Self-Directed Learning Research Paper Starter

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning is a model of instruction whereby learning content is pre-determined by the instructor and students learn at their own pace to master this content. Characteristics of self-directed learning include personal autonomy, self-directed learning, learner control and auto-didaxy. Additionally, self-directed learning has become a generic training model for business, medicine and adult education. Problem-based learning also incorporates elements of self-directed instruction in its model. Assessment tools are available to measure the impact of self-directed learning, such as the degree to which people perceive themselves as having the skills and attitudes necessary for successful learning.

Keywords Auto-didaxy; Autonomous Learning; Learning Self-Awareness; Problem-Based Learning; Resistant Student; Scaffolding; Self-Directed Learner; Self-Directed Learning (SDL); Self-Directed Learning Perception Scale; Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale; Student-Centered Learning; Under-Prepared Student

Teaching Methods: Self-Directed Learning


Self-directed learning (SDL) is a teaching model that goes by many names: individualized instruction, student-centered learning, and prescriptive learning (Piskurich, 1994). While self-directed learning is predominantly viewed as a model of instruction, other educators see self-directed learning as a goal, as well as a process, where self-directed learning becomes a catalyst that promotes life-long learning among students (Boud, 1988; Candy, 1991; Knapper and Cropley, 1991; Kreber, 1998). When viewed as a model of instruction, learning content is pre-determined by the instructor and students learn at their own pace to master this content, with or without the aid of the instructor.

Educators’ Views of Self-Directed Learning

Knowles (1975) describes self-directed learning as:

[A] process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes (p. 18).

The self-directed process model is based on the interaction between students and educators, as students gradually develop autonomy in their own learning process. Pilling-Cormick (1997) states that the overriding framework of the self-directed learning process is that students direct their own learning. Self-directed learning requires a paradigm shift away from teacher-centered approaches to learning, where the teacher imparts knowledge to the students. While self-directed learning can be implemented at any grade level, the adult is the optimal learner for this method of instruction. Knowles' (1983) view of the adult self is one who can take responsibility for learning, by becoming autonomous, independent and self-directing learners (Taylor, 1997).

Bartell (1971) views self-directed learning as a philosophy rather than a method of instruction. Teachers must philosophically assume that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning. The teacher becomes "a consultant, tutor, listener, catalyst, or partner in learning" (p. 247). They are engaged in a process of mutual inquiry with students rather than transmitting specific knowledge (Taylor, 1997). The purpose of this method of learning is to teach students to become learners who are able to diagnose and supplement their own learning deficiencies (Schmidt, 2000). However, for many students, processes like setting goals and sustaining motivation do not occur naturally or easily. Therefore, the learning environment and teaching practices must be designed with intention to support students' self-regulated learning (English & Kitsantas, 2013).

Robotham (1995) sees self-directed learning as a catalyst for further self-initiated learning in a field of study. The students who develop certain skills through self-directed learning methodologies will understand their own learning process and how to improve that process so that they can transfer this fundamental understanding to future self-directed learning experiences. Through reflecting upon their self-directed learning experience, they can consider what motivates them to self-direct their learning, and the processes through which they become self-aware. Skills that increase students' ability to engage in this type of autonomous learning are: reading skills, deep-level approaches to learning, comprehension monitoring, the ability to ask questions, and critical thinking (Kreber, 1998, p. 325).


Self-directed learning resulted from the rapid change and growth of knowledge that has occurred in today's world. People must continually update their skills and this can be done through self-directed learning programs and experiences. Over the past few decades, attention has been paid to learning that needs to occur without the benefit of constant interaction with teachers. The origins of self-directed learning can be traced to John Dewey (1916, 1938). As Wilcox (1992) states, Dewey asserted that all people are born with an unlimited potential for growth and development. Through education, teachers can best facilitate growth and development by neither interfering with nor controlling the process of learning. Self-directed learning theory and models emerged in the 1970's as a prominent model of instruction in adult education practices. Knowles (1975, 1983), Tough (1971) and Candy (1991) led the field in developing the conceptual framework for understanding self-directed learning, embracing four distinct elements of SDL:

• Personal autonomy,

• Self-management,

• Learner control, and

• Autodidaxy.

Self-directed learning requires certain behaviors and characteristics of the student who is involved in the process. Okabayashi and Torrance (1984) state that such characteristics include abilities:

• To sense the relevant and important information in a task;

• To access source information;

• To think independently and follow instructions and rules;

• To recognize and accept responsibility for one's learning; and

• To self-start a task.

Students who possess these characteristics possess "learning self-awareness." They have an appreciation and understanding of how they learn, of their learning capabilities, and of the outcomes that they want to achieve (Robotham, 1995, p. 3).


Teaching SDL

Teachers who are committed to self-directed learning value students' individual differences (McGaghie & Menges, 1975). Della-Dora and Wells (1980) state that there are guidelines teachers can follow to assure that their students are involved in successful self-directed learning experiences. Teachers must set realistic limits and teach students how to make solid decisions about their learning processes. Teachers must afford themselves of training so that they can teach students how to be successful self-directed learners. They need to know what is to be learned, how it is to be learned, and how to evaluate what is actually learned. Specific areas of training that will aid teachers in enhancing the learning process for students involved in self-directed learning include understanding:

• The dynamics of individual and group decision-making processes;

• The sequence of events that students need to carry out a step-by-step plan of action; and

• How to develop criteria (Dell-Dora & Wells, 1980).

Teachers must achieve a balance of flexibility for students to determine the appropriate processes for learning and to keep the program and students on track (Robotham, 1995).

In any self-directed learning experience, teachers must set up the program so that students can be successful learners. Generally, teachers scaffold lessons, providing sufficient guidance and direction in the early stages of the model so that students do not get lost. Teachers should clearly communicate aims and objectives periodically so that students can undergo the transition to learning material on their own terms. Throughout the self-directed learning process, teachers should provide periodic evaluation and identify potential problems along the way (Robotham, 1995).

Using SDL for Business Training

Self-directed learning has become a generic training model for business. This model of learning can be an essential component of an employee development strategy that both improves individual performance and achieves organizational goals (Long & Morris, 1996). The model is designed so that trainees work at their own pace to master pre-determined material, with little or no help from an instructor. Piskurich (1991) states that consistency in training must be a common goal of all participants in order to be successful in the self-directed learning process. Unsuccessful SDL training will not work well if the training is done too quickly, if trainees are required to work alone, if the material is always changing, or if consistent performance is not a goal of the learning process. In the business world, SDL can be very successful if there is an adequate analysis of the material and of the trainees before the training process. Trainers must analyze the audience and determine the amount of preparation needed so that the trainees can be successful in their self-directed learning process. The trainer must write solid objectives that encompass the dimensions of the material, determine the media format or how materials will be delivered, review all aspects of the program prior to its implementation, and pilot the program to determine its "ease of use," as well as whether it does all it is supposed to do (Piskurich, 1991, p. 48).

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning has been linked to self-directed learning models, as the skill base emphasized in self-directed learning is also prevalent in problem-based learning (Ryan, 1993). In problem-based learning, students identify the problem and then engage in self-directed learning to solve the problem (Margerson, 1994). Other elements of self-directed learning that are included in problem-based learning are: setting objectives, accessing materials, and reflecting on learning...

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