Self-directed learning: 3 steps to success

Explore the benefits of self-directed learning and the essential skills you'll need to use it. Here's how to create a strategy in three easy steps.

Self directed learning: yellow rocket ship

Think of the last time you learned something new. What motivated you to learn? Was it something required for work or school? Or was it something you wanted to know because you were curious or passionate about the topic?

If you're like most people, the answer is a mix of both.

We are often required to learn things that we may not find interesting because our jobs need it or life necessitates it. But we also seek out new knowledge and skills on our own, like how to create a complicated spreadsheet or bake bread. This latter type of learning is what's known as self-directed learning.

Self-directed learning is becoming more popular in traditional schooling, but it's not a novel concept. As an adult learner, you're engaging in self-directed learning, even if you weren't aware of the term or didn't have any strategy.

To become more deliberate about learning, you need a plan. This guide will explore the benefits of self-directed learning and the essential skills you'll need to use it. Here's how you can create your self-directed learning strategy in three easy steps.

What is self-directed learning?

Model of the brain and a ladder made out of pencils

Learning on your own is a broad concept with many names — self-learning, independent learning, lifelong learning, or self-directed learning.

Because self-guided learning can take many forms, it can be challenging to summarize it into one definition. Broadly, self-directed learning is a learning process where you take control of your personal education. This means you'll determine your learning needs, set your own goals, and decide how to get there at your own pace.

Malcolm Knowles, an American educator, introduced the self-directed learning concept in the 1970s. He's credited with advocating andragogy, a teaching approach that emphasizes adult learning. At the time, adult learning had just emerged and academic theories were still focused on student learning or pedagogy.

To develop his principles of andragogy, Knowles made assumptions about adult learners in five areas:

  1. Self-concept. Adult learners transition from a dependent personality to a self-directed one as they mature.
  2. Adult learning experience. Our experiences become a growing resource for learning as we develop.
  3. Readiness to learn. Our readiness to learn becomes more oriented to the tasks of our social roles as we grow older.
  4. Orientation to learning. With age, we shift from postponing the application of subject-based learning styles to immediately applying problem-solving learning styles.
  5. Motivation to learn. As we get older, we develop intrinsic motivation.

Based on these assumptions, Knowles defined the four main principles of adult learning:

  1. Adults should plan and assess their learning activities.
  2. Experience is the foundation for adult learning.
  3. Adults want to learn subjects that directly relate to their jobs and personal lives.
  4. Adult education is problem-based, not content-based.

These four principles form the basis of any self-directed learning strategy.

Benefits of self-directed learning

GROWTH spelled on wooden blocks

As the nature of the workplace changes, the ability to adapt and learn new skills is becoming increasingly critical. Self-directed learning can provide adult learners the independence and flexibility they need to achieve their learning goals.

There are many benefits of self-directed learning, both for individuals and organizations.

For the individual, continuous learning is a critical competence that cultivates adaptability and resilience to changing circumstances. This self-regulated learning enables individuals to broaden their skills or learn a new career as their environment, or economic conditions change.

Several studies have shown that there are many other self-directed learning benefits, including:

For organizations, self-directed learning in the workplace can lead to greater creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. Employees who are self-learners tend to be more motivated and engaged, leading to a higher rate of employee engagement and retention.

Self-directed learning skills and resources

Self-directed learning isn’t without its challenges, however. To be successful, self-learners need several skills and characteristics. Among them are:

Scholars have also identified self-efficacy, critical thinking, and research as essential self-directed learning skills.

Additionally, self-learners need access to quality resources to help them succeed. Online learning resources make self-directed learning more accessible and convenient than ever. It can also be helpful to get support from others, like family, friends, or a mentor.

3 steps to develop your self-directed learning strategy

Self-learning can be a challenge, even for the most motivated of learners. It can be overwhelming to decide what to learn, set your own goals, and develop a learning strategy. This three-step approach to self-learning based on Knowles' framework can help you kick-start your next project.

Step 1: Create learning goals

Self directed learning: GOAL spelled on cubes

Your first step is to determine your goals. Establish learning goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). A SMART goal is a clear statement of your learning outcome.

Choose a learning project relevant to your interests and needs, and ensure you can measure it to track your progress. You should also aim for a goal you can accomplish — in other words, something you can realistically achieve given your resources and time. For example:

  • I want to learn how to play the piano. This is a specific goal.
  • I want to learn how to play the piano within six months. This is a specific and time-bound goal.
  • I want to improve my piano playing skills to play Bach's Prelude in C Major by the end of the year. This is a specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goal.

To simply say, "I want to get better at the piano" isn't specific enough, and to "I'd like to be able to play anything on the piano in two weeks" wouldn’t be realistic.

Step 2: Engage in the learning process

Once you've defined your goal, you can start planning your learning activities.

First, figure out what you'll need to complete your learning project. For example, if you're learning a language on your own, you might want to buy a textbook, sign up for an online course, or find someone to practice with. If you don't know where to start, try researching online or finding a mentor who can recommend resources.

After you've gathered the materials, determine the learning approach that fits your needs. Create a schedule to know when and how often to engage in the learning process. Think realistically — if you can only study or practice 30 minutes a day, don't try to cram eight hours in. Set a manageable pace so you don't burn out.

You can also break your goal into smaller pieces to make it more manageable. For example, if you're trying to learn how to code, you might want to start by learning HTML before moving on to more complex coding. You'll make more progress and feel accomplished with every achievement.

Step 3: Evaluate what you've learned

The final step in your self-learning strategy is to check your progress regularly. You'll be able to see how close you are to your learning outcome and identify areas you should be working on.

To do this, set up regular check-ins with yourself. Take a few minutes after each week or month to reflect on what you've learned, how you're implementing your learning strategy, and if you're meeting your learning needs.

You might also want to take practice tests to gauge your understanding or ask someone knowledgeable about your subject area to give feedback on your work. Engaging with others can help — scholars note that teacher-directedness still benefits self-learners.

When you're ready to assess your self-learning project, consider these questions:

  • What have I accomplished since starting my self-learning project?
  • What goals have I met?
  • What goals do I still need to work on?
  • What new skills or knowledge have I acquired?
  • How has my self-learning process influenced other parts of my life?
  • What changes do I need to make to my learning environment or self-learning strategy to continue being successful?

Your answers will give you a good idea of where you stand and what you need to do to continue making progress. If you aren't making as much progress as you would like, don't give up. Just adjust your learning approach and keep moving forward.

Take your learning to the next level with a self-directed learning strategy

An effective self-directed learning strategy can improve both your professional and personal life. With a few simple steps, you can take control of your learning experience and progress toward your self-learning goals. Whether you want to upskill for a promotion or take a fun online course, slow down and enjoy the process. Personal learning lasts a lifetime.


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