What makes a self-directed learner

What Makes a Self-Directed Learner?

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning is the process of learning in which the individual person takes the initiative for their learning and holds themselves responsible for their learning. An estimated seventy percent of adult learning is self-directed learning (Cross, 1981). To get a better understanding of what self-directed learning is it may be important to compare this style of learning to how most of us probably learned when we were in school Knowles (1975) explains the difference between teacher directed learning and self-directed learning as seen in Table 1.

Table 1: Teacher directed learning vs. Self-directed learning

Teacher Directed Learning

Self-Directed Learning

The teacher decides what and how the learner is taught

As people mature they grow into self-directed learners

The teacher’s role is to share their experiences and the experiences of the textbook and material producers

Learner has experiences that should be shared

Curriculum is organized in units of study

Problem-based learning

External rewards and punishments

Internal motivation

“Many self-directed learners are attempting to gain new skills, knowledge, and attitudes to improve their work performance. Others conduct their self-directed learning to improve family life and health, enjoy the arts and physical recreation, participate in a hobby, or simply increase their intellectual capital” (Lowry, 1989). “Not all adults prefer the self-directed option, and even the adults who practice self-directed learning also engage in more formal educational experiences such as teacher-directed courses” (Brookfield, 1985).

Application of Self-Directed Learning

Ash (1985), Bauer (1985), Brockett and Hiemstra (1985), Brookfield (1985), Cross (1978), Hiemstra (1982, 1985), and Reisser (1973) provide ideas on how to lead the self-directed learning process:

  • Support the learner as they identify a learning project of interest
  • Encourage learners to know that they can make a difference both individually and as a group
  • Support learners in setting goals and creating a plan of action
  • Act as a facilitator
  • Assist learners in setting objectives based on their needs
  • Encourage multiple ways of accomplishing goals and a variety of ways to assess the success of the self-directed learning
  • Provide samples of previous work
  • Make sure that learners are aware of the objectives, learning strategies, resources, and evaluation criteria
  • Teach necessary skills for learners to be successful
  • Be an advocate for those less fortunate
  • Locate and match resources
  • Develop positive attitudes and feelings of independence
  • Recognize different types of learning styles and personalities
  • Take advantage of learner’s past experiences
  • Provide learning guides
  • Encourage critical thinking skills by incorporating such activities as seminars
  • Create an atmosphere of openness and trust to promote better performance
  • Help protect learners against manipulation by promoting a code of ethics
  • Behave ethically, which includes not recommending a self-directed learning approach if it is not congruent with the learners’ needs

Based on my readings and learning about self-directed learning I decided that I would like to find out how other educators feel about staff trainings and what type of learning they feel best meets their learning style(s) and needs. I conducted a brief online survey in which I received seventy-one responses from all over the United States and Canada. Table 2 gives a breakdown of the demographics that responded to my survey.

Table 2: Demographics of Survey Participants

Age Range





66 and over












White, non-Hispanic

Black, non-Hispanic







Educational Attainment

Some college

Bachelor’s degree

Master’s degree







Classroom educator



Student teacher/observer







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The second part of my survey focused on staff development and trainings that educators have participated in and the types they feel are most beneficial to them in regards to how they learn. The results are shown below in Table 3.

Table 3: Types of Staff Development Attended and Those That Are Most Beneficial to Survey Participants

Continuing Education Required





Attends Continuing Education





Type(s) of Training Attended




Book Study

College Coursework












Type(s) of Training Most Beneficial as a Learner




Book Study

College Coursework












Participates in non-work related classes





What I find interesting about the results of the survey is that people spend a good majority of their adult learning focused on work-related learning and that the majority of workers are required to participate in such learning. Could this be because people are not self-motivated to learn outside of the required learning, are they too busy with other commitments, or just not interested? When the survey participants were asked about what factors they consider when deciding on training courses their results were as follows:

  • 49% – Having to take off work to attend
  • 76%- The cost
  • 77%- Level of interest
  • 26%- If it is required that you attend or not
  • 27%- Family obligations
  • 47%- The amount of time required
  • 7%- Other reasons

Maybe those that are in charge of conducting adult learning courses are not taking into consideration some of the ideas mentioned earlier in reaching those adult learners. Google has done a great job in meeting these self-directed learning ideas through the use of their Innovative Time Off program. Employees are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to work on something that personally interests them and is company related. Mediratta (2007) said “It sounds obvious, but people work better when they’re involved in something they’re passionate about, and many cool technologies have their origins in 20 percent time, including Gmail, Google News and even the Google shuttle buses that bring people to work at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.”

