There was a spinoff of 3dstudio called "GMax". It was a free version of 3dstudio without a renderer. The thing came with a really good tutorial on how to model (and how to do it effectively), texture map, animate and use inverse kinematics to animate complex models. If you can find it anywhere, that would be an excellent starting point.
This is where you learn to navigate 3D and how to use different methods layered upon each other to parametrically form a complex body out of a simple one.
Then get 3dstudio and play around with complex materials and rendering itself. Also, first contact with complex physics and particle systems.
i prefer 3DStudio over maya for learning because 3Dstudio historically came out of the "work with primitives" corner, while maya was about splines and curves to model stuff. Working with primitives (cubes, spheres and stuff) is more wysiwyg than a bunch of curves.