What’s the Best Way to Learn Electronics?

What’s the best way to learn electronics? It’s a pithy question to ask a Hackaday audience, most of whom are at least conversant in the field already. Those who already have learned often have just their own perspective to draw upon—how they themselves learned. Some of you may have taught others. I want to explore what works and what doesn’t.

Hobbyists Learn Differently Than Students

One thing I can say straight off is that students learn differently than people who learn at home. Hobbyists have the advantage of actually being interested, which is a quality a student may not enjoy. People have been teaching themselves electronics since the beginning, with analog projects–Heathkit models, BEAM robots, and ham radio sets–evolving into purely digital projects.

Let’s face it, Arduinos lower the bar like nothing else. There’s a reason why the Blink sketch has become the equivalent to “Hello World”. Dirt cheap and easily configured microcontrollers combined with breakout boards make it easy for anyone to participate.

However, ask any true EE and that person will tell you that following wiring diagrams and plugging in sensor boards from Sparkfun only teaches so much. You don’t bone up on terms like hysteresis or bias by building something from uCs and breakout boards. But do you need to? If you are truly interested in electronics and learn by making those Adafruit or Sparkfun projects, sooner or later you’ll want to make your own breakout boards. You’ll learn how to design your own circuit boards and figure out why things work and why they don’t. I don’t need to tell you the Internet has all the answers a neophyte needs–but the interest has to be there in the first place.

What’s the Best Way to Learn in the Classroom?

There is a product category within robotics kits that consists of “educational rovers” designed to be purchased in group lots by teachers so that each student or small group gets one. These rovers are either pre-built or mostly built—sure, you get to screw in motor mounts, but all the circuit boards are already soldered up for you, surface mount, no less. They come pre-configured for a variety of simple tasks like line following and obstacle avoidance. The Makeblock mBot is an example.

I think it’s part of that whole “learn coding” initiative, where the idea is to minimize the assembly in order to maximize the coding time. Insofar as soldering together a kit of through-hole components teaches about electronics, these bots mostly don’t do it. By all appearances, if there is a best way to learn electronics, this an’t it. However, regardless of what kind of project the teacher puts in front of the student, it still has to generate some sort of passion. What those robots provide is a moment of coolness that ignites the firestorm of interest.

I once led a soldering class that used Blinky Grids by Wayne and Layne as the focus. This is a fantastic kit that guides you through building a small LED matrix. It’s particularly cool because it can be programmed over a computer monitor with light sensors interacting with white and black squares on the company’s web site. When my students finished their grids, they all worked and had unique messages scrolling through. Now, that is a payoff. I’m not saying that any of those folks became hardware hackers as a result of my class, but it beat the hell out of a Christmas tree, am I right?

Getting back to that rover, what must be acknowledged is that the rover itself is the payoff, and that’s only as far as it goes if everyone loses interest. However, a lot of those rovers have expansion possibilities like bolting on another sensor or changing the method of programming–for instance, the mBot has both a graphic programming interface and can also be reflashed with a regular old Arduino bootloader.

Readers, share in comments your own perspective. How did you learn? How would you teach others?

68 thoughts on “What’s the Best Way to Learn Electronics?

    1. a simple mains plug will start you off with a jolt “BROWN TO LEFT AND BLUE TO BITS” i have broken more than ive fixed and seen most of my inventions created (by someone else)lol there is no such master of things that cannot be ended. enjoy your phase as its all it is

  1. I am of the opinion that any exposure is better than no exposure at all, but it’s the struggle of overcoming the obstacles that is the real learning experience. You need a balance of both, because “why doesn’t this work??” is often a challenging question in the beginning.

  2. I think the best way to learn is by learning as you build. If you want to implement something then you should read about it and use the information so that what you are building reflects the culmination of what you have learned.

    The question of “do you need to” in regards to needing to learn fundamental things such as hysteresis and biasing can be rephrased as: Are you okay with the concept of plug and play being your actual design process? If so, that is fine. In the end it’s whatever makes you happy. I say this because unless you are doing something out of the ordinary/optimizing then chances are it will just work as the hard stuff has already been done.

  3. I teach user experience, innovation and 3D design at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences. In my teaching I always focus on just two sentences: “I don’t know but I’ll find out” and “It’s not what you can do, it’s what you want to do.”

    In my mind the best way forward in electronics is spawning many project ideas, then picking one which takes new skills that the team does not have yet, and guiding them through the practicalities. Need truly is the mother of innovation, and motivation too.

