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The Nature of Self-Directed Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In this section of the chapter we review self-directed learning from three perspectives.  First are definitions of SDL that frame it both as a method of organizing instruction and as a personal attribute; second, we review  the goals of SDL ranging from gaining new knowledge to inspiring social action and change.  Finally, examining some of the myths of SDL will help to further clarify what this type of learning is all about.



The posing below is a nice overview of the nature of self-directed learning. It is from Chapter Four - Self-Directed Learning, in the book, Theory and Practice, by Sharan B. Merriam and Laura L. Bierema.  Published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. www.josseybass.comCopyright © 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The Nature of Self-Directed Learning  (SDL)


In this section of the chapter we review self-directed learning from three perspectives.  First are definitions of SDL that frame it both as a method of organizing instruction and as a personal attribute; second, we review  the goals of SDL ranging from gaining new knowledge to inspiring social action and change.  Finally, examining some of the myths of SDL will help to further clarify what this type of learning is all about. 

SDL which has been researched, theorized, and practiced for over 50 years (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991, 2012; Candy, 1991; Houle, 1961; Knowles, 1975; Tough, 1967, 1971, 1978) has been described both as a personal attribute (that is, a person can be very self-directed and autonomous in their learning), or as a process (that is, a way of organizing instruction).  SDL as a personal attribute refers to an individual predisposition toward this type of learning, and comfort with autonomy in the learning process. SDL as a process is an approach to learning that is controlled by the learner.  Knowles is well-known for his definition of the process of SDL "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" (1975, p. 18).  Knowles (1975) also delineated a six-step process which could form the basis of a learning contract for learners and instructors to follow in planning self-directed learning.  The six steps are:  (1) climate setting, that is, creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and support; (2) diagnosing learning needs; (3) formulating learning goals; (4) identifying human and material resources for learning; (5) choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies; and (6) evaluating learning outcomes. 

Tough (1978) studied SDL from the perspective of learning projects which he defined as deliberate efforts to build knowledge, develop skills or make changes, efforts that took a minimum of seven hours.  He also outlined a process similar to that of Knowles.  Learners move through a series of steps that have to do with first deciding what to learn, then what resources they need (time? money? materials?), where to learn, and how to maintain the motivation for learning.  The steps also involve setting goals and timetables, determining the pace, and assessing the current level of knowledge and skill.  Self-directed learners also evaluate their learning to determine what might be hindering their learning and adjust accordingly. 

Clardy (2000) interviewed 56 adult workers and identified four types of SDL projects: induced, synergistic, voluntary, and scanning.  Induced SDL occurs when learning is mandated by an authority. You have no mastery of the material (indeed, you may have no knowledge at all) and would be considered "unconsciously incompetent" in the area.  For instance, imagine you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure and your doctor directs you to lower it.  Now you need to take steps to learn about the condition and change your health behaviors.  Before you were diagnosed, you had no knowledge about how to manage your blood pressure, making you "unconsciously incompetent."  Synergistic SDL is not mandated learning, but instead optional and inspired by the opportunity to take advantage of a learning situation made available by another person.  You would be "consciously incompetent" in these situations.  Continuing with the high blood pressure example, imagine that you are now aware of your management options and met another person who has managed the condition well for some time who offers you access to her library of books and resources to learn more. Voluntary SDL occurs when learning something helps you achieve a goal.  This type of learning is not motivated or validated by a higher authority and you are "consciously competent" in knowing what you need to do in order to attain your goal.  Say you have made progress in managing your blood pressure and you decide to commit to lowering it even further as a preventive health measure.  You embark on a learning journey that includes new cooking methods and an exercise regimen.  Finally, Clardy's last category, Scanning SDL, is an ongoing process of searching for new learning.  Now that you have your blood pressure well managed, you are constantly on the lookout for new studies and information on the condition.  Or, keeping up to date in your field would be another example of Scanning SDL.  As an adult educator, you are always seeking new ideas, teaching techniques, and ways of better reaching your learners. 

Goals of SDL

Caffarella (2000) suggested that there were four goals likely to motivate learners to engage in SDL.  The first is the aspiration to gain knowledge or develop skill - say you want to learn to speak Spanish.  Another is to become more self-directed in learning.  This might mean that after you take some Spanish classes, you are ready to strike out on your own by watching Spanish speaking television shows, traveling to Spanish speaking countries, or conversing with Spanish speakers.  SDL can also inspire transformational learning when critical reflection is a component of the process.  One transformation that an acquaintance of Laura's had during an educational trip to Costa Rica was the opportunity to meet an independent coffee famer.  She learned that the only way these farmers can support their families is to bypass large corporations and sell their beans directly to the premium market.  The insight changed how she views her coffee and other purchases.  Finally, SDL can be emancipatory, supporting social justice and political action - moving beyond the realm of individual learning.  In this case, the Costa Rican traveler might decide to become politically active to support small farms or protest corporate exploitation. 

