DIY Learning: How to Create a Personalised Syllabus in 5 Steps

At the beginning of a new year, it’s common for people to set aside designated time to reflect on the previous year and make new goals, plans, and resolutions for the months to come. When thinking about your own personal learning goals, one advisable suggestion is to create a DIY learning plan and syllabus for the year. Have you always wanted to learn about graphic design? Play guitar? Speak Japanese? Now’s the time to make a plan and put it into action. First, here’s why it’s a good idea:

Why DIY?

Prepare for a Changing Job Landscape

The work world of today isn’t what it used to be and it’s important to continue adapting your skill set to the needs of the new economy. Perhaps what you studied in school doesn’t cut it anymore when it comes to your current or desired profession. New professions that didn’t exist 2, 5, 10 years ago are now options and talent is in high demand to fill these roles. Additionally, with the rise of the maker economy, the ability to make things—websites, graphics, crafts, electronics—is increasingly in demand. Ensuring that you have enough practical abilities in your skill set in addition to theoretical knowledge is key for career trajectories of the future.

Learn Outside a Structured Environment

Though learning seems to be an “invisible” process, there is a valid need for certain processes and structures to be created for effective education. Unless you are a natural autodidact or have been educated in a more unconventional school system, most of the time while in school we rely on teachers and curriculum planners who create structure and guide our learning pathways. Once this framework is gone from our lives (i.e. once we graduate from school), it can be hard to figure out how to acquire new skills and knowledge independently. In this case, practice makes perfect. The more opportunities you take to teach yourself something new on your own, the more you will understand the natural learning process and how to build it for yourself.

Fill Your Knowledge Gaps

Formal education gives students an overview for various subjects, but education systems can only go so far in covering necessary subject matters for work and life; learning can always go deeper and broader. In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science researchers Todd Gureckis and Douglas Markant of New York University found that self-directed learning helps us enhance our educational experience, allowing us to focus effort on useful information that we don’t already possess and exposing us to information that we don’t have access to through passive observation. They also found that self-directed learning also helps us to encode and retain information over time, due to its active nature.

Achieve Your Goals More Effectively

It can be hard to learn new things and reach desired outcomes if they simply remain in your mind. Identifying and putting your learning goals into writing helps ensure accountability and success in your learning journey. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California conducted a study about goal-setting and found that people who wrote down their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not write down their goals. Additionally, making a plan for how we go about achieving those goals is necessary for success.

So how does one go about designing a DIY Learning Plan? Here are a few pointers for how to go about making a plan that helps to organise your ideas, goals, and resources.

Designing Your Learning Plan

1. Define and Prioritise

To get started, in a stream of consciousness write a series of bullet points highlighting what exactly you want to learn, such as “I want to learn to design a WordPress website” or “I want to learn to knit a sweater.” Don’t feel limited by how many you write—you can narrow it down to something realistic later, but you first want to capture all of your ideas on paper.

After making this list it’s important to reflect on why you want to learn these things and rank which ones are most important to you in order. Maybe a certain skill will give you the edge you need for a new business venture. Maybe learning a particular language will get you one step closer to living abroad, something you’ve always wanted to do by a certain age or stage in life. There will be reasons for why certain goals are more urgent for this particular year than others. From there you can decide which goals you keep versus which ones you save for the next year’s learning plan.

It might also be helpful in summarising your goals to identify and craft an objective or mission statement. Essentially, this would be writing a one-to-two-sentence thesis highlighting your overall mission for the year when it comes to learning. It could be anything from “I want to develop 3 hard skills and become more knowledgeable about the (1) efforts to preserve the environment (2) social psychology, and (3) yoga” or “I want to become fluent in Spanish, read 30 books, intern for a technology startup, and learn to make digital collages.”

Once you have your finalised set of learning goals, create a concrete plan that includes the following:

2. Make a List of Resources

List the content-related resources you will utilise to learn the related skill or topic. P2PU, an open-source community for self-guided education, suggests: “Based on the goals you identify, what are the tools and learning resources that will assist you? These resources may be books, magazines, journals, key mentoring relationships, relevant blogs, or other learning tools. As you scan a diverse set of learning resources, what are the 3-5 key learning resources that will best facilitate your engagement around your goals?” There is a plethora of free or relatively inexpensive online learning resources that have been previously highlighted by InformED, such as this list of 50 Sites to Get Educated for Free. From Coursera to EdX to Skillshare, the opportunities to utilise these courses in accomplishing your goals are limitless.

