roadmap is really about how to learn specific technical topics that you're interested in. I'll highlight various strategies I've used, as well as resources that I've found useful.

Let me insert the major caveat that there aren't any recipes for learning on your own. Different people have different learning styles, and what worked for me might not work for you. Ultimately, you will need to experiment to figure out how you learn.

Types of resources

You have various options for where to learn from:

  • Most obviously, textbooks. It's pretty important to find a good one. A good strategy is to check course web pages at top universities and see what's assigned/recommended. For AI-related subjects, MIRI has compiled a pretty good list.
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs). Despite the hype about MOOCs disrupting traditional education, I see them basically as textbooks in the format of lecture videos. The reason they make a big difference for self-directed learning is that, unlike most textbooks, they are delivered free of charge, which makes it easy for you to mix-and-match: a few videos from this course, a few videos from that one. (This is actually pretty amazing when you think about it: according to this report, it costs between $30K and $300K to produce a typical MOOC, yet universities are giving them away for free. Enjoy it while it lasts!)
  • Course notes. There are lecture notes posted online for a lot of courses, especially on MIT OpenCourseware. The upside is that notes are often more concise than textbooks. On the downside, they are typically less polished, especially if (as in the majority of cases) they are transcribed by students as a homework assignment.
  • Research papers. For more advanced topics, there might not be a textbook or a MOOC that covers them adequately, and you'll need to turn to the academic literature. (Some fields, such as physics and computer science, are pretty good about making research publications openly available. For most others, if you don't have access to a university library, you're hosed.)
    • Unless you're actually doing research in a particular field, you probably won't want to read the most bleeding edge papers. The topics are naturally the least well understood, and most papers are not optimized for readability.
    • One strategy is to look for highly cited papers. While citation counts are deeply flawed in a lot of ways, they provide a rough measure of impact, and highly cited papers are, on average, considerably more readable than a random paper.
    • In some fields, there are journals that publish review papers, e.g. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, or Foundations and Trends in Machine Learning. These are sort of intermediate between textbooks and research papers, and are a good way to get up to speed on important results of the past decade or so which haven't yet found their way into textbooks.
    • If you are not at a university, and find that a given paper is locked behind a (absurdly expensive) paywall, try searching for the title and authors on Google Scholar. Often, even when a paper is closed access, the authors are still allowed to post it openly on their web pages.

A good general piece of advice is to consult multiple resources. Different textbooks or courses will explain something from a different perspective, and often when reading one you get an "aha!" moment for something which didn't make sense in the other. Unfortunately, this option might not be practical unless you have access to a university library.