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What you need to know about self-directed learning

Self-directed learning, also known as self-initiated learning or self-concept learning, is a learning strategy that allows learners to take full responsibility for their learning process by deciding and pursuing what to learn, when, and how.

In learning style, a learner takes full responsibility for their learning by scrutinizing their learning needs, identifying their learning goals, choosing their learning strategies, and evaluating their learning outcomes and performances. Learn more about self-directed learning in the following post.

Categories of self-directed learning

 Self-directed learning in an informal setup compels the learner to initiate the learning process in the quest for knowledge and skills. The learner goes for the knowledge by exploring and establishing systems of learning.

For example, an office secretary who wants to improve their typing skills can decide to learn more about improving their typing skills. S/he will go to the internet, read more about typing proficiency, watch YouTube videos on improving typing skills, practice typing on a laptop or computer desktop, and time themselves to perfect typing speed. They can practice this typing skills development over time until s/he becomes perfect.

Online and digital environments have robust platforms, tools, and resources for self-directed learning. A learner with internet access can access any of the learning platforms for free or at a small cost and learn at their own pace. Learners can also pursue knowledge through massive open online courses (MOOCs). A learner with a desire to learn project management skills can choose to take a course for free from any of the institutions offering such courses online via the MOOC platform.

Another aspect of self-directed learning is that it takes place in a formal setting, such as courses in university. Some lecturers usually encourage self-directed learning by designing creative course outlines that dedicate some sections to the learner for self-directed learning and form a bigger chunk of the final examination.

Within the standard setup where a learner pursues knowledge through the traditional education approach, that is, a learner is enrolled to a full-time on-campus learning, a self-directed learner may want to go above and beyond what the lecturer delivers in the classroom, or expand their knowledge in that course by looking for extra resources needed in the course to be successful and knowledgeable.

Self-directed learners are always determined that they need more than what is being availed by the course instructor or what is available to achieve their own learning goals and objectives.

What you need to know about self-directed learning.

After knowing what self-directed learning is and the key ingredient values attached to it, you need to know about the elements of self-directed learning, key skills required by self-directed learning, characteristics of a self-directed learner, responsibilities of the learner and instructor in self-directed learning, how to develop self-directed learning, benefits of self-directed learning, and challenges facing self-directed learning.

Self-directed learning elements

There are unique elements of self-directed learning that make it unique and distinctive over other learning approaches. The six components include the following:

Initiation: self-directed learning is learning by self from conception to completion of the learning process. The learner takes the initiative to start a learning process without being helped or pushed by others.

The initiation of learning by the self-directed learner begins when the learner identifies that they lack some skillset and desire to gain those skills for personal and professional growth.

Diagnosis: before starting self-directed learning, the learner does self-evaluation to evaluate needed time, time availability, network support, and other necessary tools and resources required to make their learning a success.

It is at this stage that the learner decides what topic or skill set to learn for proficiency.

Objectivity: The learner is supposed to set learning goals they want to achieve over time. They create the learning outcomes for the particular topic or unit and use the learning to achieve the set goals.

Learning resources: for self-directed learning to succeed, the learner needs to identify human and material resources to support and facilitate their learning journey.

The learner may decide on their advising instructors and required, such as books, laptops, internet data packages, and memory cards. They can also choose what online sites such as websites, YouTube channels, and online journals to use for successful learning.

Learning strategies: in self-directed learning, the learner is to set their own pace of learning depending on several factors such as time availability, set learning goals, and availability of support networks like advising instructors and learning collaborators.

When the learner is in full-time employment, they can plan and have their learning sessions at night or during weekends. They can also opt to adopt online learning, hybrid online learning, attend a professional coaching series, or watch YouTube channels on that specific skillset.

Evaluation of learning outcomes: monitoring and evaluation is key to any project, so is the learning project. The learner needs to undertake self-reflection and self-evaluation to know what they have learned. Critical analysis of the learning progress on what strategies work and which ones do not work enables the learner either to re-undertake the unit or sub-units, improve on strategies that work, and adjust strategies that do not work.

Characteristics of a self-directed learner

In self-directed learning or learning by self, the learner is expected to take full charge of planning, learning continuity, and evaluation of learning outcomes to achieve personal learning goals. Therefore, to successfully accomplish the set academic goals, a self-directed learner needs to have the following characteristics:

Goal-oriented – they can set clear goals for their learning process. The goals needed to be measurable, attainable, and realistic for the learner to gain needed knowledge and skills over a given period of time.

Good managers – can shape their learning process. Organize their time and learning resources to help achieve goals. They should draw a clearer academic roadmap to support and facilitate learning by themselves. They should be in a position to monitor and evaluate the learning progress.

