What is Self-Directed Learning?

by Dana Skiff on June 24, 2009

Self-directed learning is not a new concept. In fact, much has been written about it. Unfortunately, however, it is a notion that has a variety of interpretations and applications in the corporate training arena. Typical, narrow interpretations involve simply giving learners some sort of choice in their learning. For example, allowing learners to select one or more courses from a curriculum, or, in cases of structured on-the-job training, allowing employees to choose what pre-designed modules (e.g., a video tape, workbook, special reading, etc.) to complete. In terms of e-learning, the fact that learners can determine which modules or scenarios to review is also frequently touted as self-directed learning.The fact that the learner has a choice and makes a decision to select this or that module does not constitute true self-directed learning.

This interpretation is too limited. Self-directed learning is much more. Using the analogy of taking a trip, the narrow interpretation of SDL is equivalent to selecting where to go, i.e., the destination. The essence of the notion of self-directed learning advocated here, however, is broader, more fundamental. It is about the learner deciding not just where to take a trip but how they will go (both the means of transportation as well as route), when they will leave, how they will get there and how long they will stay.

Essentially, the notion of SDL advocated here reflects Malcolm Knowles definition of SDL:

“In its broadest meaning, ’self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with our without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)

Of primary concern in this definition of SDL is the fact the learner takes 1) the initiative to pursue a learning experience, and 2) the responsibility for completing their learning. Once the initiative is taken, the learner assumes complete responsibility and accountability for defining the learning experience and following it through to its conclusion. This does not preclude input from others, but the final decision is the learner’s. Self-direction does not mean the learner learns alone or in isolation. While, that may be the case in any given learning situation, the critical factor here, again, is the fact the learner is driving the total learning experience, beginning with recognizing a need to learn.

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