Have you picked up a new skill in the past year? Or studied a subject on your own to become more competent? In his characterization of the adult learner, Malcolm Knowles noted that as people mature, they become increasingly self-directed in how they acquire skills and knowledge.
You can leverage this distinctive feature of adult learning by supporting employees in their self-directed efforts. Self-directed learning may be a way to reduce the effort and cost of building unnecessary training. In addition, helping people gain self-directed learning skills—if they don’t already have them—can have a long-term value to the individual and the organization.
Formal and Informal Self-directed Learning
According to many academics, self-directed learning can be thought of as a more formal process that involves foresight and planning. During this time, learners:
- Assess their skills and knowledge
- Identify what they need to learn
- Identify relevant resources and activities (collaboration, mentorships, study groups, etc.) to close the gaps
- Use the resources and engage in activities
- Reflect on their progress and adjust if needed (See more on how to support metacognition.)
Others define self-directed learning as a more informal event. It occurs anytime adults engage in their own learning. This might be the result of an opportunity presenting itself or a spur-of-the-moment inspiration. Sometimes self-directed learning is spontaneous and involves little planning.
It’s easy to have misconceptions about how adults engage in self-directed learning (SDL). The idea might generate images of someone locked in a room with a stack of textbooks. But it’s much more diverse and fluid than that. Here’s how researchers conceptualize self-directed adult learning.
- Not always done in isolation. SDL does not need to be an isolated activity. It can occur in groups of people learning and sharing with each other. Even if there are periods of individualized learning, people often benefit from sharing with a group that has similar interests and goals.
- May involve instructors or mentors. SDL can take place in formal settings in which an instructor, mentor or expert serves as a guide.
- Not for everyone. Not all adults prefer or are effective at SDL. Some have no interest in this approach to learning or are not prepared to engage in this way.
- Learning preferences vary by activity. Learning can be imagined as a continuum of dependence on an instructor at one end and completely independent on the other. Adults are going to vary where they are on the continuum, depending on the activity.
- Attracts diverse groups of people. People from all social and economic groups engage in self-directed learning.
- Experiential. Many self-directed learning efforts are experientially based and many occur informally.
- Effective for work and personal learning. SDL is an effective strategy for professional, educational and personal learning.
- Has limitations. SDL has limitations and is not appropriate in every situation. In the workplace, the risk is that it may take too much time or cost too much to learn a critical skill independently.
- Has many benefits. Planning and assessing a self-directed learning effort can make learning more meaningful than instructor-directed learning. It can result in individualized instruction, which is effective for meeting a learner’s specific needs.
Support Self-directed Learning in the Workplace
You can encourage self-directed learning by exploring professional goals with small groups of people or individuals. Then encourage them to assess their SDL skills using a list like the one below. Doyle (2008) identified personal skills that students in higher education need to master to become adept at SDL. I’ve modified and added to his list to accommodate adult learners in the workplace.
Self-directed learning involves the ability to:
- Evaluate one’s own knowledge and skills.
- Formulate learning goals and enact a plan.
- Find and evaluate quality sources of information. This skill can be developed with Personal Knowledge Management skills and developing an effective Personal Learning Environment.
- Identify important information in these quality sources or identify opportunities that appear in the environment.
- Organize information in meaningful ways.
- Communicate new knowledge through writing, sharing and speaking.
- Manage time.
- Remember what has been learned and apply new knowledge and skills.
- Monitor and evaluate one’s own learning (metacognition).
Organizations would be smart to invest in preparing and encouraging their workforce for self-directed learning. It’s one of many strategies that can meet the contemporary needs of the changing and unpredictable workplace. It can provide lifelong learning skills and contribute to building a learning culture
- Doyle, T. Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment. A Guide to Facilitating Learning in Higher Education, Stylus, Sterling, VA, 2008.
- Khiat, H. Measuring Self-Directed Learning: A Diagnostic Tool for Adult Learners. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, v12 n2 Article 2, 2015.
- Merriam, S. B. & Bierema, L.L. Adult learning: linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass, 2014
- Spear, G. E., & Mocker, D. W. The organizing circumstance: Environmental determinants in self-directed learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 35, 1–10, 1984.
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Connie Malamed says
I know what you mean, E.D. I wish I had a structured time to do it too. Thanks for the inspiration. On podcasts, I’ve heard people say things like, “I spend the first hour of my day reading articles that I’ve bookmarked.” Doesn’t that sound great 🙂
E.D. Solomon says
I enjoyed reading your article and feedback. I think I need to work at SDL a great deal. One way to do is to follow an example. For example, my late mentor, devoted his morning hours to research and writing. In his case he was a retired professor. In my case, it seems official responsibilities steal regular SDL. I need to work on SDL timings that suit me.
Luksana Jael P. says
Thank you for the wonderful article which really increased my understanding and thirst in self-directed learning. Being an adult I have been engaged in SDL. I love to evaluate myself to identify the areas that I need to develop. In my working experience, I found that mentoring is a powerful and effective way in self-directed learning. A good mentor will support mentoree from a distance and gives pointers to the mentoree. I appreciate your mention on mentoring can be part of this.
The mentoree has the responsibility of seeking a mentor (mentors) in the area that he or she needs to develop. Here are some tips and thoughts: –
Searching the (right) mentor (mentors)
– Not all-in-one. It is almost impossible to find someone who is expert in every area of the mentoree’s needs. Different people specialize in different areas, therefore it is okay to have more than one person as mentor.
– Relational-based. Mentoring is a process of imparting a set of skills not merely knowledge. If we want knowledge we can find from books or other kinds of resources. But in mentoring the mentor will understand the emotional overtone the mentoree and gives suitable advice and suggestions. Therefor taking time build mentor-mentoree relationship is important. As we are searching for the right mentor we need to clarify right from the beginning regarding spending time together. Find someone who not only has great abilities but also willing to spend time with you.
– Set specific assignment and goal. This will help to evaluate how effectiveness of the mentoring. Both mentor and mentoree will be able to make decision to further the mentoring process or not.
– Feedback. The most crucial part that make it different from learning from other resources in mentoring is personal feedback. Be open for “frank” feedback from your mentor. Some mentors don’t usually reflect for you, don’t hesitate to ask.
– Set timeframe. Set time to meet, duration, and frequency. It is important that the mentor and mentoree do not feel burdened. Make use of social media as a tool if you cannot meet up with the mentor.
I find that commitment is the key to effective and successful mentoring. In my experience, after the mentoring process we became “friends for life.”
Coaching and mentoring for self?efficacious leadership in schools
International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education
ISSN: 2046-6854 Online from: 2012 Subject Area: HR, Learning & Organization Studies, Education
Shikha Gupta says
Self- directed learning is a better way to learn and grab new ideas as well as it help in self analysis of an individual.Thanks for sharing a information about it.
Priya Kaur says
great article – effectively brings about the application of self-directed learning.
Hema Gopal says
Good insight on self-directed learning. It is time organizations made use of an adult’s tendency to self-directed learning to meet challenges of training in a dynamic workplace.