Timekeepers - they can manage their time well by balancing their daily engagements and learning. They have a schedule of learning activities on a daily and weekly basis.

Self-motivated – they are motivated to learn and pursue new skills independently without being compelled or directed by another person. They thrive on gaining better skillsets that can help them be skilled in life.

Open-minded – they are open to the learning process from start to end as long as they achieve their goals. They are also willing to learn new things as long as they are convinced such more unique perspectives and skills are of great value to achieving the set goals.

Self-starters – they are the ones to initiate the learning process. They first identify the knowledge and skills gaps then gain interest in pursuing knowledge and skills they lack. They then set learning goals and draw a plan on how to seek knowledge and skills.

Highly reflective – they need to decide and choose what to learn, which aligns with their interest. Before beginning self-directed learning, the learner must first brainstorm and formulate learning goals and identify their intrinsic motivation.

Responsible – they take responsibility for everything that touches the learning process, from setting goals, monitoring progress, and evaluating outcomes. They are also responsible for efficient use of time, learning materials, and learning aids like computers and internet data. Any form of failure to accomplish the set goals is attributed to them.

Critical thinkers – they need to think critically about what learning goals they need to set, how to achieve them, and how to evaluate them. They should devise creative learning strategies to get the best out of the learning process.

Benefits of self-directed learning

Some of the benefits of self-directed learning include the following:

Promotes natural and authentic development of initiative, self-confidence, hard work, grit, and perseverance – self-directed learning encourages self-starting, personal responsibility, and decision-making by enabling learners to make well-informed and sound decisions in setting learning goals and managing the learning process.

Self-directed learning gives learners a chance to believe in themselves. They initiate a learning journey with set goals that they are confident of achieving. They know that self-directed learning is learning by self, and they have the confidence of having what it takes to achieve the learning goals and develop the needed growth in skillset and mindset.

Provide extensive opportunities to pursue a set of interests than is possible with the conventional schooling system – self-directed learning does not entail a fixed schedule, defined curriculum, and well-articulated policies which do not accommodate the learner's interests, needs, and perspectives in driving the learning process.

The learner has full control over the time management, learning resources, learning materials, and learning goals and how they impact them. If they complete one learning area, they can pursue other goals further.

Promotes mental health and psychosocial support mechanism in learning by reducing or eliminating stress and anxiety produced by coercive schooling – conventional schooling system relies on fixed schedule and pre-defined curriculum which learners must subscribe to the latter failure to which their academic performance is at risk.

Some learners might get overwhelmed by the fixed schedule and routine of going to school or reporting to class at a specific time, but they must adhere to it, whether they like it or not.

Self-directed learning promotes a learner's mental and emotional wellbeing. The learner is aware of their potential and copes well with the challenge of active learning. Developing learning goals and action plans helps learners keep their learning on track while preventing mental health issues that come up due to pressure or disorganization in the learning journey.

Reinforces extensive consultations and collaboration within and beyond the family – without the pre-determined curriculum, learners are free to consult extensively as they wish and decide who to consult.

The learner is free to co-create with the family members and friends what to learn, set goals, share progress, and jointly evaluate learning outcomes. Self-learning gives the learner full charge of their learning journey by freely collaborating and consulting with anyone of their choice.

Self-directed learning requires learners to do research well on a number of learning goals for deeper understanding and analysis. They can read several learning resources, consult family members, collaborate with existing experts in the learning areas, call a friend to help clarify some perspectives, watch YouTube videos on that learning area, among other consultative and collaborative outreach.

Enhances flexibility of learning choice and actions – the learner is free to start undertaking the self-directed learning immediately or any other time of their choice. Self-directed learning is also flexible in terms of how the learner undertakes their studies over time.

Learners can learn at their own pace as they only log in when free or when their schedule states so.

The flexibility enables learners to carry out their studies based on their learning needs and styles.  

Key steps of self-directed learning in an informal setup

Before beginning self-directed learning, it is advisable to understand the stages involved in achieving your goals.

In order to achieve the set goals successfully, you need to follow four steps or stages. The key steps include the following:

Appraising your readiness to learn: self-directed learning is not an event; it is a process and a journey. Learners have to invest their time and learning resources to accomplish the learning goals they have set.

So, before beginning a self-directed learning journey, the learner has to conduct a self-evaluation in terms of time availability, study habits, family support, support network, and needed learning resources.

Personal readiness to commit to the learning competencies such as self-discipline, well-organized, time-conscious, goal-oriented, and result-oriented is key to successful independent learning and measure of learner’s readiness to learn.

Setting learning goals: learning goals are the engine of any learning process. Learners have to set goals before starting their self-directed learning journey to define what they want to achieve over a given period.

Having the freedom of extensive consultations and collaboration, learners need to set clear and attainable learning goals. They need to reach out to the advising instructor, family members, and friends to clarify and map out their learning goals.

