The Learning Project

{You can grab a printable copy of the companion workbook, The Learning Project Workbook, found at The Workbook Shop!}


Picture a classroom.  Imagine yourself sitting in one of the desks.  In front of the whiteboard are several lecture podiums.  Standing at each podium is a professor.  They are all teaching you in turn, working together to help you understand everything they know.  They thoughtfully take your questions; they wait for you while you take notes.  You’re getting a pretty good handle on the information presented in that class.

Now, imagine that the entire university exists for you alone.  Every class is set up with multiple professors waiting anxiously to teach you.  They hold classes any time it’s convenient for you.  You don’t have to declare a major; you can take any classes that interest you.  You graduate when you want to graduate . . . or you can stay and continue learning forever.

What would you choose to learn if you had this kind of opportunity?

The thing is, we really do have this kind of opportunity.  Think of the professors as authors, their information given patiently in their books.  Think of the university as something you build for yourself–you choose when you can study, you choose what you’ll study, you choose your own path.

This is D.I.Y. learning.  You can do it yourself!  In fact, it has been proven over and over again that intrinsically motivated learning is the most efficient and longest lasting kind of learning.

I graduated from college ten years ago with a degree in English. During my college years, I went to class and took notes and studied to pass the tests, to pass the class, to get the degree.  We go to class with our peers and receive the information, try to stuff it in for a test, and finish with a sigh of relief when the course is over and we have a passing grade.

Fast forward a decade.  Now it is no one’s job to educate me.  No one is getting paid to come to a classroom every day and feed me the information.  As far as formal education is concerned, I’m done.  It’s over for me.  If I want to continue to learn, I have to do it myself.

I resolved to get smarter.  I resolved to become a master of my own mind. I decided to fan the flame of my curiosity and teach myself anything I ever wanted to know. The idea so charged me that I have been able to maintain my drive and enthusiasm for this project for the past several years. It has evolved into something bigger than I ever thought it would.

After I told a few of my close friends about what I was doing–creating actual classes for myself, with serious curriculums and schedules, and prioritizing them in my life–they started to ask me how they could do it, too.  I noticed a spark of interest and immediate increase in enthusiasm when people heard about my project.  It was then that I realized that this might be something I should share with people beyond my family and friends.

I am not a genius.  I am a learner.  That’s it.  The desire to daily engage with curiosity and creativity is what I hope to ignite in you as a reader.

The rest of this post will outline how you can build courses for yourself to facilitate your own D.I.Y. learning experience.  First, you’ll dream big and choose a subject.  Next, I’ll talk about how to find and choose course materials, how to define course objectives to move your learning forward.  And finally, I’ll talk about crafting a meaningful final project that tests how well you learned.  At the end of each chapter, I’ll give you an example from a course I designed for myself that you can work through if you want a little more guidance.

Choosing your Subject

What do you value most? Before you can build a course, you have to decide what that course will be about.  There are a lot of different ways to do this, but the most basic (and definitely the most fun) is to just sit down with a blank sheet of paper and dream.  Brainstorm for as long as you can by answering the following questions:

  • What makes you happy?
  • What do you really want?
  • If you could do anything, what would it be?
  • What are you most curious about right now?
  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What are some of your goals or resolutions?
  • What would your perfect day look like?
  • What quality or skill do you admire most in others?
  • If you had unlimited funds and time, what would you like to do?
  • When have you felt the most fulfilled in your life?
  • What is your happiest memory and why?
  • What is one question you want answered the most?
  • Considering all areas of your life, what area do you feel needs the most improvement?
  • What do you daydream about the most?
  • What have you always wanted to know?
  • What skill have you always wished to have?
  • What would could you see yourself mastering?
  • Fill in the blank: “I want to be a professional ______________.”
  • Fill in the blank: “If only someone would pay me to ____________.”
  • If you could be somewhere else right now, where would it be and what would you be doing?

