Independent study is particularly useful if the skill you want to master is on the cutting edge of technology and classes are not yet available. People who work with computers do this constantly; in fact, their jobs are in danger if they don’t. Years ago, I taught myself how to use Dan Bricklin’s Demo Program, which was the best program for creating demos during the DOS era, before Windows and Visual Basic. I learned by ordering the software (and getting my employer to pay), studying the manual, and experimenting with a project.
This last element of the learning process--applying it to an actual project--is vital. You won’t retain mastery of the skill unless you have occasions to use the skill. This is part of the reason I can barely make out the Arabic alphabet these days, although I studied the language for awhile. As my visits to Saudi Arabia grew further apart, my occasions to use Arabic diminished. Nowadays the only practice I get is with the occasional taxi driver.
By contrast, my skill with the Demo program kept getting better and better for a few years, because I had repeated projects to use it on. When I first learned Demo, I used it in an actual development project I was involved with at work. Because the project would benefit from my use of a demo, my boss was willing to let me learn the skill during the workday. I improved my skills in subsequent projects. Later, I learned Visual Basic the same way and continue to use it now.
Using the skill in a project overcomes one of the downsides of informal learning: that it does not give you a tangible credential in the same way that a formal course does. Once you've used the newly learned skill in a project, you can get recognition for the skill on your performance appraisal.
To encourage skill growth through informal learning and on-the-job experience, in 2011 Career Plan I include a sample e-mail message that a worker can send to his or her boss asking for such an assignment:
E-mail That Requests Skill-Testing Assignment
I have been working on improving my ____________________ skills and would really appreciate some feedback from you regarding these skills. I believe a good way for me to get this feedback is to tackle a work task that requires these skills at a level beyond what you’ve seen me do in the past. If I handle the task correctly and demonstrate the skill, please let me know I’ve done so. If I make any mistakes, I want to know about them, too. Please let me know not just what I’ve done wrong, but how I can do the task better. I promise I won’t be defensive about your comments.
I’m not asking for extra pay for doing this, and doing it would not imply I’ve been promoted. I also assure you that I won’t let this extra task interfere with my usual work assignments. If necessary, I’ll work on this task outside of my regular work hours.
Please give some thought to what task would be appropriate—a challenge, but not so difficult that I’m guaranteed to fail. If you’re not sure, I can suggest some possible tasks that you can choose from. I’ll be happy to answer any other questions you have about this experiment.