  4. I suspect that I was genetically bred to work with electronics and software, but for the record, my introduction was through ‘toy’ kits (eg crystal radio) and a few of those XX-in-1 electronic kits. I also got alot out of experimenter books aimed at kids – eg the Alfred P. Morgan books. More recently, I actually learned a great deal from one of those “XXX _____ Projects for the Evil Genius” – in this case the ‘123 PIC Microcontroller Projects…’ mainly because the entire book was based on the PICKit1, making it easy to get started. I’m sure there are similar books now for the Arduino. With that kind of interest ignited, I went on to college to get more of the fundamentals.

    tl;dr – spark the interest with easy fun introductions, then follow where it leads.

    1. That sure brings back memories! I learned a lot (and built multiple projects from) “The Boy’s {numeral} Book of Radio and Electronics” series. I think there were 6 of them. I read them and built from them in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I just checked Amazon, they are pretty expensive now.

  5. The way I learned electronics was very ground-up. It started from just a battery and a length of wire to make a nail stick to some paperclips, then went on to make a buzzer, and then a motor. Then blinking lights, an amplifier, a simple telephone…

    Sticking a LED onto an Arduino board doesn’t teach electronics. It’s a complete red herring, since it skips all the steps that are required to understand what electronics and electricity actually means, and displaces it with the understanding that if you want to make something happen you need an Arduino – it’s the illusion that electronics is actually software – and so the student makes some headway into building some gadgets, but then they’re absolutely stuck and have to go back to wrapping wire around a nail to understand what they’re even attempting to do.

    1. Ditto on the nail and wire. The cost of a big “dry cell” was prohibitive, so electric train transformer and AC were next. The school libraries with books of simple experiments were good, for as far as they went.

    1. Take public school math and physics seriously. Then a BS in EE from Harvey-Mudd. Find a mentor. Take extra math courses. Take a leadership role in projects and get some time in manufacturing for summers. Take every opportunity to get better at trouble-shooting, bread-boarding, and rapid prototyping. Teach and tutor undergrads to both fully understand concepts, and learn to communicate them well. Take writing courses.

      To be the best method, there is more. But this is a start.

  6. Title: “…learn Electronics”
    Pictures: Arduino(S!)
    *BIG-CLASH!*

    (Practical) Electronics is components and circuits for the Hobby Level and adds manufacturing at the professional level.
    Microcomputers (Arduinos as in the pictureS) adds programming, which in itself is a so different kind of shoes to walk with.

    Why distinguish the two? In over a quarter of century in industry, I’ve met as many EE people which cannot wrap their mind around SW, as the other way round.

    So please: what did you want to discuss here?
    Learn electronics?
    Learn programming?
    General learning?

    Whatever the answer is, PLEASE Do make title AND pictures match better!

      1. That shows how the picture is actually perfect for the article.

        Learn electronics by “loading” a blinky sketch…

        Just don’t expect to learn enough about electronics to know what a current limiting resistor is, or how to calculate the value needed.
        Ruin the $60 kit that your parents just bought you, become disillusioned, give up.

      2. The LED in the picture has an I2C driver chip under it that takes care of current control, muxing and such. No current limit resistor needed. The clue was 2 wires and power going to the display instead of 10 or 12. Also, those same 2 wires going to the battery board. That and searching on the part number on the display confirmed it.
        Is an Arduino the best way to learn electronics? If you never get past the bought modules and downloaded sketches, no. If you say well that is kind of cool, but I want it to do XXX, and dig in and figure out how to do XXX on your own, it is certainly a path to learning.

  7. As a child I took everything I could get my hands on apart. My parents hated me for that. Then I learned how to put the stuff I took apart back together. Then I learned how to do so and make it work again. My parents loved me for that since I did free repairs. By the time I was a young teen I started building and designing random stuff with the help of the internet, lego, knex, and cardboard. When I finally got to college I majored in EE and progressed to actually making useful (to me) stuff.

    1. “As a child I took everything I could get my hands on apart. My parents hated me for that. ”

      The family car.

      “Then I learned how to put the stuff I took apart back together. Then I learned how to do so and make it work again.”

      Dr Frankenstein I presume? :-)

  8. The best way to learn is whatever works for you. I hated school as they tried to teach me things I wasn’t interested in at the time. I find I learn best when I have a reason to learn, when I have something I would like to achieve and have to learn all the stages necessary to get there. I also find that reading is my preferred method, listening to lectures doesn’t work for me. I want to be able to stop and delve deeper into something. Other people struggle to navigate books and articles, not knowing where to start, they often prefer things to be presented to them in a lecture format.

