What is self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning is the process where individuals take responsibility for their education. Each person determines what they want to learn, sets goals, identifies a process by which they will reach their goals and evaluate their outcomes. It is a process where an individual takes initiative without the influence of others (Lowry, 2010).

What is self-directed learning?
Learning can be fun!

Much research has been completed on the importance of self-directed learning in reference to adults. A significant contributor of this theory, Malcolm Knowles, built his theory on the foundational research of Thorndike, Bregman, Tilton, and Woodyard (Merriam, 2010) who pioneered the field of adult education. He continued on their research by beginning his inquiries in the 1950s when he noted a difference in the way in which adults learn in comparison to the way in which children learn (Smith, 2003). He studied these differences and postulated a foundational theory for self-directed learning entitled ‘adult learning’ before the term andragogy was coined.

Adult learning became a point of focus in the early twentieth century as psychologists began studying the capability of adults learning in comparison to children. To this point, society believed that the younger the student the better the learner. However, this theory was debunked with the introduction of intelligence testing. These IQ tests proved that adults had comparable IQs to children and therefore should possess the capability to learn just as efficiently as their younger counterparts (Merriam, 2010).

These early testing practices led to the development of two new theories -andragogy and self-directed learning. Educational psychologists proposed that adults could learn just as efficiently and comprehensively as children but that they learned in a different manner. Education for adults needed to be unique to their learning personalities (Grow, 1996).

Researchers noted that adults did not require the same guidance as children in their learning practices. This realization demanded an alteration in terminology. To this point, teacher-directed learning had been a composite of Greek words paid, meaning child, and agogus, meaning leader. Pedagogy was defined as teacher-directed learning.

With the emergent studying of adult learning methods, Malcolm Knowles proposed that education needed a new label to accurately describe the adult learning process. He coined the term andragogy, meaning self-directed learning. This terminology came from the Greek words andr, meaning man, and agogus, meaning leader. Andragogy is defined as the science of helping human beings to study and learn.

Smith (2003) ennumerates the five assumptions regarding the adult learner in andragogy.

  1. First, an adult learner must possess a self-awareness which will allow him to direct his learning.
  2. Second, experience (Fischer & Scharff, 2010) of a mature learner is essential to a reservoir to draw on for learning.
  3. Third, a person must possess a readiness to learn (Grow, 1996).
  4. Fourth, learning moves from subject centered learning to problem centered learning (Grow, 1996).
  5. Fifth, an individual must be motivated to learn (Grow, 1996).

Criticisms of Knowles’ andragogy theory caused him to ponder and consider his position further. He debated whether there was a distinction between pedagogy and andragogy. At length he determined that there was a not a black and white distinction between the two theories but rather a continuum of possibilities from a teacher-directed learning technique to a self-directed learning technique. Andragogy and pedagogy  became appendages of each other as required in specific learning situations.

Allen Tough (Smith, 1996) built on the work of Knowles and his mentors with the first working theory of self-directed learning. He claimed that learning did not occur only in a formalized setting but in the every day lives of individuals. Research began to be conducted on the processes in which people learned in their every day lives. This research led to the emergence of the characteristics of self-directed learning.

Among learners certain shared attributes glared brazenly at researchers. Individuals who demonstrated self-directed learning tendencies were independent people who could visualize what they wanted to know (Song & Hill, 2007). They devoted themselves to study and to seriously hunting down minute details for comprehension. Once they acquired the knowledge they desired, they applied this knowledge in their lives. They freely contributed to conversations, social situations, politics and other arenas without wavering on their newfound knowledge (Tough, 1987). Their propelling curiosity shaped their intrinsic motivation (Fischer & Scharff, 2010) instead of relying on outside influences to determine their learning (Knowles, 1975). Additionally, they seeped a high degree of self-esteem and viewed themselves in a positive manner despite humbly acknowledging areas in which they lacked experience or facts (Lowry, 1989).

Grow (1996) further describes a learner with high self-direction as one with the ability to manage time and skills. They participate efficiently in the use of resources and the  gathering of materials and information. But, Grow cautions that a self-directed learner does not necessary equate a learner with loner tendencies. Additionally, some self-directed learners may be situational self-directed learners that resort to more dependent learning style in other situations (Song & Hill, 2007).

Faure contributed to the self-directed learners’ personality composite by adding that these individuals had been taught by example. They had acquired work ethics from an early age which was shaped in childhood and adolescence through schools, universities, families and communities. The self-directed learner aspired to acquire knowledge through any means and tools despite the incentives (Knowles, 1975).

Within the formal classroom, self-directed learning situations possess a particular type of environment. Knowles called it a warm learning climate. Such a warm learning climate possesses mutual respect for individual experience and creativity. It is conducive to communication (Repenning, Ioannidou & Ambach, 2010) where participants may be actively involved . There is also an air of mutual trust between guides, learners and peers.

Lowry (1989) shares an extensive checklist for educators and administrators to implement self-directed learning. Among these are encouragement between facilitator and peers in addition to modeling the theory. Students are encouraged to create a contract for their goals (Price, 2000) and manage it through tasks and personal assessment means (Atherton, 2009). The essential piece for educators to remember is that the  principles of self-directed learning must be taught (Grow, 1996).

Self-directed learning models vary from founder to founder. Knowles proposed a linear learning method whereas Danis (Merriam, 2010) thought it to be more interactive where the learner moved back and forth between stages. Candy and Garrison (Song & Hill, 2007) debate whether self-directed learning operates on a four-dimensional model or a three-dimensional model. Yet, earlier models mirrored the scientific method where hypothesis were proposed, tested, analyzed and retested, if necessary. Later models of self-directed learning modified the process to appear less like a scientific theory and more like an educational one.

Assessing the efficiency of self-directed learning theory proves to be challenging. Supporters of self-directed learning claim that the use of this learning theory provides the benefits of learning more and better than in teacher-directed situations. Students move from being reactive learners who had knowledge delivered to them to proactive learners who take initiative. They possess purpose and motivation. They also retain information longer and with greater efficiency.

Learning is an essential part of every day living for every individual. It requires that we acquire skills and knowledge to compete in a swiftly changing world. In this demanding global environment, self-directed learning strategies are essential to the survival of mankind. As individuals fail to adapt, they also become obsolete.

Atherton, J. (2009). Learning and teaching; learning contracts. Retrieved from www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/learning_contracts.htm
Fischer, G. & Scharff, E. (2010). Learning technologies in support of self-directed learning. Retrieved from www-jime.open.ac.uk/98/4/fischer-98-4-paper.html
Grow, G. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125-149.
Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: a guide for learners and teachers. Parsippany, New Jersey: Globe Fearon Press.
Lowry, C. (2010). What is self-directed learning. Retrieved from  www.ntlf.com/html/lib/bib/89dig.htm
Merriam, S. (2011). Andragogy and self-directed learning: pillars of adult learning theory. Retrieved from
Smith, M. K. (2003) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and anadragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm
Song, L. & Hill, J. (2007).  Conceptual model for understanding self-directed learning in online environments. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6(1), 27-42.

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.