Tools of trade for independent learners

A student's tools of tradeIf you are an active learner, or even more – an independent learner, you should consider using the best tools you have at your disposal to make the study process effective and efficient. Identifying “the best” and most useful and suitable tools and techniques of active learning  will help to improve productivity dramatically, making the study process more enjoyable, and the learnt material more usable.

 I am a strong believer in workflows, i.e. a chain of separate tools and processes optimised on a particular task in question and assembled in a coherent whole by the workflow user, i.e. you! In the words of Leo Babauta, creator of production technique “Zen to habit”: “The decisions you make about what to do each week, each day, each moment, add up to a process called workflow”, I would re-frame this in the context of learning: the decisions you make on how to study and learn each week, each day and each moment, add up to  your learning workflow!
While studying independently and being a life-long learner I found it helpful to identify following steps in the knowledge workflow: knowledge generation, knowledge usage and knowledge retention. In my personal view, both analog and digital tools must be used side-by-side to support the best learning experience and meet single learner’s expectations.

Generation of knowledge

Digital tools

In my eyes, one of the most effective digital tools at your disposal is a “digital paper” more frequently referred to as tablet! If you are a lucky owner of a tablet or an iPad, consider using programmes such as goodnotes which offer a great way to create a systematic digital collection/library of files and documents. Organise material around topics in folders to make it more easily searchable and accessible. When working on University of London courses, be eager to look for additional material, allowing you to benefit from great research papers from top institutions. Collect all great material in your digital library for further research and processing. One of the greatest advantages of such a library is that you always have it at hand, can easily comment and edit digital papers and avoid printing tons of paper.

For knowledge collection, do try to use mind maps on your tablet. Made popular by Tony and Barry Buzan, mind map is a versatile tool which allows you to link topics in your head, find new connections and make complex concepts more understandable. According to Tony and Barry Buzan, radiant thinking is a “natural way” in which our brains are operating. By using mind maps, you recreate the brains thinking process on paper or the screen in front of you. “So, why software, then?”, – you might ask. Having tried “analog” mind maps in the past, I came to the conclusion that their usage of continuous learning is not optimal.

Analog mind map

Analog mind maps are helpful when you need to conduct a fast brainstorming session – if you use them instead for systematising of material, then a digital version is a better tool. As you acquire more knowledge on the topic, and your critical thinking on the topic significantly improves, digital mind maps can be easily edited removing unnecessary connections and adding new valuable insights. This feature of digital mind maps offers a great tool for continuous learning and improvement as well as a generation of new insights.

Digital mind map
The software which can be absolutely recommended for this purpose is iThoughts which offers all types of mind map formats making export and import very easy and flexible – for instance, you can export your mind map in a pdf or word format. I would love to use mind maps drawn on paper, but the greatest advantage of digital mind maps is their flexibility.

Analog tools

Do write your standard notes on paper – as this process will foster physical interaction with the paper and will help to retain knowledge. Moreover, university exams are on paper, so note-taking should be a great practice to train speed and legibility in this digital age.  Different methods of notes taking can be considered – ranging from plain bullet point style notes to the more complex methods such as the Cornell Method. Pick the one which works best for you. Definitely consider using the technique introduced by Richard Feynman known today as Feynman’s method: write your notes as if you were explaining new material to somebody who has never heard about the topic in question. How about trying to explain General Equilibrium to your grandmama :) ?

A further tip when making notes is to focus on the applicability of knowledge in your everyday thinking: for instance, when reading about the balance of trade structure, try to research on the topic looking for arguments and points which seem to be important and critical to the current debate. Do try to understand assumptions, limitations and corner cases introduced by a particular model. Moreover, patiently look for connections between this model and any further knowledge you may have already picked in a different field or subject. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy strong belief is that knowledge must be interdisciplinary – indeed, it is important and helpful to have schools of thoughts in science (that is how science more or less works) but as a practitioner you must constantly be looking for interconnections between fields and disciplines: there is no reason why a concept from economics might not be interlinked with your knowledge from theoretical physics or medicine (how about survival of startups and the evolutionary theory of Darwin?). According to  the words of Charlie Munger,  vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, identification of interdisciplinary “mental models” allows critical thinking and the generation of real insights. It might be helpful to think about core models  in every discipline as the “latticework of mental models.”