Myths of SDL 

Though adults have always continued to learn, it wasn't until the late 1960s that adult educators and researchers began systematically attending to adult learning.  Andragogy (see Chapter 3) and self-directed learning were the two earliest and most robust conceptualizations of the nature and characteristics of adult learning.  While andragogy identified assumptions or characteristics of adult learners, self-directed learning is more about the process involved when adults engage in their own learning.  SDL immediately resonated with adult educators and researchers, producing a burgeoning body of writings, publications and applications.  Along with the growing body of research and writing a number of misconceptions or, as Brockett (1994) calls them, myths of SDL evolved which sometimes cloud new learners' understanding of this type of learning.  We thought it would be helpful to look at these myths and their refutation by Brockett. Six of the myths relate to the learners themselves and their activities.  Myth 1, SDL is an all-or-nothing concept, is the mistaken notion that you are either a self-directed learner or you are not.  In reality, every learner is different, possessing varying levels of self-directedness.  It is more accurate to view SDL as a continuum, "a characteristic that exists, to a greater or lesser degree, in all persons and in all learning situations" (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991, p. 11).  Myth 2, Self-direction implies learning in isolation, is an incorrect stereotype that places the learner in seclusion from other learners.  Although learners may engage in periods of intense, individualized learning, their learning will be enhanced by sharing it with others and inquiring with other adults or instructors about their questions, insights, and reflections.  Myth 3, SDL is the best approach for adults, can cause problems if the unique needs and goals of learners are not taken into account when structuring learning activities.  As with any approach, we must be realistic about the limitations of SDL and use it appropriately.  Myth 4, SDL is limited primarily to white, middle-class adults, suggests that this learning method reflects the dominant culture.  Although this is one of the main critiques of SDL, Brockett notes that there are examples of SDL across diverse social groups and societies outside North America and Western Europe.  Myth 5, SDL is not worth the time required to make it work, depends on a cost-benefit analysis of the learning goals versus the time and resources available.  It is true that not all learning can be best accomplished using SDL. Investing in SDL preparation, learning needs diagnosis, determination of a learning plan, and learning assessment engages the learner in a very meaningful way that is likely to result in deeper learning than teacher-directed approaches, making it worth the time.  Myth 6, SDL activities are limited primarily to reading and writing, overlooks the informal nature of learning and that many skills cannot be learned from books such as improving a golf swing, speaking a language, building a deck, or training a dog.  SDL works best when it is experiential, that is, lodged in the adult's life context (see Chapter 6). 

The remaining four myths focus more on teachers, pedagogy, and institutions.  Myth 7, facilitating self-direction is an easy way out for teachers, is one of the most pervasive myths, according to Brockett (1994).  Helping learners be self-directed requires educators to take a very active, individualized approach with learners to communicate the process and support the development of their SDL plan. Learners come to SDL with different needs and capabilities, making facilitating it as demanding as - if not more demanding than - traditional teaching.  Myth 8, SDL is limited primarily to those settings where freedom and democracy prevail, assumes ideal conditions must exist for SDL to occur.  Yet SDL certainly occurs in very controlling social and educational environments.  Think of the SDL engaged in by protesters in the Arab Spring revolutions or by women and girls who continued their learning in hiding under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  Myth 9, self-direction is just another adult education fad, can be debunked just on the longevity of SDL as a theory and practice in adult education for over 50 years.  Myth 10, SDL will erode the quality of institutional programs, has not emerged when learners are given greater control over learning.  The only risk to quality is when SDL is poorly administered. 


Brockett, R.G. (1994). Resistance to self-direction in adult learning: Myths and misunderstandings.  In R. Hiemstra & R.G.

Brockett (Eds.), Overcoming resistance to self-direction in adult learning (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 64, pp. 5-12).  

Brocket, R.G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in adult learning: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice.  New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall. 

Brockett, R.G., & Hiemstra, R. (2012).  Reframing the meaning of self-directed learning.  Proceedings of the Adult Education Research Conference, USA, pp. 155-162. 

Caffarella, R.S. (2000). Goals of self-directed learning. In G.A. Straka (Ed.), Conceptions of self-directed learning: Theoretical and conceptual considerations (pp. 37-48).  Berlin, Germany: Waxmann. 

Candy, P.C. (1991). Self-direction for lifelong learning: A comprehensive guide to theory and practice.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Clardy, A. (2000). Learning on their own: Vocationally oriented self-directed learning projects.  Human Resource Development Quarterly, 11(2), 104-125. 

Houle, C.O. (1961). The inquiring mind.  Madison, University of Wisconsin Press. 

Knowles, M.S. (1975).  Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers.  New York: Association Free Press. 

Tough, A. (1967). Learning without a teacher.  Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 

Tough, A. (1971). The adult's learning projects: A fresh approach to theory and practice in adult learning.  Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. 

Tough, A. (1978).  Major learning efforts: Recent research and future directions.  Adult Education, 28(4), 250-263.