When people are inspired they are more likely to take on learning opportunities. As educators and leaders it is our job to reach the adult learner by meeting their needs and making connections with them.

Self-Directed Learners

Autodidactic Press presents a list of additional self-directed learners on their website. I have always been interested in what motivates learners and what qualities they possess. Being a math teacher of course Albert Einstein is of high interest to me. I use a lot of his educational background to motivate my students and to let them know that there is no obstacle that can get in their way when it comes to learning mathematics. Here are a few of the other famous learners that have always interested me and how they have accomplished great things while being self-directed:

  • Ansel Adams (1902-1984)- Was taken out of school at an early age because he did not work well with routine. Through self-study Adams made photography a fine art.
  • Maya Angelou (1928-)- “A poet, an actress, a historian, a playwright, a producer-director, and a civil-rights activist” who did not finish college
  • Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)- “Self-taught inventor of the telephone and telegraph. His college experience consisted of only a few lectures.”
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)- “Educated herself by reading classic literature and studying Shakespearian plays.”
  • Samuel Clemens (1835-1910)- “Left school at the age of 13 for a “journey of learning” that included delivery boy, grocery clerk, blacksmith’s helper, typesetter, and river boat pilot.”
  • Michael Dell- Left college after one semester to sell computers
  • Charles Dickens (1812-1870)- Formal education ended at age 15 and furthered his learning as a court clerk and as a newspaper journalist.
  • Walt Disney (1901-1966)- “Taught himself the art of cartooning with the help of correspondence schools.”
  • Henry Ford (1863-1947)- Left school at the age of 15 and learned about mechanics by repairing watches.
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)- Abandoned his formal education at the age of 10 and later “became an inventor, public servant, an author, and a publisher.”
  • Jane Goodall (1934-)- Holds a doctorate in her field but anthropologist Louis Leaky selected her to study primates in the wild because of her lack of formal training
  • Patrick Henry (1736-1799)- A civil libertarian who was educated by his self-educated father.
  • Milton Hershey (1857-1945)- Attended school only through fourth grade.
  • Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)- “A self-educated lawyer with less than a year of formal schooling.”
  • Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)- A self-taught scientist and children’s book author who never attended school.
  • Orville Wright (1871-1948) and Wilbur Wright (1867-1912)- Self-taught inventors and co-founders of the field of aviation.
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Gibbons, Bailey, Comeau, Schmuck, Seymour, & Wallace (1980) analyzed the biographies of twenty experts that have no formal education beyond high school in search of commonalities that might give insight on how people become self-directed in learning and accomplishments effectively. An overview of their list of their twenty subjects in Table 3 and their list of forty characteristics in Table 4 leads to conclusions about what makes a self-directed learner.

Table 3: The Subjects: 20 People Who Became Famous Without Formal Training (Autodidactic Press, 2010)

1. Virginia Woolf

2. Charlie Chaplin

3. Harry S. Truman

4. Frank Lloyd Wright

5. Walt Disney

6. George Bernard Shaw

7. Wilbur Wright

8. Will Rogers

9. Muhammad Ali

10. Harry Houdini

11. H.L. Mencken

12. Aaron Copeland

13. Pablo Picasso

14. John L. Lewis

15. Gerald Durrell

16. Ralph Edwards

17. Amelia Earhart

18. Henry Ford

19. Malcolm X

20. Eric Hoffer

Table 4: The 40 Most Prominent Characteristics in a Study of the Biographies of 20 People Who Became Expert without Formal Training (Autodidactic Press, 2010)

