Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process

Four stepsSelf-directed learning can be challenging, even for the brightest and most motivated students. As a means of better understanding the processes involved in this mode of study, this tip sheet outlines key components of four key stages to independent learning – being ready to learn, setting learning goals, engaging in the learning process, and evaluating learning – and offers some tips for both faculty members and students.

Being ready to learn

Various skills and attitudes towards learning are required for successful independent study (See the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) teaching tip on "Readiness to Learn" for more details). This step requires time for analysing a student’s current situation, study habits, family situation, and support network both at school and at home – and as they continue in the program, progress in degree program and past units taken that will prove useful. Signs of readiness for self-directed learning include being: autonomous, organised, self-disciplined, able to communicate effectively, and able to accept constructive feedback and engage in self-evaluation and self­-reflection.

Setting learning goals

Communication of learning goals between a student and the advising faculty member is critical (See the CTE teaching tip on "Unit Planning Decision Guide"). Learning contracts are highly recommended tools for successful self-directed learning experiences (see example on CTE’s "Learning Contracts" teaching tip). Learning contracts generally include:

  • Goals for the unit of study
  • Structure and sequence of activities
  • A timeline for completion of activities
  • Details about resource materials for each goal
  • Details about grading procedures
  • A section for advising faculty member feedback and evaluation as each goal is completed
  • A plan for regular meetings with the advising faculty member and other unit policies, such as work turned in late

Once created, contracts should be assessed by the advising faculty member. What could go wrong? Is there too much or too little work? Is the timeline and evaluation reasonable?

Engaging in the learning process

Students need to understand themselves as learners in order to understand their needs as self-directed learning students (See the CTE teaching tip on "Understanding Your Learning Style"). 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 faculty member”

Students also need to understand their approach to studying:

  • Deep approach involves transforming – to understand ideas for yourself; be able to apply knowledge to new situations and use novel examples to explain a concept; learn more than is required for unit completion – most ideal for self-directed learning.
  • Surface approach involves reproducing – to cope with unit requirements; learn only what is required to complete unit in good standing; tend to regurgitate examples and explanations used in readings.
  • Strategic approach involves organizing – to achieve the highest possible grades; learn what is required to pass exams; memorize facts as given in lecture; spend much time practicing from past exams; most concerned with whether material will appear on exam.

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.

Evaluating learning

  • Students must be able to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation of learning goals and progress in a unit of study.
  • Students should regularly consult with the advising faculty member.
  • Students should be able to engage in self-validation of achievements, but should have the motivation to seek feedback on progress and ideas from the advising faculty member or other available resources.
  • Self-evaluation 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

  • Do self-assessment of readiness to learn
  • Define learning goals and develop learning contract
  • Do self-assessment and monitoring of learning process
  • Take initiative for all stages of learning process – need to motivate selves
  • Re-evaluate and alter goals as required during unit of study
  • Consult with advising faculty member as required

Advising faculty members’ 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 learning process
  • Serve as an advisor rather than formal instructor

Recommended resources:

  • Hammond, M. & Collins, R. (1991).Self-directed learning: Critical practice. London: Kogan Page Limited. (Waterloo Porter or Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Library, LC5225.L42 H36)

    This is a positive, inspiring, and readable book about self directed learning (SDL) strategies. The book is set up to take an instructor through what the authors define as nine critical steps to SDL. Chapters 1-9 focus on each of the nine critical steps in turn. The book provides many examples and suggestions that are taken from the authors’ experiences. This is a great resource for both student and instructor.

  • Hiemstra, R. Self-directed learning web page. May, 2002.

    This page is a fabulous online resource that contains everything anyone would ever need to know about independent learning, and more. There are several excellent links to online tools for assessing readiness to learn, learning styles, learning contracts, assessment, motivation, and much more. Professor Hiemstra’s page also contains many links to other prominent researchers in the field of adult independent learning. Furthermore, many of the more important resources are summarized in plain language. A cautionary note is that the pages are not very well referenced in that various authors are given general recognition for their contributions, but no specific reference to each individual is made as their individual work appears on the page. This is a must see webpage for both students and instructors and should prove to be a valuable resource throughout the entire self-directed learning process.

  • Knowles, M.S. (1986). Using learning contracts: Practical approaches to individualizing and structuring learning. London: Jossey-Bass Publications. (Waterloo CTE Library, LB1031.K56)

    Learning contracts are described as the key step to headache-free self-directed learning. The focus of this book is on learning contracts and their usefulness. It provides many examples of learning contracts and describes their use in a variety of subject areas and learning environments. This is a great resource for instructors as they facilitate self-directed learning courses and for students as they design their own learning contracts.

  • Simpson, O. (2000). Supporting students in open and distant learning.London: Kogan Page Limited. (Waterloo CTE Library, LC5800.S56x)
    The author provides a comprehensive look at supporting students in independent study environments. In particular, chapters 5, 6, and 8 discuss modes of student support at a distance and offer great suggestions and helpful hints. Chapters 11 and 12 describe, from a theoretical perspective, the importance of different forms of student support. This is a great resource for instructors since the focus of the work is on helping instructors become better facilitators; however, it would be a good resource for students in that it would help them know what level of support is appropriate to seek from their instructors.

