Self-directed learning

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How to Use Self-Directed Learning in Your Online Training

As adults, we like to be our own boss. We like to set our own goals, control our own tasks, and set our own pace. And when it comes to learning, it’s no different. This is where self-directed learning comes in.

Self-directed learning is a theory that states that adults like to be in charge of their own learning. Although the concept has been around for over 40 years, it’s particularly applicable today for online corporate training.

Whether it’s training a new hire on your company policies or offering customers product training, let’s examine what self-directed learning is and how to use it in your organization’s online learning strategy.

What is self-directed learning?

In 1975, Malcolm Shepherd Knowles, an expert on adult learning or andragogy, wrote a book called “Self-directed learning: a guide for learners and teachers”. In it, he defined self-directed learning as follows:

“In its broadest meaning, ”self-directed learning describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

Some define self-directed learning more loosely, and consider any form of informal learning that takes place as falling into that category.

In a corporate environment, self-directed learning often involves giving your learners, be it employees, partners or customers, access to webinars, videos, slideshows, or policy and procedure documents on specific topics through a learning management system (LMS).

Critically, with self-directed learning, your learners aren’t completely alone. Your managers or sales and support teams are right there with your learners to guide them on the training they can and should take. As well as assist them with any questions they might have or give feedback when necessary.

Benefits of self-directed learning

Of course, self-directed learning isn’t applicable to all training – compliance and mandatory training for example – but, when it can be used, it has significant benefits.

1. Time management and pacing

Allowing your learners to access their training at the time that best suits them means they can optimize their schedules. Simply set a ‘due by’ date in your LMS and give them the power to decide when they can give it their undivided attention.

Self-directed learning also allows learners to move at their own pace. When companies facilitate self-directed learning through an LMS, it means the material is always available, so learners can refer back to it any time they need to. For example, with customer training, your customers can dip in and out of your LMS and watch a video tutorial on how to set up a workflow when they need to. They have control and there are no barriers to them learning about your product.

2. Learner autonomy

Your learners are intelligent adults, and giving them a degree of learner autonomy is one way of respecting that. When you give learners the benefit of autonomy, they become active agents in their own education, and they’re more motivated and engaged.

3. Always available

When you empower your learners to do their self-directed training through an LMS, it’s there for them at all times. They don’t need to book time with a trainer to clarify a point, they can simply check it. They can revise the materials as often as they want to, as it’s always there.

Self-directed learning strategies

Now that you know what self-directed learning is, and why it’s useful, let’s take a closer look at how it works. Here are some ways you can encourage and use self-directed learning:

1. Motivate your learners to take courses

With self-directed learning, your learners usually will have to opt-in to the course. That means it’s up to your organization to prove that it’s worth their time and effort. You need to motivate them to train.

You can do this by demonstrating the value of the course to your learners so they’re encouraged to enroll.

Within your LMS, it’s important to write strong descriptions for every course in the catalog that list why your learners should be taking the course and the benefit for them.

Then, make your learners aware of the courses that are available to them. For your employees, you can send an email invite to join a course or get managers to promote the value of learning to their teams.

For customers, get your customer-facing teams to promote the content. Whether it’s an email letting them know of all the courses available or a mention on a phone call that they can get information in the LMS, this will motivate them to start accessing the content.

2. Create a catalog of content

For your learners to fully embrace self-directed learning, you need to provide an environment that makes it easy to achieve.

Using your LMS, you can fill it with courses, resources, PDF’s, videos, webinars, and more that are of value to your audiences. They can then pick and choose what they want to consume at a time that suits them best and they’ll always have content to learn from.

3. Set up a blog or forum your trainees can contribute to

For employee training, you can give your learners a general topic, and ask them to do some background research on it. After that, they need to hone in on a particular challenge or opportunity within that arena and write a blog post about it. They choose the specific topic or angle of the post, and must ensure any opinions or ideas they put forward are backed up by research.

So, a simple task like familiarizing yourself with the company’s diversity and inclusion policy might result in blog posts like ‘10 Ways to Make Your Office More Wheelchair Friendly’ or ‘How Gen Z can Reverse Mentor your Senior Managers’.

To make it easy for you and your learners, you can set this as an assignment in your LMS or even get your employees to post it to your LMS forum to make it simple for you to review.

Your learner’s end up far more engaged in, and educated on, the topic, and your company has a brand new resource which they can share internally or externally. You can also encourage learners to comment on each other’s posts so they can collectively build on their ideas.

4. Choose interactive workshops over long lectures

It’s estimated that the human attention span lasts for no more than 10 to 20 minutes. It can be difficult to stay focused on a trainer – whether in person or on a webinar – for extended periods of time. As well as exercises that are 100% self-directed, you can break up long lectures with opportunities for self-directed learning, aka microlearning.

If you’re showing a group of developers how to write a piece of code, give them the opportunity to write some every now and then, allowing them to get creative, experiment, and learn from their own mistakes.

If you’re training on a new piece of marketing software, don’t just talk about it – make sure your learners have access to it and allow them to explore and experiment at regular intervals.

At the end of a module, you can break the group up into small teams to embark on a project. Self-directed learning doesn’t have to happen in isolation, small groups work just fine too.

Constructivism and Cognitive Learning Theory both posit that the more actively involved a learner is in the process, the more engaged they’ll be and the more learning they’ll retain for the future.

Limitations and challenges of self-directed learning

While self-directed learning has many benefits, there are also some drawbacks. Some learners may struggle to self-motivate and fall behind, while others might prefer to be able to lean on an instructor at all times.

You can tackle these issues by ensuring learners can get in touch with you through the LMS if they have any problems; make sure they know the lines of communication are open if they’re struggling or they have questions.

Do you encourage self-directed learning in your workplace, and if so, how? We want to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

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