As a self-directed learner, you will follow this process many times in your life.

Step 1

Identify what you want or need to learn.

Whether you are building a house or a robot, writing a book, learning to get along with a spouse or parents, or studying algebra, you need to identify what you want to do and what aspects of that subject are necessary for you to explore or learn.

Sometimes you'll already know just what you want to do. For example, you might decide you want to build a robot. Then your task is to identify what knowledge you will need to accomplish that task. You may need to learn something about electronics as well as welding. Depending on what you want to do with your robot, you may need to learn other subjects as well.

Or you may not have a particular goal in mind to start with. You may start with a list of subjects or a list of subject categories, such as science, and narrow the subject list to a project, such as building a computer. Then you can identify the kinds of knowledge you will need to accomplish your task.

This step will be easier if you find resources related to your subject or goal. These resources—books, people, websites, projects—will help you understand how other people have approached this same task or similar tasks. They will help you find out what you need to know and guide you in obtaining the necessary skills.

Step 2

Outline your task.

Develop a list of steps or activities that will help you achieve your learning plan. These steps might include topics you need to study, subjects you need to learn about, skills that you need to gain, activities you need to do, or tools you will need to gain.

Organize the list so you will know in what order you need to take these steps.

Make a schedule that will show when you will take each step. (If you are working on a large project, you may need to make a learning plan, following this same process, for some or all of your steps.)

Identify checkpoints in your process, where you can assess your progress and decide whether you need to make adjustments in your plan. It is a good idea to find mentors who can help you organize and follow your plan and give you feedback on your progress. Mentors can also help you develop your plan and find resources. A mentor may help you with the entire plan, including identifying what you want to learn, or a mentor may work with you on just one aspect of the plan.

Decide how you will determine that you have completed your project in a satisfactory way. Ask yourself, "What counts as success in this project?"

Step 3

Follow your plan.

You may encounter unexpected difficulties or problems in carrying out your plan. You may need to change your strategy or plan to meet these challenges successfully.

Step 4

Consider what you learned from following your plan.

You might include what you learned about subjects or people or what you learned about yourself.

Determine what to work on next. Your next project might grow out of the one you just completed or some aspect of it, or it may be completely different.

Learning Plan Resources

Mentoring is an ideal and necessary part of the learning process.

Mentors are people who give time and energy to share knowledge, skills, and abilities with others. Finding good mentors and becoming a good mentor are both key elements in self-directed learning.

It's never too early (or too late) to find or become a mentor. Just the other day, I saw my five-year-old son enthusiastically showing a friend how to play the piano. My son isn't an accomplished painist. In fact, just that same day or the day before he had gained the knowledge he was sharing with such gusto. He had no teaching certifications, no professional licenses to teach. It was enough that he knew more than his friend and that he was excited for the opportunity to share.

I have two nieces—one from my side of the family and one from my wife's—who attend a private high school a few cities from where I live. It's not too far, and there was an opening at the school for next fall to teach the class they will be taking. Several times when we talked, they urged me to apply.

I was tempted. I would enjoy getting back into the classroom, and I would enjoy interacting again with my nieces. It would be a lot of fun. I even got a PDF of the school's application form and began filling it out.

As I was working on the application, my son, who is about the same age as my two nieces, came up behind me and asked, astonished, "Dad, what are you doing?!!!"