December 3rd, 2015

Self-Directed Learning: Antecedents and Outcomes

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students high fiving

Most faculty now recognize the importance of students being able to direct their own learning. It’s what positions them for a lifetime of learning. And most faculty also recognize that many of our students are more dependent than self-directed. They want the teacher to make most, if not all, of the learning decisions for them. “What do you want in this assignment?” “How long should it be?” “Do I need to have references?” “What do I need to know for the test?” “How many homework problems should I do?” All these are questions self-directed learners ask and answer for themselves.

Self-directed learning starts with a good set of learning skills. They are essential but not all that’s necessary. Students have to believe they can use those skills and that using them will make a difference. The more than 30 years of research on self-directed learning shows a web of learner beliefs and behaviors that stands behind successful self-directed learning. That related research is ably summarized in the article referenced below. It explores five areas of research that undergird the efforts of self-directed learners and can help teachers design learning activities and assignments that establish the foundation for self-directed learning.

Internal locus of control — This construct deals with the extent to which people (research here included many cohort groups) believe they have control over events that influence them. These are folks who think their behavior primarily determines what happens. Those without this belief attribute events to luck, fate, or other forces beyond their control. Internal locus of control means that learners believe they have control of enough factors to be successful at learning. Giving learners some control of learning processes is therefore a first step in developing their internal locus of control. You can’t be a self-directed learner if you don’t believe you can make good decisions about learning.

Self-efficacy — Self-efficacy is related to the internal locus of control, but different. It focuses on beliefs, not about control of situations, but about ability. Research has repeatedly shown that the beliefs students have about their abilities are powerful predictors of their performance. And self-directed learners must have confidence in their ability to succeed. Often students’ beliefs focus more on what they can’t do. Teachers need to create learning experiences that help students discover that they can do things they don’t think they can, and give them experiences through which they learn that hard work and persistence trump ability.

Motivation — Motivation is the force that drives the learning enterprise. Students (and others) are motivated when they are working to accomplish meaningful goals. Motivation and the locus of control are related. Having control motivates learners. Many students lack motivation. They don’t seem to understand what goals education can help them accomplish, or they see only a few courses as being related to their goals. Authentic assignments can help students see the relevance of what and how they are learning. They can also cultivate the love of learning, which is a common characteristic of self-directed learners.

Support — Even though self-directed learners do it for themselves, they do it better with the support of peers, experts, coaches, and guides who value the learners’ contributions and care about their success. Students feel supported when teachers let them learn at their own pace and provide helpful resources. Support makes learning easier. It also increases motivation and develops self-efficacy and the internal locus of control.

Performance — Performance is the outcome, unlike the previous four areas that need to come before and during learning. It makes sense that if a learner is developing in each of the four previous areas, his performance will improve. And good performance loops back, contributing to the further development of the other four areas. Each of these areas is part of a web that supports self-directed learning. Movement in one area produces movement in another area, which gives teachers lots of places to intervene in the process.

Reference: Boyer, S. L., Edmondson, D. R., Artis, A. B., and Fleming, D. (2014). Self-directed learning: A tool for lifelong learning. Journal of Marketing Education 36 (1), 20–32.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.6 (2014): 3. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.