Thoughts on Learning a Degree, Without Going to School

It’s been slightly over two months since I started the MIT Challenge, and I’ve already passed the one-year mark for classes completed so far. Now that I’ve finished a significant chunk of the courses, I wanted to share my thoughts so far on the tradeoffs I’ve noticed from taking this rather unconventional approach to learning a subject.

Read This Next
Paradoxical Virtues
  • Zafir

    Awesome video, thanks for sharing your experiences 🙂

    I learned about procrastination in this book:

    If your read only the chapter “Getting Started”, you can understand a theory about procrastination, that procrastination is based on fears. If someone is studying whitout going to school, then there will be no fear, no perfectionism, no preassure.

  • Pedro

    Hi Scott,

    It would be nice if you could show the list of courses you have taken so far. They could serve as a starting roadmap for other people that might want to follow your path.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • BV

    Hey Scott,

    I think what you’re doing is extremely interesting and it’s inspiring.

    Sidenote: you talk about costs. You forgot to mention food, expenses, and most importantly, rent – i.e. if someone was trying to do this at home, I’m not sure they could work 40 hours+ and do it – or could they?

    I assume you’ve read/heard of Steve Pavlina’s claim that he graduated 4 years of college in 3 semesters.. and a lot of people have always wanted to see proof. Since he did maths/science, your experiment seems to show that it can be done.

    However, I find that this would be impossible with a humanities degree, as structured outside the US. Maybe a 3 year course could go into a 2 year course, but it would be a bit like attempting a phD in one year in a humanities subject – you need time to think through and debate the issues. I’m not saying this to devalue your project, I just feel somewhat jealous that this cannot be done in humanities. Or at least, I don’t think on quite the same scale.

    I’d love to read your thoughts on this.

  • alanc230

    Scott, I salute you. You’re inspirational, as a real seeker after knowledge, as opposed to someone who is simply “going to college”.

  • Inca

    Hi. I find what you are doing fantastic. I am a firm believer in education outside of the schoolrooms. My age/lifestyle/financial circumstances do not allow me to get a traditional college degree at this time. However, that degree is a prerequisite in too many cases and I am finding that it limits my possibilities. I am sure you are aware of CLEP tests and others in order to earn credits. I am just beginning that and have hit a wall when facing the Humanities Clep Test. As you mention, it is a very broad topic and I have no idea how to go about finding the best (and most concise and efficient) resources in order to be well prepared for this test. What would you recommend?

  • Ly-ann

    Hi Scott,
    Can’t help but agree with you on your points on pace, cost and feedback when it comes to self-learning. I’m embarking on a similar journey myself and I did some real-time comparisons between learning online vs in a classroom and think a lot of it resonates. I put down my thoughts here…
    I think the next thing to compare is self-learning vs 1-to-1 to see if it fills in the gaps of feedback like you talked about. So, I’m experimenting with that by 1-on-1 language tutoring and online language courses…

  • Steve

    Can you summarize in SUPER short concise bullet points each video rather than making us watch them. 11 mins (this vid) is a lot to go through vs reading a very fast summary.

  • Got here through Cal Newport’s blog.Just wanna let you know that am very grateful for your articles,blog-posts, e-books and best of all,the MIT Challenge;computer science has always fascinated me.Although I am a college student, I will find some time to undertake the MIT Challenge with you.I am positive the benefits will greatly out weight the effort invested.Thanks Again!!!

  • nXqd

    Very nice video, according to a deliberate practice on academic writing, constantly feedback is definitely very important.
    I myself really want to get high marks in IELTS, anyone here know a community or forum where I can get help and fix from my essay.

    Thanks Scott for this post 🙂

  • Scott Young


    Well you still need to pay for rent, food and utilities when you’re in school–so that isn’t a marginal cost to include in the comparison against a traditional education.


  • Emily

    If you can get whatever education you need for the path you want to follow without attending an institution, I am all for it.

  • Leah

    I’m loving this whole DIY movement. I’ve been personally focusing on it on my blog for the past year ( One of the most important points I’ve learned is that publicly documenting your experience is really important and keeps you motivated. For example, I’m re-learning Spanish so that I can be more aware when I travel to Spain. Well, I began a challenge on my blog and people ask me about it so I feel responsible to continue and finish.

    On the other hand, I think that it’s also important to know when to stop and to create closure on a topic. I also signed up and started the Stanford MOOC AI course at the same time as the Spain project. It wasn’t relevant and I kept forgetting to log in, so that went down the drain. I didn’t stress about it. I just moved on to the next thing.

