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Developing Independent Knowledge: Gaining Skills Outside of the Classroom

Do you ever feel lost amidst a sea of unknown information?

As a beginning computer science student, I know that I definitely do. I frequently find myself feeling as if everyone else knows so much more than me and that I’ll never catch up. However, I’ve come to realize that this feeling may not be all bad. Over time, I have compiled a list of ways to harness this feeling towards widening one’s own knowledge base in an effective manner, and a similar list of some traps to avoid.

Pursue side projects

  • One effective way to gain skills outside of the classroom is by finding side projects, such as building your own website or creating a daily task tracker. Not only does it give you the opportunity to create something useful to you, but it gives you the chance to acquire new skills in a practical context. For instance, when you build a website, you will gain proficiency in HTML and CSS, along with learning a few things about servers.

Form a group dedicated to learning

  • As good as one’s intentions might be, I know that it can be hard to keep up with actively pursuing new knowledge. When life gets busy, the last thing anyone wants to do is devote time to being confused. Due to this, it can be helpful to form a group that meets up regularly to work on such side projects together. A few times a week, a month, or as often as is deemed necessary, everyone can get together and take turns sharing each other’s progress. At each meeting, everyone has a chance to share their struggles and encourage each other to continue their projects, while also utilizing the group’s pooled experience. Not only does this grant you the motivation to finish a project, but it allows you to learn about everyone else’s projects too, which could perhaps expose you to a new field that you had not been privy to before.


However, while the above stated things are good, there are a few traps to be aware of that can be detrimental to your self-esteem and may result in some backsliding. Thus, here are a few things to avoid:

Overwhelming yourself

  • Because tech is such a broad field filled with so many fascinating topics, it is easy to set yourself up to fail by attempting to learn too many things at once. While it might seem like a good idea to learn to use Python and Java and HTML and CSS all at once, this can quickly add up to be an overwhelming number of tasks. Instead of gaining one or two new skills, you may gain a long list of attempted and abandoned efforts. The discouragement that comes from such abandoned efforts may not only build a barrier towards pursuing independent knowledge in the future, but it also leaves you worse off than before in the way that it can diminish your own confidence; in fact, one of the most important factors in developing an effective way to pursue skills independently is learning how to fend off discouragement.

Comparing your knowledge to others

  • Discouragement is detrimental in a sustained pursuit of independent knowledge, and one of the easiest ways to become discouraged is by comparing your knowledge to others. Because computer science is such a broad field, you will always encounter people who have had different opportunities and different experiences within which they have gained a unique set of skills. However, it is important not to let these disparities in perceived knowledge be seen as a shortcoming on your own part. When you find yourself beset by doubt or insecurities, it is crucial to remember that you also bring a unique skillset and voice to the conversation. Just because you may not yet know some – or most – of the things that a fellow computer science major talks about, it is not a sign that you know less or do not belong; all it shows is that you are at a different stage of your computer science journey.


-Elaney Cheng, 2019 RTC Fellow

Rewriting the Code, Empowering College Women in Tech