From this list of questions and answers (and the messy pages of your brainstorming session), flip to a new page and write down a list of 100 goals you have for your life.  I ask that you write 100 goals so you’ll stretch your imagination, scrape the bottom of the barrel and come up with every possible ambition you have.  From this list of goals, make a list of courses you could possibly build for yourself.  Here is a list of subjects and categories to give you some ideas:

  • Coding
  • Cooking
  • Finance
  • First Aid
  • Gardening
  • Geography
  • History
  • Home Repair
  • Housekeeping
  • Interior Design
  • Language
  • Literature
  • Math
  • Music
  • Nutrition
  • Parenting
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Science
  • Sewing
  • Writing

And there are so many more you could add!  Try to make your list specific—instead of just listing “music,” you might write “learn to play the guitar,” or instead of “language,” you’ll have “learn Spanish.”  And don’t be afraid to list some really non-traditional learning subjects—maybe something like “painting with food products” or “writing with my feet.”  Creativity is required just as much at this stage as in the following stages.  You’ll know what you want to learn when you see it.  It’ll jump out at you, it’ll spark something inside of you, and it’ll get you really excited to get started right away.

The Sky is the Limit

Scott Young, a self-learning guru and blogger at, has launched a couple of projects that demonstrate how limitless self-education can be.  First, he did The MIT Project:

In 2012, I decided to try to learn MIT’s 4-year undergraduate computer science curriculum in 12 months, without taking any classes. I was successful in passing the final exams for 33 classes and completing the required programming projects.

Most recently he finished A Year Without English where he and his friend Val Jaiswal went to four different countries where they spent three months in each one learning the languages native to each: Spanish in Spain, Portuguese in Brazil, Mandarin Chinese in China, and Korean in South Korea.  You can see the video on his website where they demonstrate how successful they were (I was pretty impressed).  I look forward to seeing what his next project will be.

What could you learn?  Anything!  People like Scott understand that formal education doesn’t have to be the only way.  Learning can happen, you just have to want it.  So, make your list.  Make it as long as you want.

In the next sections, I’ll demonstrate how you can dip your toe into D.I.Y. learning using a course called Learning for Mastery.  In order to teach yourself things, you have to understand how you learn.  You have to know what skills and habits will make learning possible.  Learning for Mastery was the first course I created for myself before I started studying any of the other topics I’d chosen.  It’ll teach you how to set up your own course or project and help you learn some foundational skills to help you find success along the way.

Choosing Course Materials

The whole world is available as course material!  But as amazing as it would be to fly to France to learn French cooking, some of us can only afford to check out Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Juila Child from the library.  Books, online courses, audio lectures, YouTube videos, blogs and articles, and local mentors are all accessible, affordable resources that you can use to build a list of the best course materials.  And I’m sure there’s even more than that!  Let your subject guide you.

The first thing I do is Google something like “best books about sewing” (or whatever my class is going to be about). I see what comes up there first.  Places like Goodreads and Amazon give you lists, too.  I also use these two heavily for looking closer at books I might want to include–another place to do that is an actual bookstore like Barnes and Noble.  After I have a good list of books, I look and see if my library has them.  I reserve them using their hold service.  Find out if your library offers this!  It’s a total game-changer.  I only buy books after I have read them from the library and can decide for sure that the book is going to be something I will want to read more than once, reference throughout my life, or lend to a friend.  After I’ve completed a course, I usually try to buy my favorite, essential course books to keep around as a refresher.

When looking for an online course, lecture, video, article, or a local mentor or teacher, you’ll want to save time by looking at specific sites first.  Sometimes you can find a course list from classes offered at major universities.  Scott Young’s MIT Challenge is a perfect example of getting an education with a little help from a major university, but still doing it on your own.

Coursera is my favorite for online classes, but you can google “online course for [your subject]” and see what pops up.  Next, I look for YouTube videos or TED talks that apply to my topic–especially helpful for hard skills like sewing, drawing, and fixing things around your house, but you can usually find anything on most subjects.

