A design process, whether we use it to create airplane or a computer software, often works out best when designers make prototypes early and often. Doing so gives us a chance to test our assumptions, find problems and mistakes, and then fix things in the following iteration.

This kind of iterative approach saves time and kills off design ideas that are leading us to failure.

In the end, it may even lead us to something more useful than we could have imagined when we began.

Rapid prototyping — the term usually applied to such an approach — came from the world of software and engineering, but it has also found a home in instructional systems design. In this context, it helps instructional designers evaluate the outcomes of each stage in the planning process.

The Newest and the Most Interesting

With some exceptions, I’ve found autodidacts tend to be prototypers by nature. Sometimes this gets in the way of learning.

We find something new and interesting on the web or in a book and then try to adapt it to our own learning patterns. In the process, we abandon habits from yesterday which, while no longer feeling novel, may still be effective.

Rapid prototyping, however, can us insights into how we can better organize this process — and even integrate it into a more structured learning plan. It can give us the freedom to try new things — without losing the structure that still holds us up.

1. Most Learning Processes Can Be Optimized — If You Know Your Goals

If you’ve started on a learning project, you’ll already have started putting together a number of habits and tactics. Some of these probably still feel effective interesting. Others you may already be bored with.

Typically, we tend to chase naturally engaging activities, while letting others fall away.

In neither case, though, have we evaluated their effectiveness. What if the boring tasks are the most beneficial? The interesting ones worthless?

Though they have their place, one reason flashcards find so many champions among language learners is that they’re easy to use. Practicing with them lacks risk and places relatively minor requirements on cognitive load. They make us feel like we’re making progress, too, as the criteria for failure and success are relatively clear.

Of course, even if studying with flashcards is relatively unhelpful, you can make them more useful. Doing so, though, requires taking them through an iterative process, and constantly measuring the impact of using them against some set of goals.

If you’re a language learner, and you want to improve speaking, you can rewrite your flashcards so they include useful phrases for conversation for example — and then study out loud with a friend.

At the same time an unpleasant learning activity can be made less so by the same iterative process. Again, doing so will be most effective if you understand your goals.

People sometimes find writing to be a difficult skill to develop. If you’re learning Chinese, though, is it necessary for you to learn to write each character by hand? Or will learning to write on a computer be enough?

Can you even use some computer-assisted writing tools? In English you likely use a spelling checker — or even a grammar checker. Are there tools like this for the language you’re studying? Is it appropriate for you to use them?

They may be. They may not. It depends on how your goals have been defined.

2. Prototyping Can Help You Understand Goals

While you need to have some goal in mind when you start refining your learning methods, rapid prototyping can actually help you improve your goals.

As autodidacts, though, we know that goals not only frequently change — but that they must.

When you start learning about a topic, you’re a beginner. You may have a vague understanding of the end game, but it may be vague, too broad, too narrow, or even completely off the mark.

In instructional systems design, the rapid prototyping process sheds light on each phase of the design process. It’s the same when you approach your own learning process.

Once you’ve learned a little bit about the topic, you may have a better understanding about what problems the discipline is trying to solve.

You may also find that your original desire to learn was motivated by reasons that have only now become clear to you. It’s useful to use these to evaluate your goals.

Following a rapid prototyping process gives you a systematic way to approach goal curation.

3. Take Responsibility for Your Education

Ultimately, rapid prototyping is about taking responsibility for your self-education. This process has already begun, of course, when you decide to learn something on your own.

When you rely on classes, you may face a suboptimal learning path. Your teacher may not evaluate and improve the curriculum he or she is using until after you’ve completed it.

But your teacher almost always does have a better idea of what better learning means — what the goals of a discipline are — than you do when you start out.

As an autodidact, you need to follow a process that helps you get to the same conclusions without too much loss of time.

You also need to figure out when a learning process needs to be optimized, or when you just need to work harder.

Following the rapid prototyping process in a structured way can help you do just this.

I’m currently putting together a spreadsheet to help you evaluate your own learning plans. If you’re interested, please email me at pgb@protoclassic.com.