Self-Directed Learning: A school guide

Paul Main

Why has self-directed learning become so important and how best can we manage independent study?

What is Self-Directed Learning?

The process in which learners take the initiative of learning, assess their learning needs, create learning goals, identify human and material resources, apply the most appropriate learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes with or without the help of others is referred to as Self-Directed Learning. During the first part of the pandemic, education systems from all phases had to take on a certain level of self-directed learning. Whether a learner was engaged in elementary education or graduate education, we were all forced to work independently.

At Structural Learning, many of our member schools strive for learner independence. Whatever field of study you are involved in, being a truly independent learner means having the right strategies and resources at hand to negotiate your way through the learning challenge in question. Whether your students are engaged in problem-based learning or more traditional educational methods, the chances are they will need to know how to go about organising their coursework and study routines. Self-regulated learning plays an important part in the success of any learning program. In this article, we will explore some of the tools and strategies you might want to consider if you are trying to embrace more self-directed education across your institution.

Are self-directed learning programs just for graduate education?

With the abundance of information at our fingertips online, learners of any age will need to be well equipped with strategies that help them organise knowledge into meaningful chunks. This agility to manage online resources has become an essential skill. If we can enable children to make better decisions about how to manage learning tasks then we will be developing the attributes of a lifelong learner.

Adult learners can choose to learn from an open online environment and pursue learning through massive open online courses (MOOCs). They may choose to attend courses for free via the MOOC provider Coursera. Or they may decide to advance their learning by attending more formal education lessons. A self-directed learner reflects on his own learning, takes personal responsibility for learning and make judgement about the level to which he has achieved his learning goals, and then decides about what to do next.

A self-directed learner may gain learning from a formal education setting such as attending a course in college. Many adult education instructors facilitate self-directed learning skills by designing assignments that challenge learners to make creative choices and be more independent in their learning. For example, a student who wants to learn about the history of art could research artists’ techniques and styles. Then she would have the opportunity to visit museums and galleries to see examples of these works of art. She would also have the chance to read books written by famous historians and critics. As she learns about different approaches to understanding art, she will begin to develop her own opinions about the subject matter.

Self-directed learning is not only relevant for adults but it is equally applicable to young people. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests are conducted every two years in Australia. Students aged 10 to 15 take the test each year. These tests measure literacy and numeracy skills. Students who score poorly on the NAPLAN tests often struggle to complete their schoolwork and achieve good grades.

The Australian Curriculum: English provides opportunities for students to engage in self-directed learning. It highlights the importance of critical thinking and encourages students to reflect upon their learning.

In addition to the above-mentioned programs, there are many other ways to promote self-direction in learning. Some educators use technology to provide a range of options for students to access content, including videos, podcasts, wikis, blogs, discussion forums, virtual worlds and social media sites.

See also

Independent study

Learning community

Open educational resources

Personal Learning Network

Virtual learning environment

Show students to how to self-regulate their learning
Show students to how to self-regulate their learning

What are Self-Directed Learning Strategies for Teachers?

A self-directed learning strategy is used by the teachers to guide students to independent learning and take personal responsibility and ownership of their learning.

  1. Open Questioning: Teachers can help develop students' self-directed learning skills by using open-ended, high-order questions in the lesson plans. Open Questioning is a powerful way to engage learner and provoke their curiosity, which ultimately leads to “Self-Directed Learning " in the students. It is suggested that the adult education instructors must create questions that encourage learners to research, think critically and analyze. Teachers must introduce different elements of the lessons through open-ended questions rather than discussing the direct objectives. It would not just open the door for independent learning, thinking and discussions but it would also allow teachers to create a positive relationship with the students and provide them with the immediate feedback on students’ knowledge and understanding.
  2. Hybrid or Blended Style: This self-directed strategy for teachers mainly focuses on combining the curriculum and teacher’s interests with the interests and needs of the students. It's main objective is to create a student-centered learning environment. It is suggested to engage learners through providing direction in adult learning and building a positive relationship with the learners, in developing lesson plans and in designing adult education learning goals. It would allow students to take primary responsibility of their learning.
  3. Introducing/Encouraging Technology in Classroom: Technology is around everyone all the time. Incorporating technology as a self-directed education tool is an effective way to create a dynamic learning environment. Technology supports learning beyond the regular classroom and provides students with a chance to engage themselves in the learning in a creative manner. Using personal learning networks, online learning opportunities, social media tools and self-assessment tools don't only help make learning fun but also put more responsibility to the learners to take initiative in their learning.

Use graphic organisers to generate meaning
Use graphic organisers to generate meaning

What are the most effective Self-Directed Strategies for Learners?

Following are some of the most effective strategies for “Self-Directed Learning Strategies" for the learners to learn or enhance a new topic.

