What is Self-Directed Learning – and Is It Important?

Learning Tips
Mary Lonsdale
The importance of self-directed learning

When it comes to learning, having an effective source of guidance and inspiration – such as a tutor or a parent – is vital. But that’s not the only type of learning that can contribute to overall academic success. In this modern age, self-directed learning is becoming increasingly important.

Self-directed learning – often referred to as self-motivated learning or independent study – takes the sole responsibility for educational growth away from the teacher (eschewing the didactic style of delivery that was once popular), and places more onus on the student to be an active participant. The rise of online tuition, interactive tools, and the demands of lockdown have made this a powerful – and sometimes necessary – style of learning: it’s a mode of education that students can commit to in their own time. In addition, developing the tools to engage in periods of self-study from an early age could prove crucial to future success.

What is Self-Directed Learning?

Self-directed learning has been described as:

·      A state of readiness when it comes to learning;

·      The ability to set learning goals;

·      Active engagement in the educational process; and

·     The capacity to evaluate learning.

In addition to the above, self-directed learning is characterised by the following features:

  • Increased responsibility. Taking ownership of one’s own educational endeavours is a great skill – not only for academic success as a young adult, but also later in life.
  • Flexibility. One of the most compelling benefits of self-directed learning is the flexibility it offers. Students can design their own learning timetables and goals in line with individual learning styles, preferences, and schedule.
  • Empowerment. It’s vital that, in order for self-directed learning to succeed, the right tools are available: from technology, to materials, to a good learning plan (which is often most effective when agreed with a tutor). But once those elements are in place, the sky’s the limit – and the student gets to decide how, when and where learning should occur. This is wonderful for building confidence, enhancing problem-solving and decision-making skills, and encouraging the student to take ownership of their goals.
  • Engagement. Self-study allows the student to learn at their own pace and in accordance with their own learning preferences – whether that’s through watching online tutorials, listening to audiobooks, reading, or something else. This flexibility often leads to increased engagement, which in turn facilitates better results.

How to Motivate Your Student to Engage with Independent Study

Self-discipline is one of the most important elements of self-directed learning – and, in our opinion, is one of the most important, transferable skills a student can ever develop. Self-directed learning, for that reason, can be extremely valuable to certain kinds of learners, particularly when used in partnership with a carefully-composed tuition plan.

In order to motivate students to engage meaningfully in periods of independent study, it’s important to ensure they don’t feel isolated. For this reason, we recommend that a parent or (ideally) a tutor work with the student to draw up a plan, making certain that the process feels like a shared experience as well as avoiding the potential for distraction or boredom.

Here are some of our top tips for devising a self-directed learning plan:

  • Discussion of goals and structure, as well as confirming what the evaluation procedure should be – how will the student know when they’ve achieved their goals? And are their goals attainable? Agreeing this in advance is vital, even if, in practice, there’s a bit of trial and error involved.
  • Provide checkpoints. Will there be rewards for reaching a certain milestone in the overall plan? Allow the student to select what would be meaningful for them – this is more likely to be motivating.
  • Build in safeguards. We are all human and the student will get distracted. This is simply another hurdle for them to overcome: the activity of self-directed learning is as much about building willpower and concentration skills as anything else. Discuss ways in which to resist these temptations, and what to do if a learning period goes awry.
  • It’s their project – make that clear! Simply reiterating their independence can be incredibly motivating. You’re on hand to help as needed, of course, and to check in with them at various agreed ‘checkpoints’ – but this is their undertaking. They can decide when, where and even how they want to learn: maybe they’d prefer to take their study outside; maybe they’d like to blast music; maybe they’d like to lie under the desk rather than sit at it (perhaps not… but for some learners, lying down actually works!). In all honesty, self-directed learning should be as much about experimentation, and developing one’s own identity as a student – and the confidence to make decisions based on that – as anything else.
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