The Science of Self-Learning by Peter Hollins Book Summary

The Science of Self-Learning, How to Teach Yourself Anything, Learn More in Less Time, and Direct Your Own Education (Learning how to Learn) by Peter Hollins


Traditional learning methods are losing traction in a rapidly changing world. In the 21st century, productive opportunities for self-learning abound. To succeed as a self-learner, you need discipline, motivation, and a clear strategy and plan. Best-selling author Peter Hollins’s guide sets up the reader for a self-learning journey by offering tools and strategies that make the process not only easier but more rewarding. His manual proves well-organized, easy to use as a reference and provides meaningful, illustrative examples. While Hollins writes for people with a growth mind-set, his guide remains an excellent companion for all learners in any discipline and across disciplines.


  • Self-learning offers many more benefits than traditional learning provides.
  • Susan Kruger’s “Learning Success Pyramid” provides a foundation for approaching self-learning.
  • Self-learning requires intrinsic motivation, which proves more rewarding than extrinsic motivation.
  • Interacting with information requires organizational skills.
  • You can learn to read faster and retain more.
  • How to Read a Book details four reading “levels.”
  • Self-learning helps you build skills and habits that last a lifetime.
  • Thinking critically enhances and expands your learning experience.
  • An essential component of self-learning is researching from scratch.
  • The self-learning journey optimizes the growth mind-set.
The Science of Self-Learning by Peter Hollins Book Cover

The Science of Self-Learning Book Summary

Self-learning offers many more benefits than traditional learning provides.

Education is about accreditation – jumping through institutional hoops to earn a piece of paper to prove you have the qualifications to do a job. But the internet enables learning about almost anything as self-education gains popularity. Becoming an “autodidact” – self-educator – requires discipline and strategy to be successful. Too often, people give up because they don’t know where to start or feel overwhelmed. You can overcome these obstacles.

“[This book] will take you through the steps of finding your inspiration to learn, planning, developing positive habits and driving your own education.”

To understand the benefits of self-learning, consider traditional learning’s downsides:

  • It is psychologically restrictive – You must always be “on” – devoting all your time to your subject.
  • It uses fear as a motivator – Traditional learning teaches that you have no future if you don’t get good grades.
  • It limits creativity  There is a “right” and a “wrong” way to tackle a subject.
  • It can make you close-minded – Schools promote social hierarchies and conformist thought and behavior.
  • It hinders future education  Burnout is common and deters students from learning independently.

By contrast, self-learning offers many benefits:

  • It’s infinite – School courses are finite, but self-learning has no limits. You can proceed at your own pace and go as broad or deep as you want to go.
  • It sets you up for lifelong learning – You develop skills and habits you can use your entire life. 
  • It allows you to study subjects from a different perspective – Without the pressure to go to school for a particular profession, you can learn under many scenarios.
  • It helps develop self-discipline – You chart your own course, manage your own time and set your own goals, making your learning more meaningful.
  • It opens new and unique opportunities  Given that you must now expect to have multiple (three or five) careers in your lifetime, self-learning makes you more employable.

Susan Kruger’s “Learning Success Pyramid” provides a foundation for approaching self-learning.

To learn well, structure your learning journey.

“There’s not a single subject you can’t understand with perseverance and the occasional stretch of hard work. Resolve yourself to not giving up.”

Educator Susan Kruger developed the Learning Success Pyramid with three “blocks”:

  • Confidence  You must believe you can learn. Make plans for how you learn, and be patient with yourself. Learning something new takes time.
  • Self-management – Organize your time, resources and tools.
  • Learning  Too often, people think they must start in the learning stage, but that sets them up for failure. Confidence and self-management come first.

Self-learning requires intrinsic motivation, which is more rewarding than extrinsic motivation.

With no one assigning you work and setting deadlines, how do you stay motivated? There are two kinds of motivation. Extrinsic motivation springs from an external source and relies on the “reward-and-punish” model. Its opposite, intrinsic motivation is internal, self-generated and enhances the practitioner. Intrinsic motivation is far more rewarding than extrinsic motivation.

