The future belongs to those who learn. Never has that been more true. It’s cliche to say the world is changing fast, but just look around. The coronavirus pandemic has forced rapid change in our work, in our day-to-day activities, and even in the way we organize and run our lives. And – asked to remain at home as many of us were – we have been on our own in tackling the emerging learning needs that these changes generate.

So no wonder there’s more attention on self-directed learning these days. Leaders within organizations are trying to support learning by sharing curated resources, enabling peer-to-peer learning, and developing shorter, more targeted learning assets.

But many people don’t have that kind of support – they’re gig workers, freelancers, the unemployed, job-changers, and others who have to rely on their own efforts. Self-directed learning also manifests among people pursuing a hobby or special interest and among those who enjoy indulging their curiosity. Learning is part of what makes life fulfilling and what enables people to achieve their dreams. But it isn’t necessarily easy – it takes skill to learn on one’s own and it takes persistence to keep moving forward when you are only accountable to yourself.

Self-directed learning is a process “in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating those learning outcomes.”  ~ Malcolm Knowles, Self-Directed Learning (1975), p. 18

Many scholars have focused their work on studying self-directed learning, and they have been able to identify and describe the process people engage as well as the qualities and capabilites people need in order to develop themselves. It may be relatively easy in an internet-connected environment to find quick answers and access targeted learning resources that satisfy in-the-flow learning needs. Larger, longer-term learning projects that develop a degree of mastery over time, however, require a deeper set of skills in order to self-manage. Self-directed learning researchers have concentrated on how people engage in these more in-depth projects.

A synthesis of the research

The Learning Guild recently published my research report, Self-Directed Learning: Essential strategy for a rapidly changing world, available free with free membership. (I have been gratified to hear that it has been a popular download.) The report synthesizes the dynamics of self-directed learning, including the process, the required capabilities, and the necessary environmental supports. It is primarily directed at people who want to support self-directed learning in the workplace, but self-directed learners can find what they need to do for themselves in order to achieve their goals.

Managing our own learning means that we take responsibility for all of the activities related to defining the goals, making the plan, executing the plan, and monitoring our progress. Researchers have also identified the capabilities and qualities that are required for individuals to successfully engage in self-directed learning – what I refer to as the wherewithal for self-directed learning. The list includes self-assessement, resourcefulness, planning skills, learning skills, self-efficacy and motivation to learn.

The self-directed learning research doesn’t elaborate much on how this wherewithal is developed or expressed. To add to the report, then, I’ve extrapolated the tactics that can help individuals to bolster these capabilities and qualities for themselves.

Tactics for bolstering wherewithal

Self-Assessment: Ability to discern one’s own strengths and opportunities and to identify learning needs

  • Get an accurate assessment of your skills by using self-assessment tools, asking for candid feedback, and being honest with yourself (Remember Dunning-Kruger effect – we’re notoriously bad at assessing our own strengths and opportunities)
  • Set clear goals for your desired level of competence
  • Define how you will measure skill level and set up a monitoring system to track progress

Resourcefulness: Interpersonal and internet savvy to locate people and resources and to set up systems to feed new materials

  • Take time to define your questions and keywords before you start searching the internet or asking colleagues for resources
  • Gather a variety of resources, then scan to curate the ones that seem most thorough, relevant, and high quality
  • Vet resources for quality, credible authorship, and potential bias
  • Apply networking skills to find people who can be co-learners, advisors, role models, sounding boards, or mentors for your learning
  • Hone your skill at using social media to stay updated on key thought leaders and trends in the arena you are studying
  • Devise a system to monitor emerging developments in the arena you are studying (journal monitoring, search engine alerts, regular professional meetings, etc.)

Planning skills: Ability to sketch and implement a well-thought-out strategy for learning over time; understanding of  broad strategies for effective learning

  • Make a plan that documents learning tasks, application opportunities, and self-monitoring checkpoints, and include your intended schedule (specific hours allocated) and self-imposed deadlines
  • Include activities that help you to process your learning (e.g. note-taking, job-aid creation, reflection, discussion with others)
  • Include varied resources in your overall plan: deep content resources (books, articles, videos), people you can engage with, learning and practice activities, application opportunities, assessment; if new to the domain under study, consider a structured course to help you gain foundations and understand the big picture

Learning skills: Facility engaging in specific effective learning practices; understanding one’s own metacognitive processes

  • Approach learning tasks with your goals in mind to focus your intention and attention
  • Define what you hope to learn from specific experiences and summarize and consolidate your learning afterwards
  • Develop your reflective practices: asking critical questions, putting reflections in writing, discussing learning with others
  • Hone your learning skills, especially learning retention strategies, critical thinking, and problem-solving
  • Seek to understand your metacognitive processes –how you need to engage in order to learn effectively

Self-efficacy: Belief in one’s own ability to learn and grow

  • Nurture your belief in yourself
  • Find role models that have accomplished similar skill advancement and gain confidence from their examples
  • Take full responsibility for your own learning and growth

Motivation to learn: Impetus to pursue learning projects

  • Identify and elaborate your own reasons for desiring knowledge and skill development
  • Focus on the specifics of what you hope to gain by pursuing learning
  • Indulge your curiosity and note where it leads you
  • Push through barriers by identifying and mitigating them as best you can

Let me know what you would add!

People will often say that they love to learn. I think they are talking about how satisfying it can be to indulge curiosity, deepen knowledge on a favorite topic, or hone a desired skill – for work, for enjoyment, or both. Whether to pursue a passion or achieve a more mundane purpose, developing the wherewithal to self-direct learning is a worthy activity. I hope these tactics give you some ideas that will help you to be more successful in your own efforts.

“Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.” ~ Peter Senge

For more on self-directed learning, please see my curated resources on that topic.