    1. That is pretty much my answer as well. “What’s the best way?”–it depends on what kind of learner you are. You and I prefer to read. Others might learn better by watching videos, or with hands-on activities guided by a mentor.

  9. Growing up, my parents had a Commodore 64 and I learned some coding basics (no pun intended) working there. I also had one of those Radio Shack spring clip electronic device kits. Then I took some basic computer science and electronics courses in college, but majored in mechanical engineering. I didn’t really get that much into electronics until I built a MegaSquirt kit for a car project.

    I’d have to say that in a lot of ways, coding and the external hardware design are very different skill sets. You don’t need to have a project that teaches both at once.

    1. That’s a ridiculous statement. Maybe most people will not learn electronics, but to say most people cannot learn electronics is just plain wrong. It’s not difficult. Unless, that is, the person trying to learn actively refuses to do so, whether that refusal is conscious or sub-conscious. There are those with learning disabilities, but even those can be overcome with enough motivation, and they certainly don’t constitute “most” people.

      1. When I google “How to use a Multi Meter”, I didn’t see most or any of the hobby sites who sell electronics teach anything about multi meters. So the idea behind these learn sites is that you can learn but nothing that I have seen indicates that they teach the basics like using a multi-meter.

        The second point I want to make is that about half of the people in computer science fail so if they don’t know how to program and if only two percent of the population programs, then how will the rest of the population learn how to program microcontrollers?

        In college, the prerequisite to electronics is a specialized math. I do not see that specialized math taught anywhere else; not on the learn sites. I’m sure it exists but the hobby sites just want to sell microcontrollers.

        1. “In college, the prerequisite to electronics is a specialized math. I do not see that specialized math taught anywhere else;”

          My prereq was high school algebra… Granted we used calculus in upper level circuit analysis but even then, I wouldn’t call any of that specialized math as it is a standard (as far as I know) at every high school in America. I won’t presume for any other country though…

          And as Vinalon says regarding the other point, I know for a fact that Adafruit and SF, which I would consider the “Big Two” of hobbyist electronics, both have tutorials over the entry level formula used in electronics (Watt’s/ Ohm’s laws, etc.)

          1. hmmm, your course must have been different to the one I did then…

            “high school” math is needed for the “basic” circuit analysis, (figuring out what resistor/capacitor to use, doing norton reductions on circuits.)

            how did high school algebra hold out as a requirement when it came to learning about DACs (where on the course I was on it was just assumed that you know integration.)

            how did algebra only serve you when it cam eto learning laplase transforms?

    2. I’d say the opposite: one of the biggest Arduino fans I know is a professional electrician who is fine with making electrons go where he wants but was completely new to coding. The ecosystem around the Arduino environment let him start out with copy-pasted code, and then progress to writing Arduino sketches from scratch, move to Python on the RasPi, and eventually building complex software to control the electronic stuff he’d built.

  10. The other real issue is electronics and microcontrollers are college courses.

    What topics do I need to master to learn micro controllers?
    What topics do I need to master to learn electronics?
    Until you know what you need to know, how will you learn them?

    Are the hobby sites teaching them? Probably not all of them.

    The reality that even some of the employees or past employees admit is there is a learning curve and when you are a busy adult, 200+ page datasheets written by engineers for engineers is not the way hobbyists can always learn electronics or microcontrollers. You need a college course or an engineer to explain it to you.

    1. I have not seen hobby sites that teach much of the good stuff. Boolean logic (or Karnaugh Maps https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karnaugh_map ). If you don’t know the theorems, how do you reduce circuits to manageable form? If you can’t do complex (as in complex numbers) algebra, how do you do AC theory or filter design? If you can’t do calculus with complex numbers, how do you do signal theory or bandwidth/frequency analysis (Fourier Transforms and related). If you don’t get correlation and convolution and FT, how do you do DSP?

      You can derive the Simplex algorithm when needed if you know vector algebra. You can see ways to power motors or sensors because you have studies the Delta-Wye Transform. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y-%CE%94_transform

      Then add optics and sensors which is all physics and chemistry and the mechanics of motors and actuators. Electronics as an applied science really encompasses everything. It is a lifetime process.

      Without the above, you use rules of thumb, cut and paste, various formulas, trial and error. You can do just fine with that, until you find yourself on new ground. And I think most hackers want to push the limits, and anyone doing this for a living will need to apply things to new situations.

    2. Some universities graduate electrical engineers that have never developed for a microcontroller. Instead this very large public NJ university alternates between teaching one class about FPGAs and a separate class about Microcontrollers for the same credits, meaning you will only take one of the classes in your coursework.