“During the course of self-learning, it will always help to orient your mind toward the internal rewards and improvements you’re seeking. Inspiration is, invariably, a stronger force than compulsion.”

Author and social philosopher Daniel Pink delineated three factors that comprise intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy  You are in control and generate your own rewards.
  • Mastery  You set your own standard for excellence.
  • Purpose  Doing something for the greater good reaffirms that you can have a positive impact on yourself and the world.

Ultimately, inspiration will provide a far more powerful motivation than compulsion provides. Your education becomes a gift you give yourself.

Interacting with information requires organizational skills.

Self-learning requires a different methodology to avoid feeling overwhelmed or demoralized. The “SQ3R” method provides a road map for your learning journey.

“[O]nce you are able to lay all the concepts out and understand how they relate to each other at least on a surface level, you will already be leaps ahead of others.”

SQ3R has five components:

  • Survey – Decide what you want to learn. Gather your resources and organize them.
  • Question  Delve deeper into what you want to learn to focus your mind. Decide which questions you want to answer or what objectives you want to meet.
  • Read  With the above preparation, approach reading more mindfully as you seek answers. Take your time, stay curious and be patient.
  • Recite – Reciting helps you process what you read. Restate concepts in your own words to retain them. 
  • Review – Reread your notes and work on your memorization skills. This contextualizes what you have learned, which promotes understanding.

The SQ3R method requires commitment and dedication, but becomes easier with practice.

You can learn to read faster and retain more.

Learning something new requires reading; most people are inefficient readers, reading about 300 words a minute. Reading only 100 words a minute more can decrease the time you need to finish a book by 25%.

“All we have to do is change our perspective on the material and mimic the joy of reading something we are actually interested in.”

There are four techniques to improve your reading speed and retention:

  • Stop subvocalizations  Your mind moves faster than your mouth. Stop “subvocalizing” – hearing the sounds in your head – and concentrate on simple recognition. Picture the word. Hum to yourself while reading it. Or practice reading while chewing gum to eliminate the tendency to “say” the words in your head.
  • Train your eyes – You want to move your eyes lessnot more. Expand your peripheral vision to take in more words. Use your finger to track your reading, but be sure to move your finger faster than you can speak the words.
  • Strategically skim  There are three ways to skim. First, read the first three words from the left margin. Second, skip “meaningless” words, such as “and, to, if and but.” Third, scan for “important” words that carry the meaning of the entire sentence. 
  • Focus and attention – Reading requires full attention and focus. You can’t multitask and read. Eliminate distractions. Create a game, such as timing how much you can read in a few minutes. Take breaks. Fifty minutes of unbroken work is reasonable for any one task.

How to Read a Book details four reading “levels.”

Mortimer Adler wrote How to Read a Book to help readers improve their reading skills. He broke up reading into four “levels” that differentiate according to “purpose, effort and time.” Some books require only two levels, while more complex books demand three or four.

“These four levels serve as connected steps that gradually make a subject approachable, more relevant, and, finally, fully familiar to you.”

Adler’s levels move from simplest to most complex:

  1. Elementary – Here, most readers begin with alphabet, vocabulary and grammar.
  2. “Inspectional” – Here, readers get the essence without delving too deep. This starts with “systematic skimming” to glean content and moves to “superficial reading,” which is more casual.
  3. Analytical – Here, the reader “digests” and “interacts” with the book. Your goal is to understand the book sufficiently to explain it to someone else.
  4. Syntopical – Here, readers “compare and contrast” using multiple sources on the same subject. This is comparable to taking a course, probing depths and expanding breadth.

Self-learning helps you build skills and habits that last a lifetime.

You learn how to learn in a certain way as a child, but as a self-learner, you are in charge of your trajectory, which means you need to learn to ask questions. Self-learners must cultivate skills and habits to optimize their learning. 

