Self-directed learning is an active learning process that focuses on the individual needs of the learner. Instead of merely being passively taught knowledge by the teacher, as is the case with externally controlled learning, the student works out the content largely on his or her own. The teacher takes on the role of a supporter and motivator.
Other terms for this particular form of learning are, for example, autodidactic, independent and autonomous learning. In the school context, the term "open instruction" is also common. In concrete terms, this means that students create their own make decisions in terms of learning strategies, learning partners, and sometimes even learning locations.
To a certain extent, they are even allowed to decide on the learning content themselves, as long as the curriculum is ultimately adhered to. Students organize their learning process independently and proceed at their own personal pace. Another component of self-directed learning is the topic of self-reflection: Are my (learning) methods suitable for my Achieving goals?
The 6 focal points of self-directed learning
Self-directed learning can be divided into six key areas:
- Learning steps and learning tasks
- Rules regarding the processing of tasks (alone and in a group)
- Learning material, Learning methods, Learning media
- Time Management (Processing and repetition of learning content)
- Support and feedback from a teacher
- Exchange with learning partners
In all of the above areas, learners should direct their own learning process. Ideally, this is a combination of everyday experiences and planned learning.
Is self-directed learning only suitable for students?
Self-directed learning is not only suitable for students. Adults can also benefit enormously from this method. After all, learning processes take place in every area of life and at every age. Knowing the best way to internalize new knowledge can benefit you in both professional and social situations.
The definition of self-directed learning in adult education is that the teacher has the task of teaching the learner self-directed learning without (be)teaching.
Perhaps you want to further your professional development or are aiming for a promotion? In this case, self-directed learning is often the key to success. We will go into more detail later on how to promote self-directed learning specifically in a professional context.
Where does the concept of self-directed learning come from?
Self-directed learning is not an invention of modern times. The foundations were already shaped in the 18th century by the Geneva educator, philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In his main work "Émile ou De l'éducation" (Engl. "Émile" or "On Education"), he describes how his protagonist is educated to learn independently. Rousseau's work is a combination of novelistic narrative and non-fiction. You can find more information here.
Furthermore, approaches of the self-directed learning concept can be found in systems theory, in cybernetics as well as in chaos research. In the early 20th century, modern reform pedagogy increasingly began to address the issues of autonomy and self-reliance. Since then, teachers have steadily moved into the role of motivators who help their students to help themselves instead of presenting prefabricated content.
How does self-directed learning work?
There are different methods of self-directed learning. Basically, a distinction is made between elaborative, illustrative, in-depth, networking and integrating methods. All methods have in common that they are accompanied by a higher degree of self-awareness and self-determination compared to receptive concepts (e.g. frontal teaching or lectures).
In the following we would like to give you a compact overview of the different methods of self-directed learning:
1. the procedures to be developed include:
- Project work: A group works on a jointly chosen topic within a specified period of time.
- Moderation: All group members discuss a topic. A moderator ensures that the discussion proceeds in an equitable manner.
- Group puzzle: In group work, partial aspects of a specific topic are worked on. Afterwards, the results are presented in newly formed groups.
- Station learning: There are various stations with optional and compulsory tasks. The learners work through these stations in any order with flexible time management.
2. the performing procedures include:
- Role play: Scenes with learning-relevant content are acted out in groups.
- Presentations: Presentations are the classics among the presentation methods. Either individually or in a group, a presentation is given on a specific topic.
- Visualization: Abstract topics are illustrated with the help of various aids (e.g. experiments or visual material).
3. in-depth procedures include:
- Domino method: Similar to the domino game, matching questions and answers have to be put together.
- Structuring: Complex topics are divided into sub-aspects and presented in a simplified way.
- Sorting tasks: Consolidation and review of the learned content.
4. networking procedures include:
- Discovery learning: imparting knowledge according to the principle of "try and learn". Conducting own experiments to prove or disprove theories.
- Holistic learning: learning with all resources and senses.
5. integrating procedures include:
- Learning through knowledge transfer: An individual student or a group of learners passes on previously acquired knowledge to others. In this way, the content can be deepened once again.
