Structure vs freeform language classes

I’ve been talking to a friend lately about his progress with his language lessons. He seems to be doing well, and moving very quickly through textbook after textbook (three in 6 months!). Sometimes he worries about it moving too quickly, but from what I can see, he is making steady progress, and is his language teacher’s best student.

On the other hand, my own lessons have been all over the place in comparison. I had a textbook at one point, but it was hardly ever opened. I began my language lessons at an ability slightly higher than the beginning of the book, but I never really found the right place to start it (and I was studying with a small group who were ahead of me anyway). Since then, I have been studying from a variety of books, DVDs, and other realia, with no real path set out for me. Some of the methods seemed too difficult (e.g. having a discussion on different types of romantic relationships about a month into lessons), and some seem like they aren’t pushing me very hard (e.g. learning from topic-based word lists). I don’t feel like I have any milestones set out in front of me, and maybe the knowledge that I am finishing pre-set ‘lessons’ will help me feel like I am achieving something.

Have you found success with learning from real content rather than textbooks? Is one better than the other at different stages of your learning path? I have my own thoughts about this, but I’d love to hear yours.