Digital Age Teaching and Learning

Self-Directed Learning—Definition

Self-Directed Learning—Definition

Life-long learners: Chances are you have heard the term once or twice in your career as an educator.  The idea behind it is that from birth to death, we as humans never stop learning.

But before our formal education begins, and then after it ends, we are not learning with the guidance of professional educators; instead, we are learning based on our own volition, guided by our natural curiosity, observations, and interests.  It is this natural learning process that forms the basis of the self-directed learning definition and practice.

What Is the Basic Self-Directed Learning Definition?

Self-directed learning is, in essence, the opposite of instructor-directed learning.  The individual student takes the initiative to begin the learning process, diagnosing his or her own learning needs, formulating goals, seeking out resources for learning, implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes (2).

The instructor can and does offer guidance on an as-needed basis, but the primary role of the instructor is that of mentor, providing feedback as needed and helping the student scaffold when struggling.  The ultimate goal is for students to find purpose and enjoyment in the act of learning.

Isn’t Self-Directed Learning Already a Natural Part of the Classroom?

Self-directed learning is natural, and elements of it are likely present in almost every classroom since it is a part of human nature.  However, there is a big difference between a classroom that features self-directed learning and a classroom centered on self-directed learning.  There are five elements that define self-directed learning environments.

  1. The control of the learning process is given to the students. In classrooms where self-directed learning is a new concept or with the younger grades, this might be accomplished through gradual release of control from the teacher to the student (4).
  2. The students’ learning must help them develop skills that can be applied in their current roles as students and in the future roles that they choose. These skills are broad and able to be applied in a wide variety of contexts. Examples of these skills are: critical thinking, independent thinking, and goal setting.  These skills, once developed, provide the student with the framework needed to succeed (4).
  3. The students must challenge themselves. Without the element of challenge, learning becomes stagnant and growth is not realized. Scaffolding is vital, allowing the students to push themselves one level higher than what they can readily do.  A secure environment that encourages risk-taking is vital (4).
  4. The students must manage themselves. Their learning process, in essence, becomes a series of checks and balances. Their enjoyment of the freedom they are given is matched by self-control.  Their desire to learn at their own pace is held in check by project deadlines.  Their need to push themselves balanced by their understanding of themselves and their own limits (4).
  5. Finally, the students must be self-motivated in their learning, their work, and their assessments. Much of this comes from allowing students to pursue their own interests with their learning. But beyond being interested in what they are learning about, they must also be self-motivated when it comes to seeking feedback, reflecting on their work, and strategizing to improve (4).


How Does It Contrast With Teacher-Directed Learning?

With teacher-directed learning, the focus is 1) on the teacher and 2) delivered through the teacher, directly contrasting with the self-directed learning definition.

First, the students are always focused on the desires of the teacher.  They learn what they teacher wants them to, they learn through the methods the teacher find most conducive to learning, and they demonstrate mastery in the way the teacher feels is best.

Second, in teacher-directed classrooms, all things are filtered through the teacher, subject to his or her own biases, experiences, and interests.  Intentionally or not, this encourages the students to mold themselves to the teacher rather than developing themselves as unique individuals.

What Specific Benefits Does Self-Directed Learning Bring to Students?

The primary benefit that self-directed learning brings to students is that it prepares them to continue learning even once their classroom days are over.

With traditional methods of learning, students must revert back to their natural ways of learning once their formal education ends, otherwise they will not continue to grow as individuals.  Self-directed learning, by definition, keeps students in touch with the natural way they learn throughout their formal education, making the transition easier on them.

Secondary benefits to the students include improving their self-esteem, addressing their unique needs as learners through natural differentiation, helping them learn more about themselves, developing their critical thinking skills, assisting them in learning how to manage their time and resources, and helping them learn how to collaborate with others.

What Are Common Misconceptions About Self-Directed Learning?

At this point, you have a pretty good idea of what self-directed learning looks like.  However, there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to self-directed learning.  Below are a few that need to be dispelled.


It is not isolated study.  Because the children are directing themselves, many believe that means they are working alone.  In reality, self-directed learning is highly collaborative, encouraging children to work together based on their shared interests and allowing them to learn from each other (3).

