The Best Way to Learn Excel

Last updated on April 26, 2011 By

Excel is used all over the world, in many different locations, for a whole variety of purposes. What is the best way to learn Excel? You might use Excel to maintain a simple to-do list, or at the other extreme you could use Excel to model complex financial simulations. Behind Excel’s simple exterior lies a very capable platform for data crunching. Once you learn the basics of Excel there are many ways to advance your skills and knowledge, from instructor-led training courses to “hands-on” teach yourself Excel books.

In this post, we look at four ways to learn Excel. Ultimately the best way for you depends on how much you already know, how you personally learn best, and what you seek to achieve with Excel.

1. Traditional training courses

(One instructor to many students, fixed pace)

You will probably find yourself on a training course if your company or workplace has arranged the training for you. Going on a training course to learn Excel can have certain benefits and works well if you like to have material presented to you at a fixed pace in a linear way. If you like the instructor’s approach you may find yourself learning well from the class. The instructor can lead you through material and show you all manner of Excel’s capabilities, as well as answer any questions you have as you proceed. You’ll also get to interact with other students which can be good for networking.

Unfortunately a traditional classroom setting is not the best way of helping you build the day-to-day skills you need to use Excel effectively. Certainly you can learn a lot about principles and concepts in a classroom, but it’s much harder to master the procedural skills in a classroom. If you watch someone who is familiar with Excel, you will see them use mouse and keyboard shortcuts as they craft a spreadsheet just the way they want. Much like learning to touch type, if you want to use Excel effectively you need to have its commands at your fingertips.

2. Online Excel Screencasts & DVDs

(One instructor to one student, tailored pace)

Now, a big drawback of most traditional training courses is the inability to rewind or repeat. The instructor must follow some kind of schedule, which forces you as an individual learner to keep pace with the whole class. Contrast this with an “up-side-down” classroom such as the Khan Academy, where each student can learn at their own pace, and rewind or repeat each lesson as many times as they want. If you are interested in learning “stuff” and haven’t tried the Khan Academy, I recommend you give it a try. It’s totally free to use and (as of April 2011) offers more than 2,000 online videos spanning topics from statistics to finance to cosmology.

The benefits of online tutorials are that you can go at your own pace, repeat and rewind when you want, as many times as you want, and choose the time and days that most suit you. The internet has enabled some great online learning content for Excel. If you find yourself learning better in the morning, you can watch material in the morning. And if you find yourself preferring the evening, you can watch material in the evening. Or you might take a half-hour break during the work day to put your headphones on and follow an online lesson.

Many online Excel tutorials offer forums or comments sections where students can discuss problems online with other students and with the instructor. Sometimes there are downloadable spreadsheet examples to go with the lessons. The fast changing nature of the internet means you should look at the latest offerings and compare them to find one which suits your needs.

3. Learn Excel with Books

(Reference material)

A potential drawback to online tutorials is that they don’t serve as good reference material. If you need to quickly remind yourself how to change a pivot table layout it’s probably faster to look it up in a book than trying to search for the exact time stamp in a video tutorial. And if you skim through a book’s pages you can visually explore the contents of the book very fast, in a way that video tutorials don’t allow you to do.

Two popular types of computer books are the “teach-yourself” manual and the reference “bible”. The “teach-yourself” type may be accompanied by online practice material. If you enjoy reading books, you can definitely learn a substantial amount by reading “teach-yourself” guides and of course you can follow your own pace. But you must remember to practise what you read or you will find yourself forgetting it soon.

Reference books are well suited to learning more about Excel once you have a grasp of the basics. Having physical books on your desk is great for reference. There are several well-respected Excel authors whose books receive strong reviews on online bookstores.

Check out my list of recommended Excel books in the Excel Bookstore.

4. Online Excel Blogs

(Exploratory learning, new idea feeds)

In the days before the internet took off, a good strategy for exploratory learning would be to head down to a public library and browse through its catalog looking for books on Excel. The equivalent today is to open up a browser and visit your favorite Excel blog.

There are many blogs to read from, and the advantage of blogs is that fresh material can be posted online far faster than in print. If you subscribe to a blog’s RSS feed you can get your regular “fix” of new Excel ideas delivered straight to your favorite RSS reader.

However if you want to do some focused learning it can be hard to navigate blog archives to find relevant learning material. Some of my favorite blogs for expanding my Excel horizons are Chandoo, Excel Hero and BaconBits. If you want a more comprehensive list of great Excel blogs head over to John Walkenbach’s spreadsheet page.

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