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  • Rebecca Savill

Self-directed learning

In this short series of blog posts, we'll explain the research around some of the most established theories in learning science.

What it is

Self-directed learning is an approach to education that puts learners in control of their own learning process. They decide the what, where, how and when of learning without it being directed by someone else(1).

Why it is beneficial

Research has shown that self-directed learning is an effective way of enhancing learning outcomes(2) and an efficient way to gain new knowledge(3,4). When learners have the freedom to direct their own learning, their academic achievement increases(5,6).

How does it work

With the freedom to choose what to learn, self-directed learners are more likely to feel higher levels of motivation, put in more effort, perform better, and feel more competent when learning(7).

It is also believed that when learning is self-directed, the learner is more likely to engage in deep-level processing where meaning is found in the subject matter, rather than surface-level processing where the aim is simply the reproduction of the content(8).

Are there limitations?

One of the main limitations for self-directed learning is a perceived lack of time due to competing work commitments. A key way to counteract this is by learning as part of a group where you feel accountability to your fellow learners to not cancel or move the session.

Another limitation is not knowing what to learn. With an infinite choice of subjects to learn it can feel overwhelming trying to decide what to focus on. We recommend creating a list of hard and soft skills and topics which are directly related to your current work and any issues or challenges you’ve been having recently. Create this list with your group and put them in priority order.

Find out more

This is just a quick overview about self-directed learning to get you started and using the technique. More information can be found in the following places:


  • Self-Directed Learning : A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975) by Malcolm S. Knowles

  • Self-direction in Adult Learning: Perspectives on Theory, Research and Practice (1991) by Ralph G. Brockett and Roger Hiemstra

  • Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning. A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice (1991) by Philip C. Candy



  1. Knowles, M.S. (1975). Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  2. Zach, S., Choresh, N., & Rosenthal, I. (2018). Self Learning on the College Campus. Olomouc: College of Physical Culture, Palacky University.

  3. Huffaker, D., & Calvert, S. (2003). The New Science of Learning: Active Learning, Metacognition, and Transfer of Knowledge in E-Learning Applications. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 29, 325-334.

  4. Svinicki, M. D. (2010). Student Learning: From Teacher-Directed to Self-Regulation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2010, 73-83.

  5. Wang, C. H., Shannon, D. M., & Ross, M. E. (2013). Students’ Characteristics, Self-Regulated Learning, Technology Self-Efficacy, and Course Outcomes in Online Learning. Distance Education, 34, 302-323.

  6. Sobral, D. (1997). Improving Learning Skills: A Self-Help Group Approach. Higher Education, 33, 39-50.

  7. Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270–300.

  8. Candy, P. C. (1991). Self-direction for lifelong learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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