Updated: Mar 22
There’s a lot wrong with the internet, but one of the best things about it is how easy it is to learn new skills. It’s actually one of the big reasons I have this job: I taught myself photography and photo editing, and I got my break writing about it. There are hundreds of thousands of videos out there teaching pretty much every skill imaginable, so if you want to learn something, there’s almost certainly someone teaching it.
However, there’s a reason most colleges haven’t done away with face-to-face classrooms. Learning by yourself has its own set of challenges—you can’t ask questions, there’s no feedback, and you have to be totally self-motivated.
But people still overcome these caveats and teach themselves everyday—and you can be one of them. If you want to learn how to sew, cook, or take a decent photograph, here’s how to do it well.
Have a reason to study
“Have an end goal in mind when you’re learning,” says Aaron Nace, founder of Phlearn.com. “What do you want to do with this information? How is it going to improve your life? If you don’t plan on using any of the skills you learn, there is little chance you will retain the information.”
Even if you just want to do it for fun, come up with a cool project you can’t do without learning the skill. It’ll give you something to work toward.
Find the right instructor
The most important part of learning anything online is to find a teacher who’s right for you. One instructor might move too slow, another might move too fast, and maybe the third one has an annoying voice that distracts you. But don’t worry—there’s definitely someone you’ll find who’s just right, Goldilocks.
My big break came when I discovered Nace. I’d watched tutorials from other photographers before, but they’d all fallen a bit flat with me. Nace was different: his Photoshop lessons were unbelievably thorough but never boring. He was personable, fun, and an incredibly good teacher. For me, learning from Nace was super easy.
If you’re trying to learn a new skill, dedicate some time to look around and see what courses are available. Don’t just go with the most-viewed video on YouTube—check Skillshare, Lynda,Udemy, and any subject-specific websites, like Phlearn or Masterclass. Also, take advantage of any free lessons they offer, watch the introductions to their classes to see if they fit your skill level and speed, and check what other courses they’ve done, too. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to have the same instructor take you from a total beginner to a near-expert.
Much like a good show on Netflix, watching online tutorial videos can get addictive. But don’t let it—you’re trying to learn something, not get distracted for a few hours. If you watch too many tutorials in a row, you’ll stop taking in the information.
How long you’ll be able to study depends on a few factors—the density of the subject and the amount of information in each video matter a lot. For skills like coding, web design, and data analytics, where big things happen in just a few lines of code, you’ll probably have to slow down and pause each video to follow along. It’d be impressive if you could retain all the information after more than one 20-minute video.
On the other hand, longer, more repetitive subjects like photography, photo editing, or cooking will feature less information in significantly longer videos. You might find you’re able to watch two or more hours of lessons in a row and come away with a good grasp of what’s going on.
Similarly, how much you already know about the subject you’re learning is also important. If you’re already at a high level, you’ll find most videos easier to watch—while beginners are trying to take it all in, you’ll only be learning a few new tips and techniques. I can now watch Photoshop tutorials at double-speed for hours because I know all the mechanics, but when I was starting out, I could only sit through a lesson or two in a row.
Another important factor is the type of time to dedicate to learning, but also to resting. First, pick the right time for you—catching a couple of lessons after a long day at work definitely isn’t the same as doing it when you’re fresh, first thing on a Sunday morning.
Maybe you learn better with your morning coffee, or maybe your brain absorbs more information late at night. But whatever the time of day, it’s important to consider a couple of breaks during your learning sessions—this will give information time to set in.
“Ideally, you should rest when you feel yourself getting tired or you notice you are not able to pay attention,” says Nace. “Our attention span changes throughout the day.”
The only way to find out exactly how much you can get done in a day is trial and error. It’s different from person to person, subject to subject, and instructor to instructor. However, Nace recommends erring on the side of less.
“Don’t try to push yourself and ‘cram’ a lot of information into one session,” he says. “Try to learn over multiple days and allow time for everything to sink in.”
Follow along and take notes
Most online courses provide you with the sample files the instructor works with: use them to follow along. The best way to learn is by doing and practicing, not just by watching.
You have two options: watch the lesson through once, then go back and watch it again while following along, or follow along from the start. If you’re totally new to what you’re learning, the first option will make it easier for you to follow along, since you’ll already know where the lesson is going. Once you’ve got the basics down and you’re learning higher-level skills rather than simple mechanics, you can follow along as you go.
Also, take notes. Write down any important steps, handy keyboard shortcuts, or tips and tricks. Video is great for in-depth learning but it’s terrible for a quick-skim refresher. You don’t want to have to sit through 20 minutes of footage just to find out what tool you were meant to use next.
Practice on your own
At the beginning, it’s good to be able to do something following along with someone else, but eventually you’ll have to take off the training wheels and put things into practice.
Once you’ve learned a new skill, try it out for yourself. You’ll almost certainly make a few mistakes, and that’s totally okay. If you go wrong, review your notes, but otherwise just keep going. You’ll learn a huge amount from your own early errors, rather than just mimicking someone else’s work. And if you get lost, you can always go back to the original lesson.
When you’re starting out, I’d recommend turning the video off and working with the provided exercise files, as you can then compare your final results to the instructor’s. However, learning is not about memorizing a series of steps, but knowing when each step is necessary. So, as you get better, you’ll need to go on your own.
“I suggest students work on their own projects that are similar to the lessons to see how this new information integrates into their current workflow,” says Nace.
Revise in the background
Once you’ve learned something, you need to keep refreshing it to make sure it sticks. The best way I’ve found to do this with online lessons is to throw them on in the background when I’m cooking, photo editing, cleaning, or otherwise semi-occupied.
Actively watching a lesson you’ve already sat through once (or even twice) is pretty boring and, unless you’ve totally forgotten everything, completely unnecessary. However, by having one on in the background while you do other things, you can tune in and out as you go. It’s a great way to keep your skills strong.