      Hobby sites are businesses.

  11. Hands-on learning is the best type of learning, for most people. Endless dry theory just drives most people away, because they can’t see the application.

    And teaching people something they are not interested in to begin with … huge waste of time.

  12. I’m in the “learned by taking things apart and later figuring out how to reassemble” camp. I can follow electronic recipes but I am no chef. I recently wanted to learn more about the underlying theories.

    I picked up both the Art of Electronics (by the aforementioned Horowitz/Hill) and Learning the AoE, the hands-on lab course. (Highly recommended!)

    I also watched the great lecture series below by Anant Agarwal at MIT, one video every couple of days.

    https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-002-circuits-and-electronics-spring-2007/

    A lot of the math is over my head (and mainly there to prove a concept before simpler shortcuts are introduced) but the concepts and patterns add a good deal of context to my cookbook, reference schematic approach.

    Bouncing between the lectures and the related parts of AoE/Learning AoE is a great way to get the same concepts presented in different ways.

    Finally, I recommend iCircuit simulation software. I kept it on my tablet as I watched the videos and read the books. It’s super easy to quicky noodle out circuits and play “what if” based on the examples.

  13. I got started with electricity in grade school, 3rd or 4th grade. The library loaned me a book:
    “A Boy and a Battery”, how to make your own cell with sal ammoniac, back then you could buy it at the drugstore without your parents. 20 or so chapters of all the basic devices, DIY style. The motto of the story is start simple,basic, real world

  14. My biggest question is how many people do stick indefinitely at the buying modules and downloading libraries stage, and never move on to making their own break-out board, or writing their own lower-level code.

    Learning the actual electronics is obviously way harder than putting together pre-made chunks. I’m not an expert on analog stuff by any means, but most of what I know came from tons of failed projects. Many $ and many hours “wasted” trying to do things that most newbies to the hobby today would just buy a module for.

    Is the build-it-yourself mentality still strong enough to drive people beyond the building blocks, or does the instant gratification and relatively high success ratio of slapping together canned modules satisfy people, killing the motivation to go further?

  15. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I think it’s very hard to learn “electronics” now. My first LED blinker used 2 transistors, 2 caps, and a few resistors. I believe it was a Forrest Mims design. But trying to understand that was a lot more educational for me than plugging an LED into an Arduino and running a simple C++ program would have been. It started me on a long path, years of subscribing to popular electronics building and understanding basic circuits lots of soldering new and unique circuits. It very quickly got to the point where I would just skim the schematics and more or less skip the text descriptions.

    Maybe I’m jaded, but I really don’t enjoy electronics much as a hobby anymore. It’s all the same thing, wire a handful of cheap modules to an arduino or rPI, hack together some libraries and example sketches and done. I don’t really learn anything and I don’t get any satisfaction of creation.

    I’ve been looking for a nice project with a lot of soldering that will lead to a worthwhile project in the end, and I’ve basically give up on such a thing existing anymore.

  16. Like one commentator said I think you should have some interest in it & I think before you introduce anybody to electronics you should first generate interest in it. I think generating some interest & excitement around the subject would be the first step of introducing electronics to somebody. I always been into theory because I wanted to understand the fundamentals of how a component worked & I enjoyed seeing it all come together. Then I would move onto the hands on material. In my opinion anybody who had a strong understanding of the fundamentals would help develope a strong intuitive & insight & be better prepared for fautly circuits that are not always simpe text book fixes.

  17. Since I could move I have taken everything apart, that core deep down embedded desire has been what has propelled my interest in all things but mostly electronics and computers. Everything else has come from trying to understand what makes “IT” tick, and ultimately asking myself and others “why:. I had a family that fostered this desire and didn’t mind when I destroyed their new mixer, or took the brand new computer apart to see what made it tick only to discover that unlike mechanical marvels, electronics have to be visualized on a deeper level to truly “get”. You can read a book or tell someone what an electron is and what it’s trying to do, but trying to understand it will take you on a journey that can last hopefully a long and fulfilling lifetime adventure.

    All too often I found myself trying to avoid the formulaic classes, the fumbling adults trying hard but ultimately falling short of truly teaching beyond the book. I found comfort in the tombs from libraries, dusty dry books on lasers and radios, chemistry and physics, eclectic knowledge put down by other passionate people. No one had to encourage me to do this, in fact all they needed to do was stand aside and marvel and occasionally impose safety boundaries. To limit my use of 20 serial attached 9 volts (they fit like legos), or discourage the use of household current directly attached to my creations. At the time I didn’t understand these were for my safety, but soon the scorch marks on the wall were painted, and years later I inherited the scared and dinged instruments I used in my youth to create those marks not only on my parents walls but in my soul as well.

