Learning on your own can be quite an unsettling experience, especially initially. Instead of being guided by a helpful hand of a coach or trainer, you cling to a clammy hand of doubt and despair. Questions like "What if I am wrong?", "Am I consolidating all the wrong things right now" become your bread and butter. To minimize the amount of all those unpleasantries, you need to learn how to self-assess your progress.
Sadly, choosing the right method to do it can be also confusing. After all, there are lots of ways to do it! No strategy is universal enough as to work for everyone. That's why I suggest that you spend some time thinking about the right way to assess your progress. If you don't do this, it will be challenging to tell whether you're pushing forward at the optimal pace or just spinning your wheels.
How to Self-Assess Your Progress as an Independent Learner
1. Use SRS (Spaced Repetition Software)
It's like a virtual friend that regularly hangs out with you to make sure you have mastered your area of choice. You can't lose long-term with buddies like that!
2. Assess Others' Performance
We're getting a little meta here, but trying to evaluate somebody's performance, for example via teaching, is an excellent gauge of your current progress.
You see, it's very difficult to be able to single out somebody's mistakes unless you're on the same or a higher level than this person. Thus, doing so is a meta confirmation that you've achieved a certain level.
Of course, you don't have to teach someone to be able to benefit from this strategy. It can be as easy as observing somebody's performance on video. Or you can simply try to criticize somebody's work "theoretically".
For example, let's say that your goal is to create amazing facial creams. In that case, you can pick up any cream of one of your potential competitors and try to find flaws in it. At the same time, you can also try to find positives to consolidate your knowledge further.
3. Take part in interviews
Comparing your performance against other learners can tell you volumes about your current skill set or expertise. There is nothing more telling than seeing where you fall within a given group.
Interviews are a great form of a comparison between you and, often, hundreds of other candidates. Even if you're not looking currently for a job, it's still worth applying for one to test yourself.
If you fail, you will still get feedback from a company, and thus you will learn where you fell short. Heck, failing in itself, is a form of feedback.
If you succeed, you can ask for detailed feedback concerning your performance. Even if you turn the job down, you will still learn a lot.
4. Take part in Competitions/Contests/Tournaments
Competing with others is probably almost as old as our entire civilization and is still as popular as ever. Find a relevant competition that involves your skillset and see how you fare against other candidates.
An important benefit of this assessment method is that you also test how well you cope with pressure. Of course, it doesn't make much sense if your skill is performed in isolation. However, in all other cases, it's necessary to get out of the comfort zone to get a realistic picture of our expertise.
5. Take Online tests
Online tests can provide you with relatively precise and, more importantly, almost immediate feedback. In the era of the internet, finding one that is relevant to your field shouldn't be too challenging.
The only thing you should keep in mind is choosing the test of high quality. You need a test that can provide you with meaningful information. Sometimes, it simply means paying a couple of bucks.
6. Get a certificate
Certificates are one of the best ways to get very detailed feedback about your performance. It's not only a benchmark to measure your knowledge against - it can actually be something you can strive for. A source of inspiration if you will. If you want a meaningful confirmation that you've learned the material or skill effectively, look no further.
7. Produce/create something
In some cases, your goal is to create some masterpiece. It can be a program, a flying machine, a flamethrower, and whatnot. Creating the said item will allow you to assess your expertise critically.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
My Example - Composing Music
It's important to ask yourself these questions because if you just mindlessly keep on producing these items, you won't be able to improve. At least not by a significant margin.
You can use my experience as a case study. I have been composing for lots of years now with a plan for publishing my work in the future. You can call it my long-term side project. Whenever I finish an outline of a song, I send it to a group of my friends, asking them for a review.
The group is selected based on one criterion — they are honest. If something is shit, it's shit, and there are no two ways about it. This isn't where the process ends.
To further maximize the usefulness and truthfulness of this feedback, I ask my friends to share it with one or two other people. These may be family members or just close friends.
Some of them listen to other genres of music, and some don't listen to music at all. Once I get all the reviews and comments, I paste them into an Excel file and analyze them.
A bit unorthodox way of composing, but it certainly helps to yank me out of the echo chamber in which many creators live in. It's very sobering sometimes to hear, "man, just delete this song."
8. Use checklists
Checklists have been widely popular for at least a couple of decades now. It's hard to find even an averagely organized company that doesn't use it to some degree. And there are good reasons for that - they make the overwhelming manageable.
Of course, checklists are amazing at all levels of advancement, but they are especially useful for beginners. First of all, they allow you to decrease your cognitive load drastically. They are the life-ring that stops you from drowning in the excessive amount of information. One look and you know what should be done.
However, the most important benefit for independent learners is that they enable you to efficiently self-assess your progress. Upon performing a given activity, you can quickly consult such a list to see what was done right and where you fell short.
9. Videotape or record yourself
Videotaping yourself is a form of formative assessment since it allows you to assess your performance during instruction (i.e., performance).
Recording yourself on video is an amazingly simple and effective way to identify areas that you need to improve. Of course, it's not for everyone, and it won't apply to some areas of knowledge. However, it's a perfect feedback mechanism for musicians, actors, speakers, performers, and dancers.
The research certainly supports this way of learning:
Developing musicians typically engage in self-regulated practicing during the time that passes between lessons with their teachers. An important aspect of self-regulated practice is the ability to identify and correct areas of development in performance in the absence of a teacher’s feedback, but the effort required to perform as well as monitor a performance represents a challenge for any learner.
Videotaping the performance and watching it afterward to fully concentrate on each task could constitute a solution to this problem. In our study, we verified how video feedback could affect the self-evaluation of intermediate-advanced musicians while practicing a new piece of music.
To attain this objective, we analyzed and coded the self-evaluative comments of 16 classical guitarists while practicing. We then compared the number of coding entries in each category of a group of participants who used video feedback (n = 8) on four occasions over a period of ten practice sessions with those of a group of musicians who did not use video feedback (n = 8).
Our results indicate that musicians who used video feedback modified the way they formulated their self-evaluative comments while practicing and that these changes were more marked with higher-performing musicians. [[source]]
How to Self-Assess Your Progress - Summary
Knowing how to self-assess your progress as an independent learner is one of the most important keys to your success. Without that skill, you are bound to forever stray in the cognitive darkness or worse, beg for crumbles of advice from others' mouths.
Keep in mind that your feedback mechanism will heavily depend on what resources you have and your area of choice. It's also one of those cases where more is better. It's certainly preferable, especially if you want to be independent, to rely on more than one of the strategies above. Even if you can't pick a perfect feedback mechanism, you can incorporate smaller feedback drills to ensure you're not entirely without feedback.