It is not chaos.  Yes, self-directed classrooms tend to get a bit loud as the children collaborate, and they also tend to be a bit all-over the place as children seek out their own spot to get to work, but the environment is ultimately controlled and purposeful (3).

It is not teacher-free learning—unless we are taking it to the extreme.  Student-directed learning does not mean anarchy in the classroom.  The teacher still sets the rules and procedures to keep the classroom orderly and safe.  The teacher also provides feedback and assistance to the children on an as-needed basis.

What Are the Common Pitfalls of Self-Directed Learning?

A lack of internal motivation.  When children start with self-directed learning at a young age, this is less of an issue.  However, many children are taught that their motivation must come from those around them.  This must be corrected for self-directed learning to be successful.

A desire to stay where they are comfortable rather than challenging themselves.  Challenging yourself means changing yourself, and that can be scary.  Not to mention that staying in your comfort zone is, well, comfortable.  Students need to see the value in getting out of that comfort zone.

Or they challenge themselves too much.  Those children who enjoy the challenge might try to push themselves too far, causing themselves to fail.  Once or twice, this could be a learning experience, but over time, it can hurt their self-esteem and motivation.

The desire of the teacher to rescue his or her students and prevent the possibility of failure.  As a teacher, you want the best for your students, and the best is success, right?  But failing is all part of the learning process.  What the teacher needs to do is reframe failure from being something negative into being something natural.

Placing focus strictly on the academic. Most of the research and resources for self-directed learning focus strictly on the academic aspects of this method of learning.  However, there are many ways in which social and emotional growth can be aided by self-directed learning.

How Can You Start Moving Towards Self-Directed Learning?

Don’t be afraid to start small.  Self-directed learning can be very intimidating for teachers as it is very different from what most of us were taught in our education programs and has little in common with the way we ourselves were taught.  To get a feel for it, start with Google Fridays, allowing students to research the topic of their choice using online and classroom resources (1).  Once you feel more confident, draw up a plan for gradual release to self-directed learning.

What should this plan look like?  That will vary based on the age of the students and their current skills.  However, a general outline is as follows.

  1. Start helping the children with metacognition. This may mean thinking about their interests, discovering their learning styles, reflecting on their work, and even learning about growth vs fixed mindsets.  In your lesson plans, include one metacognition activity or goal each day.  This will help the children begin to develop their independent mindset.
  2. Carefully craft your classroom environment so that it feels safe for risk-taking. Begin working on taking the stigma out of failure by emphasizing how it is part of the natural learning process.
  3. Once you have accomplished the first two items, you can start to experiment with self-directed learning. With the next project, give your students room for choice in topic and format.  Help them identify a starting point if needed, but then allow them the chance to explore the rest on their own.  It is best to keep this project small to get a feel for how the process goes, allowing you to spot the problems and address them.
  4. Start isolating your instruction to 5-10 minute mini-lessons; if you need, you can gradually reduce the time as you learn to condense your lessons. Focus these lessons more on skills than information, facilitating your transition to mentor over teacher.
  5. Introduce students to the tools they need to scaffold and manage themselves. These tools can include checklists, self-questioning prompts, portfolio templates, and more.
  6. Allow the students to be completely self-directed on a larger project, giving them the chance to fully develop their role as self-directed learners and you the chance to develop your role as mentor.
  7. From there, you can transition into a day-to-day classroom that is centered on student-directed learning.

Where to Learn More

Ready to dive into self-directed learning?  Here are some resources to check out.

Self-Directed Learning—This company offers many resources that you can use to get started, including professional and personal development opportunities.

International Society for Self-Directed Learning—This society has been active for three decades, encouraging learners of all ages to improve themselves through self-directed learning.  They offer many resources that you can put to work inside and outside of the classroom.

Self-Directed Learning, Pinterest—I created this board to help pull together various resources that could be helpful to you.

Ready to Get Started?

Self-directed learning has the potential to transform the way you teach and the way your students learn.  Remember: you yourself are a life-long learner, so don’t be afraid to try something new.  Take the initiative to go beyond this self-directed learning definition and start putting the ideas into practice.


Works Cited

1) ‘Google Thursdays’ and the Power of Self-Directed Learning (Education Week Teacher)

2) Knowles, M. (1975) Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers, New York: Cambridge Books.

3) Self-directed learning,

4) The Major Principles of an SDL Program,

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