Self-directed learning (SDL) refers to when an individual identifies their learning needs and sets their own educational objectives. It can also involve the individual formulating an action plan that includes identifying the necessary resources, learning strategies, and assessment procedures.
SDL happens at all stages of life, but tends to occur frequently in informal and adult learning scenarios (i.e. andragogy). It requires key learning skills such as personal goal-setting, resourcefulness, and problem-solving skills.
It has also become particularly important in the medical field. As Towle & Cottrell (1996) explain:
“…medical education has to be a lifelong process. The practice of medicine and its underlying knowledge base change so rapidly that it is essential that doctors continue to learn throughout their professional career” (p. 357).
Although these conceptions of self-directed learning are formal and detailed, self-directed learning in practice is more encompassing, as can be seen in the self-directed learning examples later in this piece.
Self-Directed Learning Definition
Knowles (1975) provides an often-cited definition of self-directed learning:
“In its broadest meaning, SDL describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (p. 18).
Self-Directed Learning Examples
- Child exploration: A toddler enters an unfamiliar room and immediately begins exploring the surroundings, touching various items and seeing if they open or broken.
- Reading a buffet of self-help books: Mika enjoys reading self-help books about how to become inspired and motivated to reach your fullest potential.
- Taking short online courses at your leisure: Javier has taken several online courses on Python programming and is determined to teach himself to be an expert at using the software.
- Going to conferences: Gabriella likes to attend research conferences in sociology. She always learns a lot about the current research trends in different specialty areas of the field.
- In the workplace: Jamal sits down once a year with his staff and guides them through a timeline of professional development activities they set for themselves to complete the following year.
- Figuring out how to repair a motorcycle: Kumar obtained a job at a local motorcycle repair shop so that he could learn the basics of engine repair and bodywork.
- Learning through YouTube: Maria is determined to get into outstanding physical shape so she has downloaded numerous videos about weightlifting and nutrition that she watches before working out and preparing meals.
- Choosing your research project: Jensen allows each of his students to choose the topic of their research project and if they will write a paper, deliver a slide presentation, create a poster display, or perform a short play.
- Taking a buffet of night classes: Danielle takes night classes in accounting at the nearby community college so that she can improve her chances of promotion.
- Working with a life coach on your personal goals: Bob hired a life coach to help him develop a 5-year career plan and keep him on task over the next 18 months.
- Microlearning: Microlearning involves short lessons that you take each day, such as though logging onto a language app each day to do your daily practice.
Case Studies of Self-Directed Learning
1. Provoking Deep Learning
Self-directed learning can occur at any grade level in the K-12 school system. The above video shows how one primary school in Australia creates “provocations” that inspire children to explore their interests in specially designed learning spaces.
By designating certain spaces within the classroom that children can utilize to create their own learning scenarios, the teachers are facilitating the student’s self-identity as autonomous learners.
Children internalize a self-concept that includes being capable and successful learners that are responsible for their learning outcomes.
The teachers place learning tasks on a large board and allow the students to choose which tasks they will engage. The tasks have designated spaces that contain a variety of materials that may be needed to perform the task.
When finished, the students document and reflect upon their learning experience by writing in a Learning Journey book.
The final component of the experience is a conference between the student and teacher. This allows the teacher to ask the student questions about their experience and add a sense of closure so that they can move forward the next day.
2. Writing A Screenplay
Most self-directed learning endeavors require a lot of self-discipline and internal drive. If a person is not highly motivated and capable of keeping themselves on-task, failure is a real possibility. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies have not yet developed a medication that can make a person more motivated and disciplined.
This means that if you want to write a screenplay, then it’s pretty much up to you. Fortunately, there are a ton of resources available for those that want to give it a try.
For example, many well-known screenplay writers offer master classes to the public. All you have to do is register and pay a fee.
3. Historical Events And Character Analysis
History may not be the most popular subject for teenagers or even undergraduates. A younger generation is often more interested in the future and technological trends than events that took place three hundred years ago.
This makes teaching history a real challenge. Fortunately, making an assignment an exercise in self-directed learning can help motivate students and make an assignment much more interesting.
For example, students can explore a historical event from another person’s point of view. The students choose the event, read the relevant literature, and then examine it from the perspective of the person of their choosing.
Or, they can choose a key figure in that event and conduct a character analysis. Students that are more people-oriented might enjoy exploring the personality of a key historical figure by trying to understand their motives and the psychology underlying their actions.
The point is, transforming a traditional classroom assignment into an opportunity for self-directed learning can substantially increase students’ motivation, and learning outcomes.
4. Problem-Based Learning In Medical Schools
Maybe one of the best examples of self-directed learning occurs in the finest medical schools around the world. Instead of presenting medical knowledge in a traditional lecture format, instructors will present students with a clinical problem. Students then engage in several discussions regarding the problem, sometimes guided by an assigned tutor. This is referred to as problem-based learning (PBL).
As the students discuss the problem at hand, they discover the limits of their knowledge base. This helps them identify paths of study and learning objectives, which they delegate among the team and then share the results at the next meeting.
The benefits of PBL as a self-directed instructional approach are numerous. PBL provides relevance to the material studied, encourages collaborative learning and mutual responsibility, fosters higher-order thinking processes, and results in superior long-term retention of content.
5. SDL And GNP
Global competition and increasingly rapid development of scientific and technological advancement have placed new demands on management and human resources development.
It has become nearly impossible for training programs at the corporate level to keep pace with the learning needs of employees.
At the same time, global competition has made it imperative that corporations keep their workforce up-to-date and current to maintain a competitive edge.
A study by Guglielmino & Guglielmino (2006) examined the relationship between self-directed learning in five countries in relation to cultural factors and GNP. Data from developed and underdeveloped countries in North and South America, Europe, and Asia were collected. GNP was based on World Bank GNIPC estimates.
The results indicated a very strong relationship between self-directed learning readiness and GNIPC, which was either facilitated or hindered by cultural factors such as collectivism and individualism.
“If culture affects self-directed learning readiness in a positive or negative way within a given country, and self-directed learning readiness is aligned with job performance, it appears that culture may affect productivity and, consequently, income by encouraging or suppressing self-directed learning activity of its citizens.”
Self-directed learning can be seen in nearly every facet of everyday life. From the toddler that implements their own exploratory educational practices, to medical schools that rely on problem-based learning to provide the most effective training for future doctors, SDL has become an integral part of work and life.
Self-directed learning (SDL) is also the future. Research indicates that countries that possess a culture which encourages SDL are more likely to prosper economically.
Although individuals have been practicing SDL for centuries, it has become increasingly important in the era of globalization and international competition.
Those that want to get ahead at work or just enrich their own lives can benefit from integrating SDL into their lifestyle.
Bligh, J. (1995). Problem-based learning in medicine: an introduction. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 71(836), 323–326. https://doi.org/10.1136/pgmj.71.836.323
Blumberg, P. & Michael, J. (1992). Development of self-directed learning behaviours. Teaching & Learning in Medicine, 4(1), 3-8.
Guglielmino, L. M. (1978). Development of the self-directed learning readiness scale. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, 1977). Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467A.
Guglielmino, P. J., & Guglielmino, L. M. (2006). Culture, self-directed learning readiness, and per capita income in five countries. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 71(2), 21-28.
Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Chicago, IL: Follett Publishing Company.
Silén, C., & Uhlin, L. (2008). Self-directed learning – a learning issue for students and faculty! Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4), 461-475, https://doi.org/10.1080/13562510802169756
Towle, A & Cottrell, David. (1996). Self-directed learning. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 74, 357-359. https://doi.org/10.1136/adc.74.4.357