Other resources:

  • CTE Tip Sheet on Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts
  • UWaterloo’s Student Success Office
  • UWaterloo’s Office of Academic Integrity
  • Baume, D. (1994). Developing learner autonomy. SEDA Paper 84.Birmingham: Staff and Educational Development Association Publications. (Waterloo CTE Library, LB2395.2.B38x)
    This book is a personal reflection, which includes a collection of tried and true strategies to increasing learner autonomy. It is concise and easy to read and full of examples and helpful commentaries from the author. The book targets the instructor, but students may benefit from the content. In particular, it describes conditions of the learner, the stage of learner development necessary for autonomy, and the pros and cons of autonomous learning.
  • Brockett, R.G. & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in adult learning: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice. London: Routledge. (Waterloo CTE Library, LC5225.L42 B76)
    The authors claim that this book was written with several audiences in mind; however, it can become quite technical in places. It reviews issues, trends, and practices in learner managed courses. After describing what is currently done, and building on theories of learner managed learning, the book provides strategies to put theory into practice. This is a great resource for students because it describes case studies and a conceptual framework for understanding self­directed learning. It is also a great resource for instructors because it evaluates various ways of facilitating and enhancing self-directed learning and fostering opportunities for self-direction.
  • Gibbs, G. (1992). Independent learning with more students. Developing teaching: Teaching more students. Oxford: Oxonian Rewley Press. (Waterloo CTE Library, LB2331.G53x)
    This paper is an outline for a workshop given in support of England’s Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council: The Teaching More Students Project. It is mostly a self-reflection tool for workshop participants; however, there is some useful information in the document. Chapters 1-3 highlight students’ and lecturers’ experiences of independent learning, outline the task for the workshop, and offer suggestions for completing the workshop. Chapters 4-6 discuss resources for independent learning, including facilitation and usefulness of teamwork, resource bases, printed course guides, videos, audio tapes, computer resources, and developing independent learning skills. It is a hands-on resource for instructors interested in implementing and facilitating independent learning.
  • Long, D.G. (1990). Learner managed learning: The key to lifelong learning and development. New York: St. Martin’s Press. (Waterloo CTE Library, LC5225.L42 L66)
    This book is written for educational institute instructors and human resource personnel. It is readable and informative. The focus of the book is on case studies and reviews of concepts and methods to synthesize learner managed learning theory and practice. Chapters 1-7 introduce current approaches to learner managed learning, chapter 8 describes a learner managed learning model, chapters 9-15 discuss implementations of the model in various contexts, from formal education to the workplace. This book is a useful resource for both instructors and students.
  • Marton, F., Hounsell, D., & Entwistle, N. (1997). The experience of learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education.Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. (Waterloo CTE Library, LB2395.E94)
    This book presents a series of studies about the types of learning that are demanded by students of higher education. It is written in the style of a research monograph; however, rather than the traditional presentation of research, this book presents a series of excerpts from interviews with students. Conceptual frameworks are then built from those student interviews. This is not a resource specifically focused on learner managed learning but is a great resource for students and instructors seeking to better understand the learning process in general in order to build effective learning contracts.
  • Rowntree, D. (1986). Teaching through self-instruction: How to develop open learning materials. London: Kogan Page Limited. (Waterloo CTE Library, LC5800.R68) This is a very readable book that discusses how to develop effective self-instruction courses. It provides practical advice for instructors on how to apply what they already know about teaching to the area of learner managed learning. It is not pitched as a set of solutions to problems, but rather as a resource for how to ask, and approach solutions for, appropriate questions. In particular there is a section that discusses the selection and critical analysis of materials and content, how to ask for evaluation from students, and how to modify an approach based on that evaluation. This would be a good resource for instructors.
  • Sammons, M. & Kozoll, C.E. (1986). Preparing an effective self-study course. Urbana- Champaign: University of Illinois Publication. (Waterloo CTE Library, LB2395.2.S355x)
    This is another guide to preparing self-instruction courses. It is meant to be a quick reference and is full of great examples. It gives careful consideration to the students’ perspective and their motivation needs and offers some sound advice on providing a support network for students’ work. This resource is meant for course instructors, but may be useful to students interested in what types of support networks they might work to create.

Research oriented resources:

  • Confessore, G.J. & Confessore, S.J. (Eds.) (1992). Guideposts to self-directed learning: Expert commentary on essential concepts.

    Pennsylvania: Organization Design and Development, Inc. (Waterloo CTE Library, LC5225.L42 G85)
    This is an edited collection of research papers, including a preface chapter that points to further readings. Each chapter summarizes and critiques key books and papers in the self-directed learning literature. It is geared more towards researchers in the field, but could be useful to instructors and students. The various works are summarized in plain language and span a wide range of issues in self-directed learning, including theory, environmental circumstances, facilitation, and application.

  • Graves, N. (Ed.) (1993). Learner managed learning: Practice, theory, and policy. Leeds: AW Angus & Co. Limited. (Waterloo CTE Library, LC5225.L42L43)
    This book focuses primarily on learner managed learning in higher education, with some references to grade school classes. It is a critique of learner managed learning, rather than a resource of what it is and how to make it succeed. It is geared towards researchers in the field, but could be useful to instructors in making informed decisions about course design and content.
  • Tait, J. & Knight, P. (1996). The management of independent learning.London: Kogan Page Limited. (Waterloo CTE Library, LB2395.2.M37x)
    This is a collection of research articles that evaluate various forms and methods of independent learning. In particular, chapter 4 presents the student perspective on the value of self-directed learning. Chapters 8 and 9 discuss information technology and the use of computers in self-directed learning. And chapter 10 discusses different approaches to studying and motivations for learning. This resource is geared towards instructors and researchers in the field; however, students could benefit from the chapters on information technology in self-directed learning and from chapter 10 which may help them understand their motivations for studying.