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Self-directed learning

Teaching strategies

Self-directed learning

A guide for classroom teachers, teacher aides and students

Self-directed learning – a student directs their own learning (including setting goals, finding resources and seeking support).

Young students in a small classroom doing a learning activity.

Self-directed learning happens when a student takes responsibility for all aspects of their own learning, including making decisions on what, when, where and how they will learn. Self-directed learners do not rely on teachers to structure their program, locate or develop resources, or direct their learning in any way – there is no teacher in the traditional sense. At certain stages during the learning journey, an expert may be sought such as by attending a course, reading books, researching online and watching lectures and webinars. Many self-directed learners enrol in short courses either online or face-to-face at some point.

Self-directed learners do not rely on teachers to structure their program, locate or develop resources, or direct their learning in any way – there is no teacher in the traditional sense.

Suppose a person decides to become an expert with computers. As a self-directed learner, this person makes all the important decisions such as when to start and how much time they will dedicate each week. A range of resources could be used, such as watching YouTube videos, reading blogs, speaking with friends and purposeful practice activities. The student can easily ‘give up’ at any stage, so a high level of motivation, resilience and persistence is required to successfully learn in this way. Additionally, successful self-directed learners use metacognitive skills such as collating, planning, scaffolding, chunking, summarising, sorting, discarding, reflection and process learning.

As the student now makes the decisions that would otherwise be made by a teacher, self-directed learners need to consider the following:

  • What are my goals?
  • What does success look like?
  • When will I learn?
  • What activities will my learning entail?
  • Who or where can I go for reputable information or support?
  • How do I begin?
  • Are there smaller goals along the way?
  • What do I know already?
  • What don’t I know?
  • Am I motivated to do this on my own?
  • Are there other learning options?
  • Should I attend a short course, hire a tutor, or learn completely on my own?

Everyday people use self-directed learning all the time. Take for example someone who wants to learn how to play golf. They will ask most of the questions listed above and decide on an approach that best suits them and their goals. While experts and coaches may be utilised, information is gathered from dozens of diverse sources including golf shop staff, other players, videos, blogs and magazines. While teachers and coaches play a role, they are merely one of many resources.

Hint: it is essential that clear and specific goals are set such as by using the SMART goal-setting system. For example, the goal of ‘learning to play golf’ is way too vague and potentially unachievable. A SMART goal instead would be to ‘achieve a score of 90 or less over 18 holes on 3 consecutive occasions within 6 months’. This goal meets every SMART characteristic. Once goals are set, they should not be adjusted. Moving or changing a goal is called ‘mission-creep’ and it means that the satisfaction and joy of achieving a goal is never experienced.

Teachers should encourage students to become self-directed learners. They can do this by explicitly talking about self-directed learning, modelling best practice and using think-alouds. They can also explicitly teach metacognitive skills, coping strategies and transferable skills. Students can be given choices and control over their own learning (to varying degrees), such as by choosing a research topic or area of interest for their reading and writing activities. Teachers can show students how to approach a new topic by setting goals, chunking the topic into manageable parts and showing how to seek authoritative sources of information. Other essential self-directed learning skills include self-questioning, monitoring your own progress, reviewing past learning, consolidation, deliberate practice, spaced practice, self-assessment and reflection.

Teachers can show students how to approach a new topic by setting goals, chunking the topic into manageable parts and showing how to seek authoritative sources of information.

About the author

Image of the managing director of FTTA.

ADAM GREEN

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of FTTA, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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