1. Primary Experience in the Area

2. Industrious

3. Perseverance

4. Self-Disciplined Study

5. Curiosity

6. Single-minded Pursuit

7. Creativity

8. Ingenuity

9. Self-Confidence

10. Natural Ability

11. Assertiveness

12. Intelligence

13. Independent Exploration

14. Observation

15. Confirmational Support from Others

16. Integrity

17. Nonconformity

18. Ambition

19. Effect of the Economic Environment

20. Effect of Personal Major Achievements

21. Physical Good Health

22. Altruistic Motives

23. Sensitivity to Others

24. Development of Interest in Youth

25. Personal Charisma

26. Avid Reading (specific to field)

27. An Incident that Led to a New Perspective

28. Emotionally Warm Family Environment

29. A Primary Relationship is Vital to Life and Career

30. Psychological Good Health

31. Conflict in the Field of Expertise

32. Strong Personal Guiding Principles

33. Busy, Active Home Atmosphere

34. Optimism

35. Pleasing Appearance

36. Family Coherence

37. Evidence of Good Memory

38. Mother Was Major Parental Influence

39. Accident-Free Life

40. Sense of Humor

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As a result of a student’s reaction to his teaching method, Grow (1991, 1996) found a method to reorganize his understanding of teaching. The Staged Self-Directed Learning (SSDL) Model (Grow, 1991) offers suggestions on how teachers can lead students to be more self-directed learners (Table 5). The teacher’s role is to lead students through the stages.

Table 5: The Self-Directed Learning Model (Grow, 1991)




Stage 1


Authority, Coach

Coaching with immediate feedback. Drill. Informational lecture. Overcoming deficiencies and resistance.

Stage 2


Motivator, guide

Inspiring lecture plus guided discussion. Goal-setting and learning strategies.

Stage 3



Discussion facilitated by teacher who participates as equal. Seminar. Group projects.

Stage 4


Consultant, delegator

Internship, dissertation, individual work or self-directed study-group.

The final part of my online survey for educators focused on how the participants described themselves as a teacher (how their class is run) and as a learner (how they learn best) in regards to the stages of self-directed learning in regards to Grow’s (1991) SSDL. Table 6 displays the results of the survey. One thing that I have noticed from the results of this survey is that many educators do not teach in the manner that they perceive to be the way they learn the best. So, are educators taking into account the varying ways that students (of any age) learn? How does this affect the students, the learner?

Table 6: How Educators Describe Themselves as a Teacher and a Learner in Regards to Grow’s (1991) Self-Directed Learning Model

Yourself as a Teacher

Yourself as a Learner

Stage 1- Dependent Student

Teacher as Coach



Stage 2- Interested Student

Teacher as Guide



Stage 3- Involved Student

Teacher as Facilitator



Stage 4- Self-Directed Student

Teacher as Consultant



Grow (1991) states that “problems occur when dependent learners are mismatched with non-directive teachers and when self-directed learners are mismatched with highly directive teachers.” Table 7 displays the match and mismatch between learner stages and teacher styles.

Table 7: Match and Mismatch Between Learner Stages and Teacher Style (Grow, 1991)

Student 4: Self-Directed Learner

Severe Mismatch: Student resent authoritarian teacher


Near Match


Student 3: Involved Learner


Near Match


Near Match

Student 2: Interested Learner

Near Match


Near Match


Student 1: Dependent Learner


Near Match


Severe Mismatch: Students resent freedom they are not ready for

Teacher 1: Authority Expert

Teacher 2: Motivator

Teacher 3: Facilitator

Teacher 4: Delegator


So I do I become a more self-directed learner? Guglielmino & Guglielmino (2003) suggests ways that one can enhance your readiness for self-direction in learning (SDL) and become a more ACTIVE learner:

  • Be aware of your learning styles and how you best learn according to the multiple intelligences
  • Contemplate your previous SDL projects. Think about what you learned and how you learned it. Recall the problems or challenges and how you overcame them. Remember the feeling of satisfaction you gained from your learning. Evaluate your previous experiences with self-directed learning, what worked, what did not work, and how you felt about the experience.
  • Think about the types of resources you can use during your experience
  • Set goals and timelines for yourself
  • Celebrate your accomplishments
  • Constantly self-evaluate your learning experiences and set new objectives and goals as needed
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