    Now I find myself where my parents were years ago, how to safely foster desire in my children. Something I wish I could do with better effect. Sports, music, social activities. These things were absent my entire life. Now they are daily rituals involving my family. Not everyone needs to know “why” or “how” it works or even be interested in the things that make things work. Sometimes just trying to find a way to inspire anything in someone is the challenge. To tend curiosity and embolden that curiosity into the flames of desire and ultimately into insatiable all consuming passion.

    How does one best learn anything, start with people with similar interests exchanging knowledge in a way that doesn’t put one person in a “superior” position or impose artificial boundaries too narrow to allow growth and experience to take place. People don’t learn much from success but they can learn an immense amount from discovering ways to avoid failure. Risks need to be taken in order to reach beyond one’s understanding.

    Just my 2 cents

  18. “Hobbyists have the advantage of actually being interested…” This! This very thing is why edjumucation fails so often. Try to cram stuff into bored, disinterested students, and they won’t get it in a thousand years. Get them interested. If not, there’s little learning.

  19. Step 1:
    Find / identify a problem to solve.

    Step 2:
    Block diagram the inputs, decision making, outputs of the thing you are making.

    Step 3:
    Learn about the different ways to implement a particular interface between the inputs / decision making / outputs.

    Step 4:
    You have now learned how to solve a problem using electronics.

    Bonus:
    Go back and identify the cheapest way to solve Step 3.

    Bonus II:
    Go back and identify the smallest way to solve Step 3.

    Bonus III:
    Go back and identify the fastest way to solve Step 3.

    I recommend starting at allaboutcircuits or Forest M Mims

    1. Electrical Engineering, like all engineering, is about trade-offs.

      You can’t make those trade off decisions if you don’t know they exist.

      The core of the above is that you are learning a new method to solve a problem, over and over. Problem solving is the core function that keeps one interested and prevents someone from getting hung-up on unimportant things.

  20. Dunno if it was the best way to get started in electronics but I do remember it clearly… I was 5 or something and hanging out in Dad’s shack all the time, and grabbed the extention cord to plug the reel-to-reel tape recorder in. Got my fingers across the two prongs and ZZZZZT! Threw that puppy down fast. Dad burst out laughing, took 5 minutes to stop. Pissed me off but good and developed an instant respect for this electrickery stuff. Decided I had to conquer it. Went all good after that till 2nd grade in class with a 90v battery doing a neon light blinker and buddy said he could touch that battery to his tounge no problem… did it all the time with 9v… won’t be a problem…

    Best way to learn electronics is to have a motivation…. am still pissed at Dad.

    1. And yah… that friend did grab the battery and touch it to his tongue, almost did a backflip, made big outburst and disturbance, and got me sent to the office. Luckily, lacking knowledge, office staff didn’t believe any battery could harm a person… and I was standing a good ways away when he grabbed it.

  21. I used to think the best way of learning involved project based learning to solve a problem. This works only if the students are interested in solving the problem. Now I realize its best if the student first finds a problem they wish to solve.

    1. You hit the nail on the head there. However, it doesn’t matter if someone is a student or not… that is irrelevant. I believe the relevant questions to the topic are: Do you want to solve a particular problem? How will you go about doing that? The hardest part to the answer, of course, is getting off your ass and actually defining the problem and figuring out how to solve it. Most people will not learn much unless they have a real interest in the problem at hand and go about figuring out how to solve it with the hands-on approach. Some gifted individuals like Einstein and Newton can see far beyond everyday engineering problems, but they still had to spend the time to learn the math to describe what they had to say. These days, people have access to so much more insight and information than all previous generations with search engines. Use them!

  22. Interestingly after having lived breathed and ate electronics since I was only a little kid I’ve become very aware of how poor my maths skills are and have just started to relearn all the important stuff I’ve forgotten. Because now it has suddenly become important as I delve into DSP stuff.

    For most of my life and career basic maths has been sufficient but now I need to extend that further so I can further my electronics ability.

  23. Even soldering together a kit doesn’t really teach you much about electronics, it just (hopefully) teaches you about soldering. It isn’t until you decide to start making something of your own design that you start having some “aha” moments, and probably some blue smoke here and there to help give you some perspective and wisdom. And those moments are also likely to be the ones which propel you to the nearest browser to go online and try and find out “what happened”, and thus close the cycle of learning.

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