Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process

Learning independently can be challenging, even for highly motivated students. As a means of better understanding the processes involved in this mode of study, this Teaching Tip outlines components of four key stages to independent learning, known as self-directed learning: 1) being ready to learn, 2) setting learning goals, 3) engaging in the learning process, and 4) evaluating learning.

Step 1: Assess Readiness to Learn

Students need various skills and attitudes towards learning for successful independent study. This step involves students conducting a self-evaluation of their current situation, study habits, family situation, and support network both at school and at home and also involves evaluating past experiences with independent learning. For a detailed Learning Skills Assessment Tool, read our CTE Teaching Tip: Independent Studies: Readiness to Learn. Signs of readiness for self-directed learning include being autonomous, organized, self-disciplined, able to communicate effectively, ability to accept constructive feedback and engage in self-evaluation and self­-reflection.

Step 2: Set Learning Goals

Communication of learning goals between a student and the advising instructor is critical. We've developed a set of questions for students to consider as they map out their learning goals: our CTE Tip Sheet Independent Studies: Unit Planning Decision Guide. Also critical in developing a clear understanding of learning goals between students and instructors are learning contracts. Learning contracts generally include:

  • Goals for the unit of study
  • Structure and sequence of activities
  • Timeline for completion of activities
  • Details about resource materials for each goal
  • Details about grading procedures
  • Feedback and evaluation as each goal is completed
  • Meeting plan with the advising instructor
  • Agreement of unit policies, such as a policy on late assignments

Once created, contracts should be assessed by the advising faculty member and questions about feasibility should be raised (e.g., What could go wrong? Is there too much or too little work? Is the timeline and evaluation reasonable?). For more specific information, please see CTE Tip Sheet Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts

Step 3: Engage in the Learning Process

Students need to understand themselves as learners in order to understand their needs as self-directed learning students — referring students to our CTE Teaching Tip resource Understanding Your Learning Style may be helpful. Students should also consider answering the following questions:

  • What are my needs re: instructional methods?
  • Who was my favourite teacher? Why?
  • What did they do that was different from other teachers? Students should reflect on these questions throughout their program and substitute “teacher” with “advising instructor”

Students also need to understand their approach to studying:

  • deep approach to studying involves transformation and is ideal for self-directed learning. This approach is about understanding ideas for yourself, applying knowledge to new situations and using novel examples to explain a concept, and learning more than is required for unit completion.
  • A surface approach involves reproduction: coping with unit requirements, learning only what is required to complete a unit in good standing, and tending to regurgitate examples and explanations used in readings.
  • strategic approach involves organization: achieving the highest possible grades, learning what is required to pass exams, memorizing facts, and spending time practicing from past exams.

Earlier academic work may have encouraged a surface or strategic approach to studying. These approaches will not be sufficient (or even appropriate) for successful independent study. Independent study requires a deep approach to studying, in which students must understand ideas and be able to apply knowledge to new situations. Students need to generate their own connections and be their own motivators.

Step 4: Evaluate Learning

For students to be successful in self-directed learning, they must be able to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation of their learning goals and progress in a unit of study. To support this self-evaluation process, they should:

  • Regularly consult with the advising instructor,
  • Seek feedback, and
  • Engage in reflection of their achievements, which involves asking:
    • How do I know I’ve learned?
    • Am I flexible in adapting and applying knowledge?
    • Do I have confidence in explaining material?
    • When do I know I’ve learned enough?
    • When is it time for self-reflection and when is it time for consultation with the advising faculty member?

Responsibilities in the Four-Step Process

Successful independent study requires certain responsibilities or roles of both students and advising faculty members. The following is a brief list of the more important roles. It is useful for both students and advising faculty members to periodically review this list and communicate as to whether each feels the other is fulfilling their share of the responsibility.

Students’ roles

  • Self-assess your readiness to learn
  • Define your learning goals and develop a learning contract
  • Monitor your learning process
  • Take initiative for all stages of the learning process — be self-motivated 
  • Re-evaluate and alter goals as required during your unit of study
  • Consult with your advising instructor as required

Advising instructors’ roles

  • Build a co-operative learning environment
  • Help to motivate and direct the students’ learning experience
  • Facilitate students’ initiatives for learning
  • Be available for consultations as appropriate during the learning process
  • Serve as an advisor rather than a formal instructor


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


CTE Teaching Tips

Other Resources

  • Graves, N. (Ed.) (1993). Learner managed learning: Practice, theory, and policy. Leeds: AW Angus & Co. Limited.
  • Hammond, M. & Collins, R. (1991). Self-directed learning: Critical practice. London: Kogan Page Limited.
  • Hiemstra, R. Self-directed web portal.
  • Kim, R., Olfman, L., Ryan, T., & Eryilmaz, E. (2014). Leveraging a personalized system to improve self-directed learning in online educational environmentsComputers & Education, 70, 150-160.
  • Knowles, M. (1986). Using learning contracts: Practical approaches to individualizing and structuring learning. London: Jossey-Bass Publications.
  • Simpson, O. (2000). Supporting students in open and distant learning. London: Kogan Page Limited. 
  • Sumuer, E. (2018). Factors related to college students’ self-directed learning with technology. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 34(4):29-. doi:10.14742/ajet.3142
  • Tait, J. & Knight, P. (1996). The management of independent learning. London: Kogan Page Limited.
  • Zamnah, L.N. & Ruswana, A.M. (2019). Implementation of self-directed learning model to improve students’ self-regulated learning and self-confidence. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 1188(1):12081-. doi:10.1088/1742-6596/1188/1/012081

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo