A learning plan—also called a learning syllabus—is often associated with college students and undergraduate education, but it can also provide immense value to professionals looking to develop the skills needed to advance their careers.

Having a learning plan can help you conceptualize, work toward, and achieve a goal, whether it’s a new skill, expertise in a subject matter, or the ability to complete an unfamiliar task.

For example, think of a skill you’d like to develop that would have an impact on your effectiveness at work or your long term career.

Now, think of all the ways you can learn that skill. Perhaps you can gain the skill by reading books or taking classes in person or online. Consider the variety of programs, certificates, degrees, websites, and videos have been created that could teach you the skill or supplement your education. How do you sift through the available options and choose the best for your lifestyle, resources, and goals? That’s where a personal learning plan comes into play.


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What Is a Personal Learning Plan?

A personal learning plan—also called a personal learning syllabus—is a self-directed planning tool to help an individual achieve specific learning objectives.

It communicates what you need to do to gain the skills you want to develop, when each action needs to occur, and how to measure success.

One fundamental principle of instructional planning is backward design, which requires you to begin with an objective and work backward to plan the steps to achieve it. With that principle in mind, consider setting aside some time to craft a personal learning syllabus of your own.

Follow these five steps to develop your own personal learning plan and work to achieve your professional goals.

5 Steps to Creating a Personal Learning Plan

1. Identify a Learning Objective

Before creating a personal learning plan, you need to identify your objective.

Your learning objective could take a number of forms, such as completing a challenging project or task, developing a new proficiency or skill, getting a new job, or becoming eligible for a promotion.

Your goal should be attainable, yet challenging enough to engage you. It should also be important enough that you’ll prioritize it over the other demands on your time. You also need to determine how to measure your success. For example, how would you define proficiency in a new skill? Be sure to have a clear finish line in mind for your goals.

2. Break Your Objective into Smaller Goals

To more easily reach your overall learning objective, break it down into smaller goals. Think of these smaller goals as the steps you need to take to achieve your final objective. Lay them out sequentially as the modules of your syllabus.

For example, if your goal is to become proficient in data science, your smaller goals may be to learn the individual data science skills that lead to proficiency. These smaller goals might be focused on learning skills like data literacy, data wrangling, and data ethics.

By breaking your objective into smaller goals, it’ll be clear what you need to learn and how to get there.

3. Develop Your Plan

After identifying your overall objective and smaller goals, it’s time to use this information to develop a comprehensive plan.

Rather than simply writing a lengthy document, it may be more helpful to utilize a visual chart or spreadsheet for your personal learning plan. That way, you can easily visualize the steps in your learning journey.

Organize your plan in chronological order, listing each of your learning goals, the action you need to take to reach them, and the date by which you would like to complete each action. It’s important to craft your plan in a way that communicates whether you’ve been successful in meeting each smaller goal and how close you are to meeting your larger objective.

4. Take Advantage of Available Resources

After developing your personal learning plan, it’s time to take action. Take advantage of the many learning resources that are available to you to gain the skills you’ve outlined in your learning plan.

Consider researching learning activities such as:

  • Online certificate programs such as HBS Online
  • Books (physical, digital, or audio)
  • Websites (for instance, reference sites, professional organizations, and video sharing sites)
  • Educational blogs and articles
  • Degree programs (online or in-person)
  • Professional conferences or networking events

After adding these resources to your plan to complete your learning path, you’re ready to dive in. By following the personal learning plan you’ve created, you can master a skill, get a promotion, or expand your knowledge.

Related: 5 Time Management Tips for Online Learners

5. Hold Yourself Accountable

After you’ve successfully created a personal learning plan, your work has only just begun. It’s crucial that you hold yourself accountable and follow through on the learning activities you’ve outlined.

It can be difficult balancing a career, personal responsibilities, and education. Learning new skills can be time consuming, but you have to put in the necessary time to meet your professional goals. Try to set aside time each week dedicated solely to your learning.

Stay aware of the deadlines you assigned to each goal so you can put in the work and monitor your progress to gauge whether you’re on track to meet your overall objective.

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Taking Your Career to the Next Level

Lifelong learning is key for career growth. By developing a personal learning plan and making a commitment to gain new knowledge and skills, you can create new professional opportunities for yourself and take your career to the next level.

Are you interested in taking an online course to advance your career? Explore HBS Online’s course catalog and discover how you can develop vital business skills.

This post was updated on August 20, 2021. It was originally published on May 17, 2018.

Blake Bishop

About the Author

Blake is a former member of the Course Delivery Team at HBS Online. He received his M.Ed. from Johns Hopkins and his B.A. from Brigham Young University, and before joining HBS he taught 7th and 8th grade English. In his free time he enjoys running, backpacking, and reading bedtime stories.