A good start is to create plans, and formulate schedules that fit your goals. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a famous autodidact who excelled in a wide range of disciplines and practices, such as philosophy, inventions, mathematics, politics and inventions; he also wrote extensively about what he learned.

Franklin had a list of 13 “virtues” he sought to practice as part of his quest to be a moral person; you may regard this as an early example of self-improvement. Franklin’s virtues included, for example, temperance, silence, sincerity and moderation. He placed these virtues on a rotating schedule, practicing each in turn. Adopting Franklin’s approach can teach you to adopt worthy habits and practices on an alternating, unhurried schedule.

“The first guideline is to accept that you don’t really know what you don’t know yet, and you’re not going to find out until you finally know it.”

Franklin also devised a schedule that accommodated his various obligations while making time for self-learning. When building your schedule, block in time for your most important work, while being sure to schedule leisure time. Respect your personal goals, and spend as much time thinking and preparing as you spend doing. Accept that you don’t know what you don’t know until you find out.

Thinking critically enhances and expands your learning experience.

Critical thinking is essential to learning. It probes for meaning, builds context and is time-consuming but rewarding, even if you don’t find definitive answers. Look for reasons, for relevance, origins and different points of view to gain a “3D” understanding.

“Rather than provide a rock-solid, inarguable conviction, critical thinking merely expands your viewpoint and gives you several ways to look at a situation or problem.”

Critical thinking methods include: asking “why” questions; isolating key facts; seeking comparisons; expanding from the specific to the general; finding patterns; assessing evidence for different points of view; developing criteria to test viability; and devising your own solutions.

Via these methods, you should be able to reach new conclusions about what you learn. Challenge your conclusions by identifying any assumptions, fallacies or weak evidence.

An essential component of self-learning is researching from scratch.

Follow five steps for conducting research:

“One of two things will happen if you adopt the long game and acknowledge that the pain won’t last: You’ll either get used to the discomfort or the discomfort will dissipate.”

  • Gather information – Don’t discriminate too much in this early stage. Organize what you find into “general topics, arguments and opinions.”
  • Filter your sources – Filter out irrelevant or inaccurate information. The remaining information should have good data, be true and reflect thoughtful insights.
  • Look for patterns and overlap – You should start seeing recurring topics, opinions and ideas. You could regard yourself as well-versed at this stage, and most people stop here.
  • Seek dissenting opinions  Your current opinion now may not be correct. If you have doubts, investigate them. This protects you from “confirmation bias” – seeing and hearing only what confirms what you already believe.
  • Put it all together  Summarize your expertise and, if need be, go back and review steps 1-4.

The self-learning journey optimizes the growth mind-set.

You may become discouraged when trying to teach yourself something new. You must focus and work hard to keep long-term goals alive, but your long-term goals make your present struggle more worthwhile.

“The bottom line is to remember that by taking on self-learning, you’re doing something that is uniquely rewarding that only some of us ever do. It will impact your life and your confidence in exponentially positive ways.”

There are two categories of learning: surface learning and deep learning. Surface learning focuses on facts and memorizing. Deep learning abstracts meaning and seeks to understand reality. On its own, each category has its benefits and drawbacks, but a combination of the two proves ideal. Seek overarching concepts, then insert details. Often, the concepts will reinforce the facts, making them easier to retain.

Success for self-learners depends on mind-set. People tend to have either fixed or growth mind-sets. The fixed mind-set is fatalistic: You believe you either have intelligence and talent or you don’t. The growth mind-set asserts that you can develop intelligence and talent.

People with a fixed mind-set take fewer risks, are less open to criticism and others’ success threatens them. Those with a growth mind-set take chances, accept feedback and look to others for inspiration. A “growth mind-set intervention” can reset the fixed mind-set by praising effort, not innate ability. Self-learning demands a growth mind-set. Don’t let failure deter you; stay the course and have faith that you can learn almost anything.

About the Author

Peter Hollins

Bestseller Peter Hollins’s books include The Science of Self-Discipline; Make Lasting Changes; Brain Blunders; and Think Like da Vinci.

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