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If you’ve ever taught yourself a new skill — such as how to make sauerkraut, grow tomatoes, or play a musical instrument — you’ve used self-directed learning.
You can employ self-directed learning for anything you are motivated to learn, whether for a hobby or more work-related.
Self directed learning requires a number of skills, including:
If you’re ready to embark on a self-directed learning adventure, read on to learn what self-directed learning is and how to implement it in your life.
What is self-directed learning?
Consider the last time you decided to learn something new because you were so passionate that nothing could stop you. Maybe you were driven by a need or a desire to do something on your own.
Let’s say you had to replace your car’s headlight and didn’t want to take your car to the shop. Or you wanted to build your own website and design it yourself.
Maybe you were tired of buying sourdough bread and wanted to make it from scratch. Without taking a formal course, you have a variety of options: read a book, download a recipe, or ask someone.
And within hours or a few weeks, you have figured it out — pretty much all on your own. These are all examples of self-learning.
Whatever it was, you had an intrinsic motivation driving your learning process. This is exactly how self-directed learning works.
Self-directed learning is a phrase often used in higher education theory about adult learning. In 1975, adult educator Malcolm S. Knowles defined the process in a way we can still relate to today:
“Self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”
Traditionally, academics contrast this to direct learning.
The direct learning meaning is straightforward. And the direct method is a common strategy for learning. It refers to educational instruction from a teacher to a learner, typically in a classroom setting.
But today, we’re going to explore how much there is to gain from being a self-directed learner in every area of your life.
Why should you try self-directed learning?
If you like taking responsibility for what you learn and master, a self-directed learning experience might be the right way to go.
Independent learning gives you the freedom to learn something new or challenging when and how you want. And you get to manage the time frame. Many people find time blocking a helpful way to juggle their responsibilities and personal growth.
But it's more than just personal preference. In self-directed learning you have to be involved, engaged in a way that often doesn't happen in training. Moving at your own pace, following your own interest, and applying learnings in your own environment — this can help to cement what you learn and make it meaningful.
But what is self-directed study? And what are some of its benefits? Let’s take a look at five of the main ones.
1. You can begin immediately
As a self-directed learner, you get to choose when the learning project starts. With the resources at hand, the timing is totally up to you.
2. You learn at your own pace
You can choose what to study based on your learning style and learning needs. This means you have control over the material and how it impacts you. If you complete one area of learning, it sometimes clears a path to a new learning goal.
3. You collaborate with others
Learning something requires you to do a bit of research. That may include calling a friend or colleague, downloading an app, or reaching out to a group or former teacher.
This is known as collaborative learning.
4. You grow in confidence
Once you have chosen a field of learning, you embark on a learning journey that is yours and that helps you develop a growth mindset.
Whether you ‘ace’ the learning objectives or get better at changing a tire, you now have a skill you otherwise would be without.
5. You promote well-being
As you realize your potential and cope with the challenge of active learning, you experience what is possible when you apply yourself. As your sense of meaning and purpose grows, consider creating a personal mission statement to help you stay aligned with your goals..
What is the self-directed learning process?
The best way to outline the process for self-regulated learning is to break down the six elements in the definition above.
Let’s take a look at them one by one.
- Self-directed learning begins with a person taking the initiative, with or without the help of others.
It all starts with your need or desire and may include help from others or be propelled entirely from within.
- Self-directed learning means a person diagnoses what they need to learn.
You decide what’s most important to learn — an area in which you are not fully proficient. From this point, you select a learning activity based on what you need to learn or study.
- Self-directed learning formulates learning goals.
You create a learning outcome for the course of study you are choosing and use your learning to reach that goal.
- Self-directed learning identifies human and material resources for learning.
The learning may come from your uncle, who knows how to change the headlight on your car. Or from a website that offers great detail on how to bake sourdough bread. Your exploration takes you in various directions.
- Self-directed learning chooses and implements appropriate learning strategies.
Once you hone in on a strategy, you choose the best fit for what you want to learn. Maybe it’s online learning, a book, or a series of meetings with a professional.
- Self-directed learning evaluates learning outcomes.