Niche blogs and popular articles from reputable sources can be course material, too.  For example, for my writing course, I used Betty Flower’s idea of the madman, architect, carpenter, judge mentality when writing.  It could only be found summarized in one article online, even though it is widely known. [Update: First of all, the original article is available in other places, but none of them were very accessible.  Also, is that idea widely known??]  If your course is about current events or geography, you will want to keep up with news sites or travel blogs to get your course material.

Another great way to learn is through lectures and DVDs offered through The Great Courses lectures.  My library has most of these, so I borrow them instead of buy them.  Audible allows you to download most of these (and is also a great way to read a book that is a bit harder to get through–consider this before giving up on an informative but dry book.)

I’m surprised at how many resources I find searching homeschooling sites.  Some of the curriculum, particularly for high school level is fantastic for subjects like math and science.  They also have a lot of tips on where to find affordable options for things like typing, piano, and art classes.

Do you have a friend whose sewing is masterful?  Do you want to learn how to bake bread like your mom?  Ask!  There are people all around you who would be thrilled to teach you what they know and are just waiting for you to ask.  Plus, you get the benefits of accountability and hands-on practice.

Finally, use your library!  That is the best place to find out if there is a local class being offered on something you’re wanting to learn.  Our library offers an adult art class once a month for free, along with computer classes and writing workshops.  I took a free library watercolor class once and discovered a new talent that I didn’t even know I possessed.  Since then I’ve been creating one painting a month on average, commissioned by family and friends.  It’s not a money maker, but it sure has been a fun way to improve my art skills.

Some subjects have infinite resources.  This is both a curse and a blessing.  While I’m working through a course, I continue adding resources to the list.  Often, I’ll do a superficial reading of possible new material over the weekend or before bed, just to see if it’s something I might want to add permanently to the course.  It’s harder to actually finish a course when you approach it this way, but some courses (like the one included at the end of this post) can be repeated and fine-tuned for the ultimate life-long learning experience.  Follow your curiosity, though, or you’ll end up getting burned out and bored with the topic.

Be creative with where you get your learning material.  Anything goes as long as it works for you.

Learning for Mastery Course Materials

The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Bauer: 

This book is another witness of the power of self-learning.  She outlines how you can give yourself a classical education through reading.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert:

This book is the perfect encouragement for you to begin this project.  Let it open you up and send you on your way bravely.  It is an easy read.  Allow Gilbert to be your mentor, that voice in your head telling you to keep going and enjoy yourself.

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects created by UCLA and offered through Coursera: 

Not only is this course a huge eye-opener on the subject of learning, but it’s also a great introduction into the world of free online courses if you haven’t tried one before.  Coursera is one of the best resources for learning.  And this class was definitely foundational.  The title of the course is pretty self-explanatory, but it turns out, most of us don’t really know how to learn effectively.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler:

Reading is the number one way we are going to teach ourselves.  If you’re going to get the most out of any book, read this before you read anything else.  And take notes.

An article of your choice on how to take Cornell Notes:

Speaking of taking notes, it’s really important to learn how to take notes effectively.  I recommend looking around the internet for videos and articles on how to take notes in various ways.  Do a little bit of practicing and see what works.  I have found that Cornell notes are my favorite.  Sometimes I write notes by taking ideas and putting them on individual note cards.  It depends on what I’m working with, whether it’s an online course, a lecture, or a book.  Find out what works for you.

Mastery by Robert Greene:

This book blew me away.  Read it. “Each one of us has within us the potential to be a Master.  Learn the secrets of the field you have chosen, submit to a rigorous apprenticeship, absorb the hidden knowledge possessed by those with years of experience, surge past competitors to surpass them in brilliance, and explode established patterns from within.  Study the behaviors of Einstein, Darwin, and the nine contemporary Masters interviewed for this book.  Unlock the passion within you and become a Master.”

