What is self-directed learning and why is it important?

Did you know that whenever you type a how-to question into Google, you’re practicing self-directed learning? The last few years have seen a great surge in self-directed learning in the form of Google searches. The top how-to searches from 2022 include “how to tie a tie,” “how to make french toast,” “how to play wordle,” and, “how to boil eggs.” These search results show that when we recognize a gap in our knowledge we use the resources at our disposal to actively seek out answers. This is self-directed or independent learning. We find and take the initiative to seek out our own learning opportunities.

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How does self-directed learning function in the workplace? 

It’s one thing to watch a YouTube tutorial on how to make bread, but self-directed learning in the workplace can be more specific and complex. At work, you may be caught between pursuing your own learning goals and completing the formal training set for you by your company or manager. The trick to successful organizational learning is to structure an individual’s learning goals within the goals of the wider team and the organization as a whole. This does not mean that you cannot determine your own learning, rather, the aim is to determine a learning pathway that both advances your skills and contributes to the overall success of the company. Through goal setting with your manager, self-directed learning can be the ticket to achieving your learning goals, developing specialized skills, and adding to your overall personal and professional growth.

What is the difference between self-paced and self-directed learning?

Although there are plenty of overlaps between self-paced and self-directed learning, and the terms are often conflated, they do, in fact, mean different things. Developing self-directed learning skills is about taking the initiative to select and manage your learning activities. It gives you the chance to shape your career, in a company where everyone can gain skills. Self-paced learning starts once you have worked out your learning goals, your own learning process and the materials you will use to achieve them. If self-directed learning is the what, then self-paced learning is the how.

What is the self-directed learning process?

The self-directed learning process looks different for everyone. A good place to start is to understand your learning process. Consider how you’ve learned best — whether you are more of a visual or auditory learner, and how you have enjoyed learning in the past. Who was your favorite teacher, and why? What did they do that was different from other teachers? How can you emulate their approach as you direct your own learning? With self-directed learning, you are in total control to take any path to reach your destination.

Why you should try self-directed learning

Practicing self-directed or independent learning in all facets of your professional and personal life empowers you with total freedom to learn something new, however and whenever you want. Learning at times that suit you and using the mediums that you respond to best, be that videos, podcasts, books, or subject matter experts.

Let’s look at some of the other benefits of independent learning:

  • It promotes well-being
  • It allows you to learn at your own pace
  • It’ll help you grow in confidence
  • It means you can collaborate with others
  • It can be started immediately

The components of self-directed learning

It promotes wellbeing

Embarking on a self-directed learning journey is an opportunity to make an impact in your professional career, as well as your personal growth. However, the responsibility is yours — you have to take the initiative to work out how, what and when to learn. Reflection is invaluable in the self-directed learning process, as it will keep you motivated, help you track your progress, and keep you mindful of your end goal that you want to achieve.

Assess your learning needs

To harness the power of self-driven learning at work, you need to identify your learning goals. If you know where you want to end up, you can better plan out how to get there.

Start with blue sky thinking — get excited about the possibilities of what you could learn and what you could achieve. Try creating a bucket list of things you’ve always wanted to learn and get inspired by leaders in the field of your interests. Think about what skills you lack and what changes you want to see in yourself. Next, ask yourself, what do you really enjoy doing? What gets you into a flow state, where you are in the zone and immersed in your task? Studies show that learning is more effective when you are interested in the topic, and the joy of self-directed learning is that you have the freedom to choose what you are most interested in learning. Use our worksheet to refine your learning goals further.

On the other hand, it’s also important to maintain a certain level of realism when creating these goals. Self-directed learning is built on a system that we create, and that system needs to be within your limits, otherwise you’ll take too much on and find it hard to complete. It’s important to find the balance between setting exciting challenges and goals that are too easy.

A way of identifying goals is to question their significance, and not take things at face value. In the context of self-directed learning, this means having a cat-like curiosity about what you could learn, how it would impact your work and ask questions that make you care about the answer. This will also help to maintain motivation once you start your learning journey.

Management and monitoring

It is also important to create your own learning benchmarks. This will help you understand how well you’re learning, as well as allow you to celebrate learning achievements on the way. With self-directed learning, the process is just as valuable as the result. To create these benchmarks, ask yourself, how do I know I’ve learned? Am I flexible in adapting and applying knowledge? Do I have confidence in explaining the material? When do I know I’ve learned enough?

Once you have answers to these questions in place, you’ll be able to create a learning standard that will give you a strong indication of whether you are on track in your learning journey. Try checking in with yourself once a week, and combine quantitative and qualitative metrics, such as measuring the amount of material you’ve covered and how confident you feel about what you’ve learned in the past week.

Reflection for motivation

Reflection can also help you to cultivate intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivators are the positive feelings that drive action, like satisfaction or enjoyment. Once you’ve established your goals and visualized what these goals will help you achieve, you’ll be much more motivated to keep going in your learning. Intrinsic motivation is not something that can be attained overnight; it takes patience, a willingness to keep focused on your goal, and an attitude of self-gratitude and appreciation for the effort you’re putting in.

Collaboration

Self-directed learning doesn’t have to be an isolating experience. In fact, learning alongside others can improve your learning results. One Harvard Business School study shows that social learning can increase course completion rates by up to 85%. Build a network of learning co-workers. Chat to your team and see if anyone else has the same learning goals, then you can work towards them together, motivating and keeping each other accountable.

Better yet, teach back the learning to each other. Studies demonstrate that learners who pretent to or expect to teach what they’ve learned show enhanced memory, better understanding and knowledge retention. You could even set up discussion groups within your team to give each member a chance to repeat and teach some of their learning to others.

It can be started immediately

As you are in control of your learning, you can choose when to start. You can collect resources, conduct a training needs analysis and then you are ready to begin. Harnessing appropriate learning strategies to guide your self-directed education means you can set yourself up for effective and enjoyable lifelong learning.

In summary

Self-directed learning has its challenges, but with good preparation, you can create a system that supports you to the end of your learning journey. For some extra learning inspiration, take a look at Pursuing a lifestyle of learning and Moving forward with career confidence.

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