A key aspect of coming up with clear and achievable learning goals between a learner and advising instructor is the learning contacts. Generally, the learning contacts include:

Learning contracts generally include:


  • Goals for the topic or unit of study
  • Subdivision of the topic or unit into sub-topics or sub-units
  • Structure of activities
  • Sequence of activities
  • Timeline for the accomplishment of each set goal
  • Details about learning materials for each of the set goals
  • Details about grading procedures
  • Evaluation of each goal completed
  • Feedback on completed and evaluated goals
  • Meeting plan with the advising instructor – virtually or in-person.

Actual engagement in the learning process: This is the main stage of self-directed learning where the learner settles down to pursue knowledge actively.

The learner relates extensively with the learning resources and materials, consults and collaborates with others, researching the unit contents, and self-monitoring and evaluating.

It is in this stage that the learner needs to understand their approach to learning. There are three approaches to learning which include:

A strategic approach - revolves around organization where the learner memorizes only facts, practices only relevant skills or aspects of the unit, and learns only what is required to excel in an evaluation test and examination.

A surface approach - entails reproduction where the learner only learns what is required to complete the topic, copes with requirements needed to accomplish the topic, and repeats examples and elaborations in the learning materials without any further insight or a new perspective.

A deep approach – entails newness and generation of different schools of thought. The learner is extensive in going for knowledge and skillset. They research heavily and read extensively. They can understand the concepts and apply them differently in day-to-day life.

Assessing the learning outcomes: The learning goals are supposed to be achieved over a given period. And for learners to be successful in achieving their goals, they must be able to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation.

To ensure successful evaluation of the learning goals, learners need to:

  • Consult the advising instructor regularly
  • Collaborate with others on a need basis
  • Monitor their learning continuously
  • Seek feedback on the evaluation
  • Reflect on what knowledge and new skills they have acquired.

Responsibilities of learners in the formal self-directed learning

  • They are to assess their readiness to learn
  • They are to define and set their goals
  • They are to develop learning contacts
  • They are to take the initiative of their self-directed learning
  • They are to consult and collaborate with the advising instructor and other people
  • They are to monitor the learning progress

Responsibilities of advising instructors in the formal self-directed learning


  • They are to motivate the learner
  • They are to guide the learner



  • They are to ensure a conducive and cooperative learning environment
  • They are to advise the learner
  • They are to support learners’ initiatives for self-directed learning
  • They are to offer needed consultative feedback and support


Problems with self-directed learning

Inability to choose learning activities and goals: a self-directed education may be so motivated to learn new skillsets which they feel they need to develop. However, they might lack the know-how to plan and execute their learning journey.

For example, a motivated but clueless learner may not know what documents to use for reference, which online sites to visit, and how long the learning activity should last.

Lack of sufficient time: this is the greatest obstacle that stands in the way of self-directed learning. Most self-directed learners are looking for complementary skills besides their competencies. They are people engaged professionally, so getting sufficient to focus on learning fully is challenging.

Confronted with too much choice: a self-directed learner who has decided on or not decided on a learning activity may face hundreds of learning resources, references, and videos that may become overwhelming.

When learners are confronted with too much choice, they get frustrated mentally and become demotivated to learn. They can even opt-out of the learning journey.

Complicated and problematic technology: some self-directed learners find the online tutorial (OLT) boring and tedious to use, making some learners avoid using OLT.

Some learners fail to hear clearly what the course instructors are talking about or are not able to see what they write on the screen, a problem tied to the separation of software between audio and virtual classrooms.

Coursewares: one of the key strengths of self-directed learning is that it accommodates the learning pace of both fast-learners and slow-learners.

However, most self-directed learners lament that some online learning contents are not interesting as they go through them. They are dull and unattractive, while some coursewares have typographical errors that distract learners.

Lack of focus on learning: some self-directed learners usually face a lack of focus on their learning journey, which hinders them from concentrating or fulfilling their learning objectives. Since they are in full control of their learning journey without being tied to a fixed schedule like in conventional schooling, their attention and focus are diverted from the learning activities by other day-to-day engagements.

Delivery challenge: teaching in a virtual setting needs both technical and communication skills. The learner may face a language barrier when listening to the self-directed online instructor from a given linguistic background.

Online self-directed instructors are expected to have computer-mediated communication skills, which some may fail to have and be unable to deliver the content well. However, learners expect the instructor to be an expert, and any shortfalls noted by learners can make them switch off from the learning process.


Technological innovations and digital communications have led to massive transformations in the education sector, knowledge management, and learning approaches. Through self-directed learning faces some drawbacks, it has several benefits to this generation and generations to come.

Contributor: admin
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