6. the following tools are needed for self-directed learning:
- Goal planning: Structured list of tasks and deadlines.
- Learning diary: documentation of the learning process and learning achievements.
- Self-reflection and feedback: How can I optimize the learning process? If necessary, an adjustment of the target planning becomes necessary.
The role of the teacher
As already mentioned, the teacher provides help for self-help within the framework of self-directed learning. He supports his students in mobilizing their own resources to work out and internalize the subject matter independently. But how exactly can this be imagined?
At the beginning of a new subject focus, the teaching staff first examines the tasks at hand in terms of content, structure, action steps, and learning prerequisites. Subsequently, it is analyzed whether the students have the necessary cognitive and metacognitive prerequisites. If the latter is not likely to be the case, the assignment needs to be adapted.
In the actual teaching process, faculty work with their students to develop appropriate strategies that they can then use independently to accomplish tasks. The most commonly used strategies include self-instructional training, modeling, and self-regulation exercises.
Another important task of the teacher is to provide timely and concrete feedback. In this way, the student can adjust his or her learning methods early on, should this be necessary. In addition, regular, constructive feedback promotes the Motivation.
How can self-directed learning be promoted?
Whether at school or in a professional environment: In order to promote self-directed learning, the appropriate framework conditions must be in place. This includes a harmonious (learning) environment that is characterized by Appreciation and trust. The learner must feel free to ask questions without fear of being judged pejoratively for doing so.
Furthermore, the following measures - also and especially in a professional context - can effectively promote self-directed learning:
- Creating a competency profile to show the student/employee their strengths, but also their potential for development.
- Challenging design of tasks: The activities should be varied and involve a high degree of personal responsibility.
- A so-called career guidance, in the framework of which the employee answers elementary questions: What do I want? What are my expectations?
- Coaching: A Learning Coach can provide valuable impetus for the self-directed learning process.
- Use of learning platforms that can be personalized.
- Context-oriented support e.g. in the form of support programs, e-learning libraries or microlearning.
What are the requirements of the learning form?
Whether self-directed learning leads to the desired goal depends primarily on your individual ability (and willingness) to self-regulate. You must be able to structure your learning process and consistently stick to your self-designed curriculum.
Self-directed learning gives the learner a lot of freedom. However, freedom comes with great responsibility: free learning only works if you have the necessary maturity and discipline. For this reason, there is still disagreement in pedagogical circles as to the school grade from which self-directed learning is possible and meaningful.
Basically, success depends on the following three factors:
- Cognition (grasping content)
- Metacognition (reflection of perceptions)
- Motivation (personal drive)
In addition to personal maturity and the necessary cognitive skills, the motivation factor plays a decisive role. If the learner has the feeling that he is pursuing his own goal with his actions, (learning) motivation increases. If the learning process feels externally determined or even forced, the commitment decreases. This is the reason why self-directed learning is becoming more and more established.
The different learning types at a glance
Not everyone learns in the same way. If you're interested in self-directed learning, be sure to find out what kind of Learning type you belong. This is the only way to find out the strategies that are right for you.
A distinction is made between the following 4 learning types:
- The Visual learning type learns best with the help of texts, charts and graphs.
- An auditory learning type internalizes content best by listening, e.g. in the context of lectures or frontal teaching.
- The motor learning type learns most effectively when he can try things out for himself: classic "learning by doing".
- Communicative learning types need the exchange with other people to internalize new knowledge.
Conclusion: Self-directed learning as the key to (learning) success
Self-directed learning is perceived by the learner as a free choice, which is the Motivation to learn significantly. In this way, new knowledge can be internalized more quickly and effectively. Numerous schools are already using the concept in full or in part. However, it is important for success that the previously mentioned prerequisites are met.
Self-directed learning also plays an elementary role in adult education. No matter how old you are or what your goals are: Self-directed learning gives you a lot of freedom and is at the same time the most effective method of acquiring knowledge. However, it is not possible to do without a teacher altogether: The teacher plays the important role of a supporter and motivator. A professional coach can also support you accordingly.