When I was researching the Learning Guild report on self-directed learning, I noted an observation that came up in a few articles: that learners who control their own learning do so rather indiscriminately. They don’t exactly plan their approach; they take what they can find and run with it, continuing to explore as their needs and interests take them.

In one article, Ronan O’Beirne wrote:

“Many heutagogic (self-determined) learners are happy to learn by taking a journey of discovery. They do not embark on a clearly defined path through an established body of knowledge, but rather they assemble a range of goals that they wish to achieve and begin to move towards these. Often the starting point for this type of learning approach is to engage with (the edges of) a body of knowledge.” *

One of the seminal works on self-directed learning, a study by Spear and Mocher (1984), also noted that learners tend to work with resources that are fortuitously available in their environments rather than spending a lot of time looking for materials and activites.

In some ways, that’s the beauty of self-directed learning – people get to decide for themselves how to pursue their interests.

But there are a couple of potential problems with that approach. The fortuitously available resources may not actually be the most useful or relevant. And pinging back and forth around a list of available resources doesn’t necessarily improve knowledge or skill – people need to do something to make sense of that learning, and they don’t always take their work to that level.

My recommendation: Chart your course

When I designed materials to support people in crafting their own self-directed learning paths (Charting Your Course), I created a process that recommends defining goals (orientating), finding and curating resources and activities (wayfinding), and taking a bit more structured approach to pursuing learning goals (journeying).  And since last summer, I’ve been providing a service to guide people in crafting self-directed learning plans.

While trying to be a guide-on-the-side for a number of clients, I have seen firsthand the loose way people are inclined to pursue their learning goals.

In orientating, my Charting Your Course clients have been more likely to have a general topic in mind rather than specific goals or exploratory questions.

When we work on wayfinding, the process is intended to be a collaborative one – I locate resources and suggest activities that seem in alignment with what we discussed in the orientating session, and they do some of their own exploration – checking in with their network, finding what’s available through their organization, and doing their own internet search. We then come together to discuss options and craft a more specific plan. More often than not, my clients have been thrilled to see the list of resources I am able to uncover (which I send in advance of our next meeting) – and they run with that rather than scheduling a planning meeting.

When I check later to see how their journeying is going, they are continuing to struggle with making progress on their learning goal, partially because they never actually made a plan, and partially because the demands of life continue unabated.

A more typical approach to self-directed learning

In some ways, the issues prove out the wisdom of the design of the recommended process of wayfinding (crafting an itinerary or plan) – the part of the process that some clients are choosing to skip. But I think it might be more helpful to meet the clients where they are and offer a looser approach than what I originally conceived.

The advice I’m now offering to clients more inclined to loose planning may be useful to other self-directed learners and to people crafting their own personal development plans:


  • Hone your goal as much as you can – narrow the topic and articulate the questions you want to explore. You may need to poke around in a general internet search in order to do so. For example, several clients have wanted to get better at “project management,” but they need to decide if what they need is the expansive project management body of knowledge or help with creating their own workable to-do lists and project flow charts.


  • Take the time to gather a substantial list of resources so you have a lot of choices. Your time is precious, so you want to make sure you have considered options before going deeply into any one of them.
  • Go through the list of options and decide which look to be the “best” ones by whatever criteria you want to use. I suggest credibility, relevance, and depth as the standards. You won’t be able to do everything on the list and randomly jumping among them will just frustrate you, so take the time to figure out the best place to start. That way, when you have time to work your project, you know exactly what to delve into and don’t need to waste time dithering among choices. Once you’ve absorbed learning from one or two sources, you’ll know better what you need to explore next.
  • Craft activities that will allow you to learn from people – not just from resources like books and videos. Plan to deliberately observe people who are exemplars in the skills you want to develop (bonus if you can also talk to them about how they approach the work). Or arrange interviews with people who can teach you or give you advice on learning.


  • Determine how you are going to capture what you learn – keep a notebook (paper or electronic) that gathers all your insights in one place. You should plan to read through these notes regularly as you pursue your project, further clarifying what you are learning and how that should impact the work you are doing.
  • Consider capturing a list of principles or quality criteria that you can use to judge your practice and application of the knowledge and skill you are learning. You need to know what “exemplary” looks like, and you need to constantly check yourself on whether you are making progress toward that goal.
  • Identify ways to practice and apply what you are learning. This is especially important when the knowledge or skill you are developing isn’t part of your everyday work. Find ways to try out what you are learning and if needed, ways to develop a portfolio of accomplishments in the skills you are honing for future work.
  • Find people to talk to. At the least, you probably need an accountability partner or interested party with whom you can discuss your progress and who will encourage (or harass) you to make time for your project. Better still, find people who might be co-learners, subject matter experts, or coaches who can provide more in-depth conversation and encouragement. Arrange to speak with these folks regularly specifically about your project (even if they are people that you often see).
  • Block time for your project and protect that time as much as possible from being taken back for other life demands.
  • Check in with yourself regularly on progress you are making and how the project is going. Identify and mitigate the barriers that are keeping you for progressing as you would like. And notice the advances you are making on your knowledge and skill levels. Adjust your future activities on the project as needed to keep yourself on track.

This list of activities is nearly exactly what the formal Charting Your Course workbook is designed to produce, but I’m noticing that people can do these things in their own ways without the elaboration of a documented plan. It’s a subtle difference, but many of my clients seem more amenable to taking this advice than formalizing a self-directed learning plan.

The main point is that just reading books and watching videos won’t help you to learn if you don’t also take extra steps to translate what you are absorbing into action.

The deepest learning comes from a combination of taking in key ideas and principles, talking with others (a meaning-making activity), thinking through implications (defining guidance for future action), putting what you learned into practice (through practice activities or doing the work), and getting feedback on your progress (from your own judgment or others). If you want to advance your knowledge and skill, all of these elements need to be included your self-directed learning activities, even if you don’t design a formal plan for yourself.


* From New pathways to knowledge and learning, in Experiences in Self-Determined Learning (2014) edited by L.M. Blascheke, C. Kenyon and S. Hase, page 76.