What is Self-Directed Learning? 7 Strategies for Implementing this Innovative Learning Style

When students set the conditions of their learning experience, they show more creativity, passion and sticktuitiveness.

Prisma Staff
November 3, 2022

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

Dating back to the ancient Greeks, self-directed learning (SDL) has been a part of the education landscape since the 1970s. A cornerstone of learning approaches like the popular Montessori method, self-directed learning theory centers the learner in every element of their education, from the choice of topic to the execution to the assessment.

However, despite what the name might suggest, the self-directed learner is not expected to be hidden, alone, under a pile of books at the library. True, the teacher-student relationship is dramatically different from the top-down model of the senior expert filling the inexperienced listener with knowledge, but that doesn’t mean there is no form of adult guidance. Similarly, peers have a role to play in SDL, but the learner sets the terms of that dynamic, by seeking out collaboration and feedback from classmates; an instructor doesn’t tell them when to do it, or how.


What is self-directed learning?

There has been a lot of research on self-directed learning over the last half century (see below for a few well-respected texts on the topic). These seven points from the International Encyclopedia of Education provide the basic premises:

1) Self-direction is about learner empowerment. Part of the process is to help each learner take more and more responsibility for various aspects of their education.

2) Self-direction is not all or nothing. In any learning situation there will be various degrees of self-direction.

3) Self-direction does not require isolation. It involves independent work but can also happen in group settings and classrooms.

4) Self-directed learning equips students to transfer their knowledge and skills to diverse contexts.  

5) Self-directed study can involve different educational activities: independent reading and writing, study groups, and internships.  

6) Teachers can play a role in incorporating self-directed approaches to student learning, for example, engaging in conversations with learners, gathering materials, assessing work and encouraging critical thinking.

7) Self-directed study can happen in schools: independent studies and non-traditional course offerings can all be part of the SDL approach.

How to get started with self-directed learning for your child

1. Start with clear objectives

Ask yourself: What are your goals? Are you running toward a specific end-point or away from an educational environment that doesn’t meet your child’s learning needs or learning style? Do they want to go on to higher education, enter a specific profession, develop transferrable skills or engage in lifelong learning?

Any — or all — of these goals (and more!) can be achieved with SDL, but your specific intention will help set parameters on this open-ended approach.

Ideally, during the process, the learner’s discoveries will inspire the evolution of their goals. Still, in order to take productive detours, keep checking in with your why — and, of course, your child’s.

2. Find out if your child is ready

Approaches to self-directed adult education (known in scientific circles as andragogy) differ dramatically from the science of elementary, middle or even high school education (known as pedagogy), where learners are still developing the self-discipline and self-awareness necessary to handle the decision making that comes along with complete freedom.

If you keep in mind that self-directed learning is a continuum, the real question is: how ready is my child and how much guidance do they need? In other words, how do I choose developmentally appropriate learning strategies? Rather than take a trial and error approach, Dr. Lucy M. Guglielmino’s self-assessment known as the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS), can serve as a baseline.

While some adult learners can shoulder the entire personal responsibility of self-education, most kids won’t thrive in front of a total blank slate. If you tell kids, “Off you go, do whatever you want,” they’re likely to be overwhelmed.

Instead, as we have learned through many iterations of curriculum development at Prisma, self-directed learning with scaffolding creates a healthy balance, providing a structure to channel their intrinsic motivation. For Prismarians, those “guardrails” come into play at different moments in each learning cycle, as our learning coaches provide big-picture themes, an ample library of resources, and several directions each child can take for a given learning project.

3. Curate the learning environment

An independent learner needs access to three things as part of this scaffolding: a problem to solve, materials to help them solve it, and feedback along the way. Our six-week Prisma cycles start with an overarching theme that learners explore from many different angles for the first two weeks. During this exploration phase, we give them access to curated materials - articles, podcasts, videos, infographics or interactive games - and let them choose the ones that resonate within these boundaries. Then, to give them a taste of the bigger project to come, they test out mini projects, as a way to gauge their interest before getting in too deep.

In addition to the library of materials, independent learners need to know where they can find help along the way: teachers, coaches, mentors, peers — even online experts to whom they can (with your guidance) reach out. Let them know who is available to help them with what sort of issues, and then step back and let them learn to ask for what they need. (This will also be a learning process, so you may want to schedule feedback sessions until they get into the swing of things.)

4. Design learning activities

Project- or problem-based learning (PBL) lends itself well to the self-directed approach. Starting from a relevant theme, like climate change, you can help them engage the topic from their area of interest: they could design an eco-friendly building, write a futurist fiction short story set in a world impacted by rising tides, develop a public relations campaign to protect endangered species, or research and fundraise for a cause.

Because they are connected to real-world issues, project-based learning activities naturally tend to be interdisciplinary. That means whatever students choose, they’ll not only be building on their strengths, they’ll also be learning skills they might have neglected in a traditional classroom. The kid who hates math worksheets might be more willing to do calculations that allow them to present a scaled model of their green tower of the future.

5. Define learning outcomes

Keeping in mind your big-picture why, think about what constitutes success for your independent learning experience. On the one hand, you’ll want to make sure each project has clear learning objectives, such as general skills or areas of knowledge to master (we do this at Prisma with badges). On the other hand, you’ll want to let them set their own learning goals, while also ensuring that they are stretching themselves appropriately. When they set their own goals, we find it creates a sense of ownership, so they’ll be more likely to follow through on them (or reflect honestly about why they didn’t hit the mark).

6. Let them go at their own pace

Self-regulated learning doesn’t happen according to a schedule, so let go of expectations about a “normal” school day or "grade-level” progress.

When kids get excited about a certain topic, and they’re having the kind of “hard fun” at the center of our philosophy, they very well might not want to move on to something else when the calendar says it’s time to move on.

That’s a great sign. Our learners change themes every six weeks, but when their coaches see them committed to developing a specific skill or honing a certain passion, they find a way to facilitate that, into the next cycle — whether it’s by incorporating that passion into the new theme or encouraging them to pursue it as an extracurricular.

Even for less open-ended subjects like math where there is a linear skill progression, we use self-pacing apps to allow kids control of the speed of their journey — and accelerate or slow down depending on how they feel.

7. Act as a facilitator

Remember, self-directed learning is not a desert island experience. Your role — especially if you are homeschooling your child with this approach — is to be their guardrails to set the project in motion, cheer them on, and ask them the kinds of questions that will allow them to implement solutions. Part of problem solving is — inevitably — hitting dead-ends and trying again. Once you’re sure they have the resources to get themselves on course, resist the urge to intervene.

Ultimately, self-directed learning, when done with developmentally appropriate guardrails, will help your child master fundamental critical thinking skills and subject matter knowledge, all while building a mindset that will set them up for lifelong learning.

For more on self-directed learning, see:

  1. Brookfield, Stephen. (2009). Self-Directed Learning. doi 10.1007/978-1-4020-5281-1_172.
  2. Hiemstra, R. (1994). Self-directed learning. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (second edition).
  3. Gibbons, M. (2003). The Self-Directed Learning Handbook: Challenging Adolescent Students to Excel. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. New York: Association Press.

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