After leaving school, learners can sometimes face a challenge when they look for structured materials for study and practice.

Professors and teachers have learners follow set curricula. And if the subject doesn’t have a textbook, these instructors carefully arrange reading assignments and exercises to aid the learning process.

After school, though, if you want to learn something, you presumably need to do all of this yourself. The amount of free content available online has only complicated this problem — even as it has enhanced learning opportunities across the board.

The task of organizing this material takes a lot of time. If you try to do this for yourself, you may never get to the part where you actually start to learn things.

To make matters worse, any effort to choose the most appropriate learning materials inevitably runs up against a major limitation.

A decent teacher will come to the class with at least some idea on how to answer three key questions (which many students never think about): 1) What is important to know? 2) How do we know it’s important? and 3) How can we know if students have learned it?

But it can be extremely difficult to answer these questions if you don’t already know about the subject.

Because of this, autodidacts often commit to some single source when they get started. Traditionally, and perhaps still the default, people buy a book. Usually it’s a textbook-like survey or a popular book in the field.

Increasingly, people sign up for some kind of online course, something that I believe will become the default over the next five years.

Books and courses definitely constitute a valid approach, assuming you don’t start with a bad course or a bad book, but for autodidacts, I’d like to propose an alternative, which may be appropriate in some situations:

Jump into the free online materials without even trying to organize them.

A Lesson from Language Learning

Learning a language involves the assimilation of vast amounts of more or less unstructured materials.

At the beginning levels this problem is somewhat tractable, as courses are able to focus on high-frequency vocabulary and expressions, along with grammar that involves fairly uncomplicated morphology.

Somewhere in the intermediate stage, however, this material becomes more and more difficult to prioritize, and few, if any, students are able to go on to full proficiency without some element of immersion.

This immersion often involves a stay in the country where the language is spoken, but it doesn’t always have to. In fact, some language learners have found the most success by creating the immersion environment at home.

Common techniques involve changing the language on the computer, the books on the shelves, the movies and TV shows they watch to the language they are studying.

Beginners, however, have found they can benefit from this approach, too. It’s not just for the intermediate and advanced speakers, and this is especially true for skills, like listening, that take a long time to acquire.

Podcasts and PDFs

And so, when I say ‘jump into free online materials’ when learning a new topic, I mean that you should seek, from the beginning, an immersive approach.

Immersion in language learning basically means throwing oneself into an unstructured pool of material, with more stuff coming at you than you can make actionable by means of speaking or writing.

When it comes to learning a new subject — instead of putting things to practice right away, you can imitate this by setting yourself up to absorb from the vast background of material.

Download podcasts and listen to them on the way to work. Skim through free PDFs or ebooks. Check in on blogs every few days. The process can be relatively passive.

During this stage, you’ll not only get background knowledge in the subject, but you’ll start to recognize what voices are good, reliable, and interesting — what voices you’ll want to learn from and emulate — and which voices aren’t.

Once you’ve got a solid understanding of this, you’ll be able to think about strategies where you can apply knowledge to your life and work, reviewing relevant resources, and following their advice to actionable outcomes.

This is also a great time to look for a course or book that will take you to the next level.

By learning in this way, you’ll avoid starting with materials that are either not very good or don’t really fit your style of thinking and learning. You’ll also probably be able to skip much of the beginner, survey-style textbooks.

Most importantly, you’ll be in a better, if still imperfect, position to answer those three key questions: 1) What is important to know? 2) How do I know it’s important? and 3) How do I know that I’ve learned it?

When’s This Approach Appropriate?

While I think that there are few subjects where getting this broad immersion isn’t helpful, it’s not the best strategy in every case.

Somewhat ironically, it can be very ineffective when you want to learn language for very limited purposes (such as a trip of less than 7 or so days).

If you’re studying for a standardized test, too, you’ll want to start with some well-reviewed test prep materials.

Finally, if the goal is truly limited and straightforward, the immersive approach makes no sense. You wouldn’t want to spend a month, for example, listening to carpentry podcasts before assembling a book case from Ikea.