The autodidactic learner — why self education is one of the best ways to learn




relating to someone learning by himself or herself, rather than being taught by a teacher.

— Cambridge Dictionary

Are you an autodidact?

Picture this: you hear people at work discussing data mining algorithms. You are curious and want to learn more about the subject.

Do you:

  1. Search online for data mining algorithms?
  2. Take an online course at edX to learn about data mining?
  3. Seek out library books about data mining?
  4. Check out online discussions about data mining?

If you answered yes to any of the choices, then congratulations, you are an autodidact.

Who is an autodidact?

An autodidact is one who learns without the guidance of teachers or schools. It is someone who seeks out knowledge and learns deeply through information, experience and experimentation.

Also known as self-education, autodidacticism is a self-driven form of learning.

Many of history’s greatest thinkers were autodidacts: Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and Karl Marx were all self-taught scholars.

School dropouts like James Bach and Vincent Schaefer, the inventor of cloud seeding, went on to leave their mark in their respective fields without ever completing high school.

Here’s what science fiction author Ray Bradbury had to say about self-learning:

Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.

Autodidacticism in tech is also widespread. A 2016 survey by Stack Overflow showed that an overwhelming 69.1% of software developers surveyed reported that they were self-taught.

The autodidactic learning process

Use the following strategies to educate yourself effectively:

  1. Set goals. Think about what you want to achieve. Is it to learn intensively about the subject to qualify for a new job? Or to focus on relevant parts that’ll solve specific problems at work? Setting goals will determine the time and effort required to learn the subject.
  2. Learn deeply. Can you explain the subject to a 12-year-old? Do you understand its practical implications? For example, regarding data mining algorithms, how would you apply what you’ve learned? How are companies using data mining algorithms to predict outcomes and improve their services?
  3. Track your learning. Documenting what you’ve learnt is crucial. Keep notes to track what you have learnt so you can revisit the subject and include updates later. Your notes could also be in the form of an online post where you express your ideas and receive feedback on it.
  4. Stay updated. Are you updating your knowledge with new information? Reevaluating your perspectives based on new knowledge will keep you current.
  5. Use recall to retain knowledge. Known as test-enhanced learning or retrieval practice, recalling what you have learnt has been proven to make knowledge stick. This could be as simple as writing down what you have learnt about the subject and comparing your notes to the learning materials. Or use spaced repetition to retain new info. Studies have found that the act of recalling information enhances long term retention of concepts.
  6. Solve problems and get feedback. Finding a problem to solve is a great way to reinforce what you’d learnt. Pretend that you’ve been tasked with solving the problem at work and delve deep into the details. Consider its impact and implications to come up with solutions. Go a step further and share your findings online to collaborate with others.

Tools for autodidacts

Free Resources

  1. Merlot. An autodidact’s treasure trove of learning resources.
  2. edX. Courses from the world’s top universities.
  3. Khan Academy. Online courses and tests suitable for learners of all ages.
  4. Wikibooks. Textbooks on a wide range of subjects.

For more resources, use this Wikipedia page of massive open online course providers (MOOCs)

Reading list

  1. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning: useful tricks about learning and ways to retain knowledge.


Being an autodidactic learner is a life-long pursuit. It’s about staying curious and finding time to fit in learning and using that knowledge for good. Learning continuously will hone your competitive edge and it is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Join the Hacker Bits community!

If you found this post helpful, subscribe to Hacker Bits and we’ll send you a collection of must-read articles each month* that will help you learn more, work less and stay current.

Learn. Teach. Grow.

*One email each month. No spam ever.