Optimizing Brain Fitness taught by Richard Restak and offered through The Great Courses:

Other great resources for learning are found through The Great Courses lectures created by The Teaching Company.  Don’t let the price scare you.  Most libraries carry all of their courses.  You can also find them on Audible for a reasonable price.  This particular course was a great companion to Learning How to Learn.

When learning about how to have success learning, I found it essential to study habits, too.  Below are the books that taught me the most about habits:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg:

Many of you have probably heard of this book even if you haven’t read it.  Duhigg helps us understand the “new science” that allows us to really see how habits work, which will help us find success when making or breaking our own habits.

Better than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin:

I’ve always been a fan of her work, but in her latest book, Gretchen Rubin really blows the top off of how to successfully develop habits. She doesn’t just rehash Duhigg, either.  In fact, taking both together, I feel like I can make and keep any habit.

The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play by Harry Lorayne:

This book was recommended by the lecturer in Optimizing Brain Fitness.  It’s a classic, apparently.  I found it extremely helpful for improving my memorization skills!

You Can Do It!: The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-up Girls by Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas:

Oh, how I love this book.  This book practically jumped off the shelf when I found it when browsing the bookstore one day.  Grandcolas has a system for D.I.Y. learning that is fool-proof.  I can’t recommend this book enough.

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. by Dan Coyle:

I read both of Dan Coyle’s books, and I must say, his ideas are incredibly helpful for mastering anything.  I like how distilled The Little Book of Talent is, though.  You might just read that and get to his tips and tricks quickly; but if you really want to know how it all works, then read this one, too.

The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Dan Coyle:

A short little collection of tips for mastering things, I found this book extremely helpful.  I have used its ideas so many times since reading it that I finally just went out and got my own copy.

I have a lot more to add to this list that I still have to read, and you’ve probably read several that you could list here as well.  I would love to see your recommendations in the comments!

Creating Course Objectives

It’s important to give yourself some direction with objectives.  They drive your progress as you work through the course material.

When you list objectives for your course, you’re basically creating a to-do list for your learning experience.  Real learning requires you to engage with the material in some way.  Online courses usually have their objectives built in, but just reading a book and leaving it at that isn’t going to help you comprehend and remember what you’re trying to learn.  For example, say I want to read the Oedipos trilogy.  I could create a list of key characters and show how they’re connected.  I could summarize what’s happened in each book and show how they connect into a whole.  I could present the works by putting on a play.

Engage with the material by using objectives and you’ll learn.

Notice how I italicized certain verbs that define what action I need to take with my example objectives.  When writing objectives, it helps to use these action verbs to make the objective more clearly defined.  If I just wrote, “Learn how to sew a button,” I wouldn’t have a clearly defined place to start.  But if I wrote, “Demonstrate how to sew a button,” I’ll know that particular skill has been obtained only when I can show someone else how I sew on a button.

It’s ok to wait until you’ve looked over your material before listing objectives.  Sometimes certain material lends itself to certain objectives.  For example, if I am reading How to Read a Book, I will take a lot of notes, but in order to make those notes serve me, I would write an objective to make a bookmark that lists the steps to analyzing a book.  I might also need to start back a bit further and research and choose a note-taking method that will help me isolate the information to even create the bookmark.

It’s a good idea to generate multiple objectives for each of your materials, that way you get the most out of each one.  In fact, try having a goal of writing two or three objectives per resource.  Pay attention to challenges and action items mentioned, since these make great objectives.

Learning for Mastery Course Objectives

Review these objectives before reading through the course materials.