  1. Smart Goals: Identifying the final objectives is an effective way to start self-directed learning, but this is not how it should end. Previous studies show that it is important to make targets for each step. It is easy to lose focus; hence, goals must be realistic and short-term and also stimulate the learning process. It is useful to start with the SMART framework.
  2. Specific: Goals must be specific, rather than being general.
  3. Measurable: Goals must be created in such a way that the progress can be easily tracked.
  4. Attainable: Goals must be realistic. It is good to challenge yourself, but do not make these goals impossible to accomplish.
  5. Relevant: Goals must be relevant and aligned to what one needs to achieve. According to an independent study, reasonable goals seem to be more motivating than the unreasonable goals.
  6. Time-bound: According to an independent study, it is better to have a deadline to keep oneself determined and focused.
  7. Mix and Match: Self-directed learning readiness offers the flexibility of selecting a learning method that fulfills individual needs. Hence, it is important to carefully assess the learning process and select the one that aligns the best with the interests. Different topics of learning projects demand different methods. Therefore, select the most reasonable one that can be modified along the way.
  8. Productive Learning Mindset: According to previous studies, having a never-give-up and optimistic attitude is vital for self-directed learning readiness. Also, learners must remember that failure is a part of progress. Having faith in one’s abilities and believing in goals to be achievable, is must for a productive self-directed learning experience. Learner must move forward with determination and a dedicated, strong mind that does not lose focus.
  9. Build a Sandbox: According to an independent study, learners must have a fixed place where they can experiment and build on their skills. It will encourage the lifelong learners to put more effort in the learning project. They can show their work to peers, family and teachers from the start. This will offer valuable feedback and remove public fear at the same time.
  10. Research: Regular and diligent research will help lifelong learners to master a skill. One may need access to resources such as books, blogs, online journals, and forums as the immediate sources of research.
  11. Implement and Practice: It is important to practice in a progressive manner. In self-directed learning, repeating the same elements promotes the learning of fundamentals rather than applying them in different scenarios. Also, this will expose gaps in learning and offer a chance to fill these gaps.
  12. Get Feedback: A positive criticism with suggestions offer opportunities for growth. According to the adult learning theories, having someone who can give useful feedback about progress, learning objectives, and the completed work goes a long way in success of a self-learning task. It will also specify any potential weaknesses in the learning strategies. In short, teachers, mentors, and experts of the targeted subject provide the best support for self-directed learning readiness.
  13. Continue and repeat: No obstacle must stop the learning process. Engaging in continuous learning and receiving constructive feedback help self-directed learners in mastering the concept. The failures and shortcomings must not deter the lifelong learners from learning even if the learner has to start it all over again. According to an independent study, ‘Self-Directed Learning ' encourages teachers and lifelong learners to show a personal responsibility for learning, gain learning experience and find ways to gain thorough mastery and in-depth understanding of the subject.
  14. Have fun learning: Self-directed learners must not gain learning for sole purpose of education. In the field of adult education, a learning project must be considered a way to develop oneself as an individual. Gaining knowledge to enhance skills is just one aspect of engaging in a learning task; whereas, gaining experience and develop individuality while engaging in learning activities is another. According to an independent study, to support individual development, the experience of learning must be enormously enjoyed.

Scaffold self-directed learning using the mental modelling technique
Scaffold self-directed learning using the mental modelling technique

What tools can we use to promote learner independence?

Students need to master a range of techniques in order to take control of their own learning. We often hear the term 'spoon-feeding' which is used to describe the process of delivering content to students without them taking any of the ownership. The following list align some of the techniques you might want to try:

1) Graphic organisers: access to resources like visual organisers enable children to organise the content within their field of study.

2) Learning journals: These types of tools can be used to promote self-regulated learning.

3) Mental Modelling: These toolkits enable students to connect their ideas into logical formats.

4) Universal Thinking Framework: This cognitive taxonomy enables children to make plans that help them tackle complex projects.

plan out their coursework using the Universal Thinking Framework
Show children how to plan out their coursework using the Universal Thinking Framework


Final thoughts on self-directed learning

Self-directed learning skills are used by the students of various learning programmes in a number of formal settings and fields of study such as Occupational and Aerospace Medicine, social sciences, health sciences, natural sciences. Self- directed learners can easily gain authentic control of their learning and engage in self-paced learning by accessing a large variety of books and journals such as Google Scholar SAGE Journals and publications of Cambridge University Press via the online search engine of Google Scholar.

Students' self-directed learning skills in the field of adult education encourages them to show an active participation in the learning task and take responsibility for their learning process. ‘Self-Directed Learning ' is a positive approach of learning as it involves critical growth and development analysis in the parameters of lifelong learning. Although, students' self-directed learning skills are predominantly undertaken by the learner himself but it still allows the teacher to play a significant role in learning. Hence, it is important for the teachers to guide the self-directed learners to use the most effective strategies to achieve better results.