South Africa

Self-directed learning: A critical skill

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National Manager Learning Design
5 mins

By Felicity Boyers, Learning and Design Manager at PMI

We’ve been hearing a lot about self-directed learning, also known as SDL. But what is it and why is it increasingly popular?

Self-directed learning is probably best explained by Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy and more specifically, the assumption that adult learners are naturally self-directed learners. Self-directed learning is active by nature and because of this, it is more likely to help us encode information effectively and then retain it over time. This is a critical skill in the ‘age of information’.

Studies that support this show that when self-testing, for example, learners often score higher on exams than those who don’t. And when reflective activities are undertaken by learners this too, leads to higher test results. Another interesting finding is that when learners engage in reflection and self-management activities, they also tend to experience less negativity towards upcoming assessments, mainly due to a greater sense of control over their performance.

Thoughtful self-management of learning can help learners to achieve more. Psychology researcher, Patricia Chen of Stanford University, believes that even 15 minutes spent online before an upcoming exam makes a difference.  Chen says, “Unlike instructor-facilitated, multisession, long workshops, this learning intervention is elegant in its brevity and empowering in its mode of online self-administration.”

So why is SDL increasingly popular? Because we are always looking for better ways to educate and train. Because the speed and complexity of the way we do business today is increasing, new jobs are emerging at a rapid rate and it is likely to become more and more difficult to train the workforce for every possible role, or job assignment, or skill required. As Gen Z enters the workforce, we also need to approach skills development differently. Gen Z is most often described as ‘purpose driven’, the best–educated generation, the most diverse generation, and the most progressive and tech savvy. We are going to need to align our approach to learning and skills-development to the needs of this generation.

As someone who is constantly looking to improve the learning experience, the concepts of self-directed learning and learning autonomy are particularly exciting to me because they offer an effective way to design online learning courses and achieve learning outcomes at scale.

The five elements of self-directed learning:

  1. Learner control.

Giving learners more control over their learning experience requires a shift in the design and delivery of learning away from teacher-directed learning towards learning that is within the locus of control of learners. This is a challenge when what learners are used to is teacher-directed learning, and they may not immediately recognise the value of SDL. But charging them with the task of developing and managing their own learning develops individuality and maturity, and ultimately leads learners to embrace lifelong learning habits. Self-directed learners have the freedom to start learning at any time and at their own pace.

  1. Skills development.

Learners must focus and apply themselves to processes that work for them and that lead them to achieve greater and greater success. Learning outcomes don’t just happen, the learner needs to plan, implement, and control his or her activities in order to achieve outcomes. To excel, the learner must surely learn to be an independent thinker. By becoming an independent thinker, a learner amplifies his or her creativity, and is able to think differently to the ‘herd’.

  1. Self-challenge.

This means a learner can’t just rely on a teacher to set the challenges, they must challenge themselves by setting higher goals and adventuring into novel thinking and experiences. The learner becomes the hero in his or her own journey and like all true heroes must take on risks before ‘finding the treasure or slaying the dragon’.

  1. Self-management of learning.

Choice and freedom are built into SDL but are underpinned by self-control, responsibility and accountability. Learners need to determine what they will do to learn effectively and they need to determine what kind of learner they will be. Of course, the learning journey is not always going to go smoothly and the learner needs to have resources she or he can draw on including inner resources such as problem-solving and resilience. Some of these inner resources may not be there at the beginning but they will grow with each new success and with experience. Learners will discover and create for themselves the kind of learning environment that works best for them, which could be in a structured environment or a less structured environment, isolated from others or connected and collaborative.

  1. Self-evaluation and reflection.

To self-evaluate or reflect on learning is to ask yourself questions like, ‘Did I achieve the outcome I set for myself? Could I learn more? The principles of motivation are built into SDL, especially the principle of self-motivation. Self-motivation is the best form of motivation. It is best because it is intrinsic. It comes from a desire to improve and is built into our identity and that is why it is more powerful than extrinsic motivation. People who are intrinsically motivated to learn do so because they love the feeling or idea of learning and growing their skills. Being a learner becomes integrated into their identity and therefore it is a continuous source of motivation. By contrast, extrinsic motivation can be removed or weak, making it a short-term source of motivation. Self-motivation energises learners, and self-evaluation and reflection are part of that process.

Life-long learning and continuous improvement is the natural result of self-directed learning. Self-directed learning has been around since the time of Aristotle and Socrates, who understood the value of critical thinking in creating natural pathways to deep understanding and efficacy. With this approach, content is important but so is learning how to learn, understanding what is worth learning and what the purpose of learning is.

With this understanding at the front and centre of learning design, a meaningful learning experience can be delivered, empowering learners to keep learning, and discovering new interests and new capabilities.

Learning to learn, along with self-directed learning is without a doubt a critical skill for our fast-paced modern world.

Five tips to help develop life-long habits:

  1. Pinpoint the problem that needs to be solved

At the heart of any training, intervention is usually a problem (or opportunity) to be solved. Identify the cause of the problem or the opportunity and create a self-learning plan.

  1. Set a goal for the learning process ensuring it supports the individual learning need(s)

Make the goals clear. How will achievements be measured? Will they be celebrated? How?

  1. Plot a curriculum

Decide on the various components of the specific learning needs, create a lesson plan and identify content to be learned. When building a curriculum, look for books, online courses, ‘study buddies’, and coaches and mentors that will support the self-learning journey.

  1. Manage time but try to find the optimum pace of learning

Prioritising, creating a schedule, and making the schedule visible is about preparing for success.  If not: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Without a plan in place, learning may become overrun by backlogs, directionless with a lack of focus, and may end up being a lot of work on ‘the wrong thing at the wrong time’.

  1. Build a strong learning community that promotes creativity and experimentation

A strong learning community made up of self-directed learners can support and elevate learning.  Peer-to-peer learning can be a real game-changer, transforming the learning experience from one that is exclusive and prescriptive to one that is inclusive, respectful, experiential, and extremely rewarding.

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National Manager Learning Design

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