    I agree that finding the full curriculum is difficult. And, even in full curriculum put together by trained professionals there are deficiencies. But, you can also form a DIY Program with a learning group to help leverage strengths to develop one. You can find answers, study groups, and tips through your PLN. Twitter is incredibly helpful with that: hashtags, searches, conversations. I use Co-Tweet to manage PLN conversations.

    So this year I focused on DIY Learning, but next year I’m focusing on the next/last piece to this puzzle: Open Badges. (I actually just applied to enter a doctorate program and if I get in, this will be my focus.) You see, people like us invest in this DIY learning, but there’s no way to ‘prove it’/no way to ‘get credit’. You’ve put all this effort into the MIT classes, and it would be great if you could add a ‘badge’ to your public ‘backpack’ so employers could click on the badge to find out more information about your experience. Imagine how this could change the lives of people around the world who couldn’t afford formal education…

    I’m really enjoying your blog this morning.
    Thanks for the effort, Scott.
    (P.S. Have you checked out Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U? ( The book is great, but there is also a workbook companion you might find helpful.)

  • Charles

    I would like to see a summary of the video too (I didn’t watch the video). Thanks.

  • Anders

    Great accomplishment Scott, congratulations.

    Now it’s time for you to get out in the sun and get some exercise. Clearly going at the pace you’re going doesn’t seem to benefit you, health-wise. Don’t forget that brain and body are inseparable.

    Good work,



  • Scott Young


    Hahaha, yes my general paleness isn’t from fatigue, Vancouver doesn’t get a lot of tanning opportunities in the rainy winter months. And I have been exercising around 3x per week, as I have been for nearly 8 years now, so I understand the mind-body connection very well.


  • ph0rque


    Hopefully you’ll be able to be grandfathered in:

  • Anders

    Hi Scott,

    Haha, fair enough.

    Great to hear that you’re exercising 3x a week, that’s great man.

    Keep up the good work!



  • Jenny

    Hey, Scott,
    Excellent overview in the video. I write about related topics on my blog, and its eerie how I have had the exact same thoughts about it – that there is so much out there, so much potential, but just like you said, its hard to pull together a cohesive, comprehensive program. Its hard for people to know if they’re doing the right things, doing enough, and if it will be accepted as legitimate if they plan to pursue work with it. Thanks for laying that all out – the pros and the cons, so succinctly. ~Jenny

  • Leslie

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for taking this challenge and sharing your thoughts with us. This is truly inspiring. I shared your story on my blog and some of my friends also found it useful (ah, but it is in Chinese so I doubt you will be interested in reading it).

    I always wanted to take some online free courses but never complete a single one. However, I did take some online courses for credits when I was in school. So I am sure I CAN do this. The only problem is how to keep motivated when no credits will be given and no immediate rewards will come out, i.e. no external motivations. Based on your experience, I found that “doing it fast” is one way to stay motivated. I decide to give it a try. I am starting a course on database provided by Stanford and plan to finish it in a month. I cannot do it in 5 days because I have other commitments in my life. Let’s see if I can succeed.

  • Andy

    Thankyou so much for sharing your experiences!!!!

    I am trying to teach myself japanese and from time to time I also take some japanese clases with a native speaker. I have found this combination to be great because as you said in another post, we need specific advice about specific things (in my case: japanese and how it is actually used by the natives speakers), but the pace in a language class tends to be really slow, so I discovered that if I wanted to learn faster, I had to study by myself too.

    One of the most difficult things I have found so far is to stablish a schedule and acomplish it. But now, after trying many things, I think I have found my own pace and way to do things and get things to work for me, and I feel that my knowledge of japanese have improved more in the last 3 months that in the last 2 years… and that feels great!

    I love your blog!!!!

    Thankyou for all the things your share with us!!!!

    Good luck with your MIT challenge!!!

  • Mary

    hey scott! im sort of trying to do some self-studying too right now, and i have exams in 2 months. problem is i have yet a lot to get done, and i keep procrastinating. since i dont have reg classes to go to or homework or anything like that, i get easily distracted…and there are days when i hardly do anything at all. i wanna know how you get motivated!

  • Nick

    Thanks man. It’s not often you stumble upon a perfectly relate-able topic on google.

    I have a bachelor’s in business too (from Colorado State University), but just like you, I desire to learn computer science. I’m 30 grand in debt right now though, and just like you said, more college is a big leap.

    A few months ago, I took CS50X, which is a free online course from Harvard offered through (along with all the other big name schools). It was the best educational experience of my life so far; it was also the most difficult.

    I’m glad to hear others share my story. I’m going to continue down that road. My only hope is that I will be given a chance to show those skills at a job without the paper to accompany it.

    Great topic. Great find.