  • Create a list of life goals. Generate a list of at least 100 goals you’d like to achieve in your lifetime.
  • Starting with those life goals, generate a list of things you’d like to learn.  Expand that list to include all things you’ve ever wanted to learn.
  • Write a reflective journal entry/essay/blog post about yourself, your tendencies, your situation, your strengths and weaknesses, and how you learn best.  This will guide you through the rest of your learning project. (I recommend having read Better Than Before before completing this objective.)
  • Put together a binder of all the classes you plan to take.  Use tabs to give each topic a section.  Include a tab for this class, too, so you can add books to your materials list and have a place to keep notes.  (Your final project will include finishing this binder.)
  • As you read the course material, take notes using your chosen method–experiment with different methods until you find one that allows you to retain and understand the material.
  • In order to be successful in learning, you need certain foundational habits.  Keeping in mind what you want to accomplish in life, choose a few keystone habits you’d like to work on.  Do not overburden yourself with too many.  Choose one or two foundational habits and add more only after those are completely mastered.  (You’ll need to have read The Power of Habit and Better Than Before before completing this objective.)  Some examples might be waking early, exercising, getting more sleep, or meditating.
  • Make a plan for developing those habits and follow it for a set number of days.  Keep a log of how it goes so you can learn from it.
  • Write a journal entry/essay/blog post summarizing your notes and favorite findings.  Write it as if you were teaching yourself the material.
  • Teach a friend what you learned from your reading and study.
  • Add a few of your own course objectives based on your reading.  For example, maybe you’d like to use The Memory Book to memorize something, or you’d like to outline a book using what you learned in How to Read a Book.

Choosing a Final Project

The biggest objective, the one that really proves that you’ve learned the material, is going to be your final project.  Having a final project in mind as you create your objectives, helps you build up sufficiently the understanding and skills needed to make the final project achievable.

Stretch yourself here.

Are you taking a sewing class?  Your objectives might be to demonstrate how to thread a sewing machine, demonstrate how to load a bobbin, sew a straight line on a piece of scrap fabric, create a sampler of sewing stitches on a piece of scrap fabric, sew a pillow case, sew an apron, build a dress form, add ruffles to your pillow case, etc.  A final project, the thing that made you choose to build this class in the first place, might be to sew a dress for yourself.

Avoid the temptation to create a final project that sounds something like, “Do yoga every day for the rest of my life.”  A “for the rest of my life” kind of final project isn’t very final.  It’s not exactly measurable.  You’ll have to work on the assumption that, if you’ve sufficiently internalized the course, it’ll be enough a part of you now that you’ll adopt it into your life in a way that’s best for you.  A better example of a final project for a yoga course would be, “Follow a yoga sequence that you make, at home, for 30 days.”  Maybe even something like, “Do a headstand” would be a fantastic final project to work toward.

It could be anything.  Play Bach in front of an audience, create an oil painting for your living room, build a website, invite your boss to dinner and prepare something fancy, swim across the English Channel.  It can be anything you choose.  The final project is a little bit like your merit badge, certificate of completion, proof that you did it.  It’s a goal to work toward.


I want to leave you with one parting word of advice.  Although I believe we can all achieve whatever we put our minds to, I also believe that the most success comes when we’re realistic about our abilities, tendencies, and current life situation.  I might also add that we need to acknowledge our own personal advantages—we often overlook these.  Are you a stay-at-home-mom like I am?  Do you work a full-time job?  Do you have a really tight budget?  Do you have physical limitations or health issues?  Do you have special opportunities available right now that you can take advantage of?  Keep all of these factors in mind when choosing and building your course, and you’ll settle on the course that will not only ignite your mind but that will also have the highest chance for success.

Here is a link to all the courses I’ve put together so far.  Don’t see your course?  Let me know!

Learning for Mastery Final Project

You may have figured out that the final project is where you get to build your own course just like this one.  Get out your binder and let’s get started.

  • By now, you have a binder with tabs for each of your future classes.  Add paper to each section so you have room to plan a course for each one.
  • Order the classes however you’d like.  Choose the ones you’re most excited about first, but also ones that will be foundational for helping you complete later courses.  For example, you’d want to take a nutrition course before a cooking course; or you might want to take a geography course before a history or current events course.
  • Once you have your order in place, start planning course materials, course objectives, and a final project for each one.
  • Finally, get started learning with your first course.

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