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The Foundation of Self-Directed Learning

As we progress into the 21st century, individuals will increasingly be challenged to learn and apply new information, knowledge, and skills to a rapidly changing environment. To succeed in the 21st century individuals will need to demonstrate an ability to successfully engage in self-directed learning. Unfortunately, everyone is not prepared to engage in self-directed learning because they lack certain skills. Our challenge, as instructors and instructional designers, is how to prepare individuals to successfully engage in self-directed learning.

What is self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning is a process in which the individual assumes control over key aspects learning. In a self-directed learning environment, an individual would take responsibility for determining what is learned, how it is learned, when it is learned, and if it is learned.

Self-directed learning may best be viewed as a continuum. On the left side is teacher-controlled and on the right side is learner-controlled. The left-side or teacher-controlled-side is what many of us are familiar with. At this end of the self-directed learning continuum, the teacher determines what is learned, how it is learned, the learning environment, and the assessment. The typical kindergarten through grade 12 classroom is found at this end of the spectrum.

On the right-side or learner-controlled end of the continuum one finds fully independent learning. Learners assume control over what is learned, how it is learned, when it is learned, and where it is learned. An individual pursuing a hobby is typically found at this end of the continuum.

Clearly, instruction does not fall neatly at one end of the continuum or the other. Determining which end of the continuum the instruction falls depends on the level of control. For example, an online graduate program course. In this example, the instructor determines the objectives, the environment (software or platform), and the assessment. The learner, however, determines when, where, and how to complete the assignments. In this example, the control may be more in favor of the learner and therefore, the course would fall more towards the learner-controlled end of the self-directed learning spectrum.

Some learners would jump out of their seats and shout for joy upon learning that they have control over the course. With that control, however, comes responsibility – the responsibility to ensure the objectives are in fact achieved. Some individuals would thrive in this situation, while others would fail. Instructors and instructional designers must understand the distinction between these learners and create learning experiences to prepare learners to engage in self-directed learning.

What are the key characteristics of self-directed learning?

Williamson created a self-rating scale of self-directed learning to help individuals determine their readiness to pursue self-directed learning. This scale relates readiness to five general categories. While the scale should be viewed in total to assess one’s readiness, it is important for instructors and instructional designers to dissect the categories and establish a clear understanding of each. Through this understanding, instructors and instructional designers will be better positioned to cultivate the necessary self-directed learning characteristics among their learners.

Category 1: Awareness. According to Williamson, this category relates to “learners’ understanding of the factors contributing to becoming self-directed learners.” Williamson’s survey includes statements such as “I identify my own learning needs”, I am responsible for my own learning”, “I am able to maintain self-motivation”, and “I am able to select the best method for my own learning.” Embedded in this category are “internal characteristics such as motivation, persistence, confidence, autonomy, and self-efficacy.” (Harvey)

Category 2: Learning Strategies. According to Williamson, this category explains “the various strategies self-directed learners should adopt in order to become self-directed in their learning processes.” Williamson’s survey includes statements such as “I find peer coaching effective”, “I find simulation in teaching-learning useful”, “I find learning from case studies useful”, and I am able to decide my own learning strategy.” Embedded in this category are analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making skills.

Category 3: Learning Activities. According to Williamson, this category specifies “the learning activities learners should engage in order to become self-directed in their learning processes.” Survey statements included in this category include “I identify important points when reading a chapter or article”, “I am able to use information technology effectively”, “I keep annotated notes or a summary of all my ideas, reflections, and new learning”, and “I am able to relate knowledge to practice”. This category highlights the concept of self-regulation - one’s ability to set goals, seek information, keep records, review notes, and organize information.

Category 4: Evaluation. According to Williamson, this category “specifies attributes in order to help monitor their learning activities.” Survey statements include “I identify the areas for further development in whatever I have accomplished”, “I am able to monitor my learning processes”, and “I monitor whether I have accomplished my learning goals”. Embedded in this category is the concept of meta-cognition – learners thinking about their thinking.

Category 5: Interpersonal Skills. According to Williamson, this category relates “learners’ skills in inter-personal relationships, which are pre-requisites to their becoming self-directed learners.” Survey statements include: “I am able to identify my role within a group”, “I make use of any opportunities I come across”, “I am successful in communicating verbally”, and “I am able to express my views freely”. This category highlights the importance of group dynamics and the ability to work with others.

While the survey presents key areas for instructors and instructional designers to consider, self-efficacy and meta-cognition are two key theories that flow across these areas. “Self-efficacy is a kind of personal expectation or judgment concerning ones capability to accomplish some task.” (Mayer) Essentially, individuals approach a new task with the history of success or failure with similar tasks in mind. The history will either support or undermine the individual’s current efforts. As instructors and instructional designers prepare individuals to engage in self-directed learning, efforts must be made to cultivate a positive sense of self-efficacy that learners may draw on during challenging educational tasks.

A second theoretical underpinning of the five categories is meta-cognition. As stated by Bransford, meta-cognition is “the ability to monitor one’s current level of understanding and decide when it is not adequate.” Throughout a learning process, individuals will draw upon various skills, strategies, and experiences to solve new problems or overcome specific situations. Instructors and instructional designers must build in opportunities for learners to reflect on the learning process and their own learning.

Starting in the Classroom

Few learners will begin their educational career as a self-directed learner. The vast majority of individuals will learn the skills necessary for successful self-directed learning in the classroom. As such instructors and instructional designers must build in opportunities to cultivate these skills among learners. In the next section you will have a chance.

Additional Resources

For additional information on self-directed learning, please go to the Resource and Bibliography page 10

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