Aside from learning online, it’s good to brainstorm specific experiences, people or organisations that may relate to your mission to achieve each goal. For example:

  • Attending a particular conference or meet-up group
  • Journaling or other writing exercises
  • Subscribing to relevant magazines or newspapers
  • Videos or movies to watch
  • Internships
  • Volunteering
  • Travel
  • Leadership or creation of an organization or business
  • Experience working with a mentor

3. Create a Schedule and Deadlines

Be sure to create a time frame for each goal. What are you going to do in the next day, week, month, and year to make achievement of your goals a reality? When it comes to sticking to self-made deadlines and schedules, be sure to manage your time well and try as best as you can to estimate how long something will take and how it will fit into your existing priorities and schedule. Keeping a calendar will be helpful in ensuring you block out the necessary amount of time to achieve each goal.

4. Set Benchmarks

One lofty goal can easily become overwhelming and therefore unattainable. Break each goal into smaller goals so you can see your progress and be able to celebrate the small victories along the way. Know your “Why”: The more intrinsically motivated you are to accomplish something, the more successful you will be. Identifying why you want to learn something and reminding yourself of the reason behind it consistently is important in ensuring that you stay focused.

5. Remain Accountable and Make it Social

Some people are able to focus and enjoy learning in solitude or online. Others may need a more social dynamic—if you can relate to this there are several ways to go about finding people to learn something new with you without having to spend a fortune on an actual program. The Open Masters program and Meetups are a few ways to find fellow learners looking to learn together or simply be there as an accountability system. It would also be advisable to find some mentors/advisors who would be able to give feedback and ideas for your learning journey.

Tracking and Documenting Your Learning

Tracking your progress with each goal can be helpful in seeing and celebrating your accomplishments and knowing how to re-adjust your plan if something isn’t effective or working out. Whether it be journaling, logging information in a spreadsheet, or taking photographs, there are a myriad of ways for you to track your progress.

Here are a few tools that are recommended for tracking your progress:


Students use Degreed to quantify and organise their lifelong education from any source, formal and informal. This could be considered one of the best resources on the market to track and measure your learning process.


Diigo streamlines your information workflow and works to improves your productivity. Add digital highlighters and sticky notes to PDFs, save links, pictures, and pages, and collaborate with and share information with others.

Google Drive & Calendar

Using Google Calendar, create a specific calendar that can be used to set deadlines for your learning objectives. Additionally, Google Docs can be used for creating a formal syllabus and to take notes and Google Sheets can be used to track resources and links in a spreadsheet-format.


A great app that can be used to discover new books. It even includes a barcode scanner, which lets you scan books you come across and add them to your “to-read” shelf.


This can be used to track the amount of time you spend practising with Photoshop or other digital tools.


One of the best ways to process what you’ve learned is through teaching. Once you’ve reached the level of mastery desired for a specific skill and knowledge set, create a presentation as if you were teaching it to someone else (or actually do that by setting up a free lecture or workshop locally!).

Templates for Inspiration

Various people who have created such self-designed learning plans have shared them online. These can be good for inspiration and as templates when making your plan. Here is a starting list of examples from others who’ve put together their own variation of a syllabus or learning/doing plan:

Author Chris Guillebeau created a $10,000 alternative self-designed learning program to grad school (see the excerpt of his plan here) and outlined how he would go about getting the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to achieve his learning goals.

Dr. Bernard Bull, the Chief Innovation Officer and Assistant Vice President of Academics & Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin, put together this Personal Learning Plan document as well as a Learning Contract that you can download and use as templates to structure your learning.

As the author of this article, I created a personal learning syllabus several years ago after deciding to leave formal schooling. It was a good starting point to help guide my journey into self-directed learning, although in retrospect I would have more formally structured it with the suggestions I’ve included in this article.

As Issac Asimov once said, “Self education is, I believe, the only education there is.” There is a lot of value not only in learning but planning out and guiding your own learning process. Determining how to go about getting new skills and knowledge is just another part of the learning journey.


Weezie Yancey-Siegel is an experienced producer and writer who is passionate about new forms of learning, global citizenship, and community building. She resides in central Mexico, and when not writing and producing events on a freelance basis, she is a Program Manager for GoodWorld Journeys, a learning retreat organisation.

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