So, what did you learn, and how did you learn from your chosen strategies? Critical reflection on what works and what doesn’t work allows you to decide whether to repeat this learning or try something different.
6 learning process steps (with examples)
Continuous learning can help you improve in virtually any area of your life. You can use self-learning to meet a variety of objectives.
The learning modalities you use will depend on what your learning goals are. So, let’s get really practical here and dive into a series of self-directed learning process steps with real-world examples.
1. Identify what you want to learn
Visualize what you want to achieve by being very clear about what you want to learn.
Example: improve your health and happiness
For this self-directed learning practice, consider using a variety of free or nearly free meditation apps.
You’re learning to improve your health and happiness on your schedule.
2. Pinpoint the problem you want to solve
Sometimes, your motivation may be to solve a problem instead of learning a new skill. In this case, learning will still happen, but solving the problem is your focus.
Find the challenge you want to overcome and then learn how to solve it.
Example: replace a broken headlight
The headlight on your car is broken, and you’d like to save money by fixing it yourself. With self-directed learning, you can figure out what you need to do by searching for “how to replace a broken headlight” on Google or YouTube.
You’ll solve the problem you want to solve — changing the broken headlight — with a lot of tips that are required to accomplish this project safely.
3. Set a goal for your learning process
How will you measure your achievements? Charting your progress will give you motivation along the way.
Example: grow a garden
Whether you grow vegetables for your entire family or fill a few pots with herbs and lettuce, you can use self-directed learning to grow a garden.
Garden centers are a wealth of information, as are botanical gardens like the one I live near in Denver. Getting some professional tips will help you design and plant a few or many veggies, fruits, or flowers.
Your goal? Observing which plants thrive best in your space.
4. Create something from what you learn
This could be a blog, a podcast, or a loaf of sourdough bread. With this creation, you integrate what you’ve learned.
Example: make kombucha
When I decided to start making kombucha, I was totally clueless. So I found a great resource for what’s known as Kickass Kombucha and started from scratch.
My decision to use self-directed learning to become a fermenter of sorts has been filled with stops and starts. But now, it’s a weekly process that yields a new flavor of kombucha every week.
It’s been great for my health, and the process speaks wholly into choosing what, when, and how to learn. Complete with a finished product that I get to enjoy!
5. Manage your time
Prioritize your self-directed learning. When will this happen? What are the steps necessary to accomplish your goal? Schedule them in your diary and show up as you would to any other appointment.
Example: launch a podcast
Listening to podcasts has become a favorite activity for so many of us that maybe you’re thinking about creating your own. Talk about self-directed learning!
If you’re serious about this venture, you’ll have to make a series of decisions, including:
- The topic
- What equipment to use
- The content
- What platform to use
- How to promote it
Maybe you have a friend who’s hosting one who can show you the ropes. You can also check out how to get started on The Audacity to Podcast website. They have resources that will support your learning adventure by taking you one step at a time.
6. Network with like-minded learners
Connecting with a learning community in person or online inspires you to keep doing what you love doing — learning!
Choosing to volunteer with any organization puts you in a self-directed learning frame of mind. This is because you are pursuing an interest that you care about, and growing with people from a variety of backgrounds.
Perhaps your interest lies with animals. Volunteering with a local shelter or the SPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) could open up learning about the complicated relationship between humans and animals. You might discover an opportunity to help animals and pet owners in a more productive way.
If you are interested in construction or working with your hands or have a passion for equity and social justice, you might find volunteering with Habitat for Humanity fruitful for your brain as well as your sense of community. Choose your learning environment based on your interests.
You’ll experience learning about issues, perspectives, people, or animals to inspire you with more purpose and meaning. And connecting with others doing similar activities also provides you with motivation.
Self-directed learning supports your continuous growth
Lifelong learning and having a beginner’s mind provide you with motivation, new experiences, and accomplishment. It also gives you great stories to share with others.
The learning adventure itself is addictive. And most likely, when you are self-directed in one area, you’ll find a desire to learn again and again.
If you’d like support and accountability on your self-directed learning journey, discover how BetterUp’s expert coaches can help you.
Better Up Fellow Coach, PCC, CBC