What Is Self-Directed Learning?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Most self-directed learning is developed and controlled by the learner, not a third party like an institution or instructor. Adults are frequent users of this approach to education, although it can also be used by children. The degree of success can depend on the level of motivation as well as the tools provided for the learner. People who take the initiative still need support to accomplish goals, and may utilize a variety of resources through a library or similar facility in a self-directed learning project.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

This process starts with the identification of a learning goal. Someone might want to learn how to knit, for example. After setting a goal, the leaner can develop a curriculum to accomplish this, using a variety of tools and options to create clear personal guidelines. This might include using videos, texts, and tutoring to acquire a skill or learn more about a subject. Learners set their own schedules and determine the level of depth involved in their learning experience.

Those interested in self-directed learning may be able to find a number of different resources useful. Some examples can include textbooks, curricula from directed courses, and organizations dedicated to particular topics of interest. Learners who want more structure can request material for courses to follow at their own pace online or through correspondence in the mail. They use the course materials to learn, but still direct themselves throughout the learning experience and remain primarily accountable to themselves as they learn.

Outcomes can be measured by learners themselves as well as external measures. Knitters can develop concrete goals like completing a scarf or sweater to demonstrate competency. People researching subjects to prepare for professional certification could use the outcome of examinations to determine if they are competent and ready to work in the field. For subjects like history, where easy assessment measures may not be possible, interactions with people who have experience in the field can help learners determine whether they’re meeting self-directed learning goals.

Children interested in various topics can also engage in self-directed learning. Active requests for information and assistance with learning tasks can be an indicator of academic interest and engagement. If children do not exhibit interest in learning more or enriching themselves outside the classroom with hobbies and activities, these can be signs that something is wrong. A student with a difficult home life, for example, might experience depression that makes it difficult to initiate and complete tasks independently.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@MrsPramm - I don't think technology makes a difference, to be honest. Kids have always had libraries at their fingertips, with a wealth of information, as have adults. The internet is an amazing tool, but people need to know how to engage in self-directed learning in order to use it. Technology can open horizons or it can close them and I haven't seen any evidence that the vast majority of people are using the latest technology for anything more than more of the same.


@bythewell - There's just so few chances for that in traditional schooling these days, because everything is tested and there isn't time for students to learn anything that falls outside what they need to know for testing.

I think it will be interesting to see what will happen in the next few decades as we inevitably shift into more and more technology aided learning and it becomes more probable that students will be able to do extensive research on their own.


Self directed learning is one of the best ways to make a subject engaging. You've just got to be careful, when setting a curriculum for other people, that you aren't including invisible goals that they don't know about.

With self-directed learning, the student usually gets to decide what they learn and how they learn it, but they might still be trying to pass a particular test, or complete a project to particular guidelines. I have known teachers who thought it would be best to ensure that the students had full control over what they learned, but then turned around and told them they hadn't learned the right things to pass the test.

Anything that is non-negotiable should not be left for the student to stumble into on their own. They probably don't know enough to know what they should know. That's the whole point of having a teacher to help. Mark out the boundaries and then let them find their own depth.

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