The systematic and deep understanding of core principles of various subjects when interconnected will benefit you significantly over the course of your life. The idea is to have a broad (not narrow) range of different models (or “tools”) from a range of disciplines leading to a cross-pollination of ideas and generation of new insights. Munger tells us not to be the man with a hammer to whom the “world looks like a nail”. Patrick Dunleavy, an LSE professor, suggests the following interesting and helpful ways to work with interrelated concepts in his brilliant book “Studying for a degree in the humanities and social sciences”, 1986: Venn diagrams, matrixes, tree diagrams, simple algorithms. For example, coming back to the example from above, try to create a Venn diagram putting together insights from the firm survival model and Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

The last tip in terms of analog tools which you should not ignore is to carry a notebook or hipster PDA wherever you are so that you can sketch some random ideas which will accidentally pop up in your head as you engage more and more with the material.

Usage of knowledge

Studying a university degree teaches us to apply critical thinking and not be a mere consumer of information which is thrown at us from all possible outlets such as popular press, books, television and the internet. A degree is a great chance to work and develop your own critical thinking. In the words of Kevin deLaplante, “the crowdfunded professor” offering amazing and deeply engaging (free) online courses on critical thinking,  critical thinking is “like martial arts” which helps to “sensitise” us against the waterfall of information surrounding us and give us methods to filter through and help us to “discriminate between good and bad”.

So, I suggest you try to use the mental models which you acquired while learning a particular subject in your daily life. For instance, when making an important decision, apply the decision tree framework to analyse and understand the risks attached to every available option. When negotiating, think about a prisoners dilemma trying to reach the best outcome. When hearing news about the minimum wage debate, remember  the wage-price bargaining model as well as outsider model to frame your thinking on the topic. Do not be a passive consumer of information but rather try to make your own mind up on the topic which you find important and relevant to you. University degrees have equipped us with all the relevant tools and methods – it is now your time to apply them and make this place a better place.

One very helpful method of thinking about any particular problem is to use “claim – warrant – backing” model or “Toulon model of argumentation” . According to the model, any argument has the following three important parts: assumption, counter-examples and counter-arguments and implications. Think why an argument is supposed to be true? Is is based on authority, analogy or maybe plain generalisation?

Retention of knowledge

It is wise to think about the organisation of digital resources such as research papers, books and study guides on your computer. It can be very helpful to use searchable tags which will allow you to allocate and find files very quickly. Tools, such as Alfred, come in handy in making the search process very native and easy.

Do not throw away all your hand-written notes after you have finished the subject – make sure to create scans of the most important materials (alas, look for “mental models”) which you would surely meet again and again  in your life. You will definitely benefit from the database of self-gathered and self-research knowledge and will never regret having saved this material for later use.

Whatever methods and techniques you end up using, make sure to have a lot of fun and enjoy the journey!


Yuriy is studying independently for the BSc Economics and Management in Germany. 

4 thoughts on “Tools of trade for independent learners

  1. Hi Oscar,
    thank you for encouraging words. And that is an interesting link as well, you are suggesting. I do belive that the future lies in the interdisciplinary fields and the ones who can live on the intersection of different fields will be able to create amazing things (think bio + tech, physics + chemistry, fin + tech, etc).


  2. Amazing Yuriy! What caught my attention most is the idea of using Mind Mapping to create a revision material: you’ve been able to really think your process. Thank you for the insight.

    I may add that digital notes seem to be better than handwritten ones as you can easily save them to the cloud and takes less time to make up since there a lot of copy-paste in the process.


  3. Hi Chris, thank you for good words. I am really eager to share what I learnt with this great community. You are absolutely right – the great benefit is usage of cloud (dropbox, etc) which allows to share the same mindmap between, let us say, ipad and computer :) Moreover, it makes it easier to search for key words as it is all digital.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s