Seven Ways to Know if You’re a Good Self-Directed Learner

Over the years as a college professor, I’ve learned two fundamental truths about self-directed learning: 1) 95% of people are confident that they are good, self-directed learners; and 2) at least half of them are not. If you’ve ever considered doing an online program, participating in a competency-based education model, or taking a course or degree program that requires you to work primarily on your own time, you may want to seriously ask yourself this: am I, truly, a good self-directed learner? Or do a I function better in a classroom environment with strict schedules, deadlines, and assignment requirements?

Self-directed learning, as defined by expert Malcolm Knowles, can be summed up like this:

“A process by which individuals take the initiative, with our without the assistance 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 learning outcomes.” 

So, what do you think? Are you a good self-directed learner?

Self-directed learning is an interesting topic in education and it has certainly become a buzzword at the college level. In a digital age, an era of online learning, open source courses, and distance education, the last decade has seen a crazy surge in academic programs (undergraduate and graduate alike) that tout a self-directed learning model. “We set up the course, but you do the work on your own time with a flexible schedule.” That’s the general mantra being marketed to the public. “If you can learn well on your own, we’ve got the perfect program for you.”

People are signing up in droves. I mean, it makes sense, right? If you’re working full time or you have kids at home or you travel a lot or you simply don’t like being forced to sit in a classroom during times you’d rather be doing something else, the idea of self-directed learning seems ideal. Besides, who needs a teacher holding your hand when you’re more than capable of reading the books, searching the internet, and doing the assignments on your own? At a time where information is available at our fingertips, it seems we should all be masters at self-directed learning. As it turns out (based on my anecdotal experience teaching in self-directed learning programs), most of us think we are.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that I believe most everyone can become a good self-directed learner. But my experience also tells me that most grown adults are not very good at it by the time they hit college (and many never really get there afterwards). In the United States, our educational model sets up our learning so that we’re good at taking tests and following instructions. We learn systems and formulas through very prescriptive curricula and our teachers guide us through the problem-solving quests. We meet on a regular schedule, receive instruction en masse, submit identical assignments, and receive feedback either through a pre-drawn rubric or from a teacher who has very idiosyncratic guidelines. In other words, we conform to a teachers’ or a curriculum’s or a community’s pre-set expectations. There’s really not a lot of self-directed learning going on. Just a lot of following instructions.

And that becomes the habit. In general, unless you’ve ventured out on your own to learn material you care about (and, mind you, there are many people who actually do that), chances are, you’ve always just sort of done what you’ve been told when it comes to learning. And if that’s the case, chances are even better that you’re not all that good at learning on your own (and, therefore, a self-directed learning program may be difficult for you to succeed in).

While there are a number of factors that could play into whether or not you’re a good self-directed learner, there are seven traits I’ve witnessed over the years that seem to distinguish those who are good self-directed learners from those who are not. In a nutshell, if you’re a self-directed learner, you

  • like to read;
  • don’t procrastinate;
  • are organized;
  • adapt well to new technologies;
  • aren’t afraid of making mistakes;
  • enjoy the process (and the time it takes) to discover new information; and
  • don’t see solutions as right or wrong.

SDL Rule #1: You Must Like to Read

First and foremost, if you want to be good at learning on your own, you must like to read. That doesn’t mean you know how to read or that you are willing to read when someone assigns you specific readings. No, “liking to read” means you seek out books on your own and you read them because you want to know more and better understand a topic. If you don’t care to read in your free time (or you only read Instagram posts and buzzworthy blog feeds), you will likely struggle in a self-directed learning environment. To improve in this area, begin reading things that interest you. Find books, articles, journals, and trade magazines that excite you and begin reading. It’s key to becoming a self-directed learner.

SDL Rule #2: You Can’t Be a Big Procrastinator

Okay, now most experts would say that it’s human nature to procrastinate to some extent and I think most of us will admit that we put some things off that we don’t want to do until they absolutely have to be done. That’s natural and you don’t need to worry too much about that. But let’s be clear: there’s natural procrastination and then there’s chronic procrastination. If you’re often in the chronic arena–meaning you regularly and habitually put nearly everything you do off until the last minute–self-directed learning environments will most likely be a challenge for you. One of the greatest problems with procrastination is that it encourages poor work. You can’t read well, research well, write well, or generally produce well when you force yourself to perform under unrealistic time crunches. If you want to do well in a self-directed learning environment, you must learn to manage your time, create organized task lists, and complete things before deadlines force you to.

SDL Rule #3: You Must Be Organized

Related to Rule #2, being organized suggests that you have a clear picture of what’s going on in your life and schedule at all times. It means you’re looking into the future and staying on top of tasks that you can map out around your upcoming schedule. It means you block out times for certain tasks and you don’t allow yourself to get overly distracted. It means you set measurable goals, you actually accomplish most of them, and you keep record of what you’ve done. If you’re not very organized, you’d likely do better in a classroom setting where you are forced to attend class at certain times, turn in assignments on regularly-schedule intervals, and do tasks that are given to you by your teacher. You don’t have to be that organized to simply follow instructions. But if you want to succeed in a self-directed learning environment, you must be organized and in full control (mostly) of your time, schedule, and tasks.

SDL Rule #4: You Must Adapt Well to New Technologies

Strange as it seems, adapting to new technologies (or even processes) seems to be an indicator of whether or not you’ll do well in a self-directed learning environment. Now this doesn’t mean you need to be a whiz at all things technology, but you should feel comfortable and willing to tackle new ones. In an age of digital and visual communications, self-directed learning often requires you to pick up on new learning management systems like Canvas and Blackboard; design and desktop publishing software like Adobe and Office programs; videoconferencing and webinar platforms like Skype, WebEx, and Google Hangout; project management and team flow programs like Smartsheet, and even search engines (such as Google [which seems obvious] and library databases). While no one can be expected to know all there is to know about new technologies, you must be willing to learn new ones and be prepared to search for YouTube videos and other online tutorials to help you through the process. If you just assume that technology isn’t your thing (or that, when technology-related things go awry it’s everyone else’s fault but your own), you probably won’t do well in self-directed learning environments. To improve at this, practice learning something new, regularly. If it’s been a while since you’ve done something new on a computer, start with simple tasks (maybe move your photos to a cloud service like DropBox or start using Google Drive to save spreadsheets and documents).

SDL Rule #5: You’re Not Afraid to Screw Up (and Do It Over)

Embrace the idea of making errors. You’ve probably heard the tales about some of the greatest inventors and how many times they failed before the great invention finally worked (Thomas Edison and the light bulb is a popular one). Learning, in general, is a lot of trial and error. Be okay with the fact that your first go-around likely won’t be great. Be prepared to revise, redo, and re-submit. Try something, giving it your best educated guess. Read, attempt, review, repeat. Sometimes we get so caught up in this idea that we have to succeed that we forget how valuable it is to fail and retry. That’s how toddlers learn to speak–can you imagine if they worried about getting their grammar right before they spoke? They’d be paralyzed! Self-directed learning requires you to open yourself up, do the best you know how, and then do it again and again until it’s awesome. Classroom environments often let you submit an assignment, get a poor grade, and move on. Self-directed learning, on the other hand, requires you to redo what you’ve already done. You can’t be complacent with a ‘C’ or a ‘D’ on an assignment. You have to do it again until you do it well.

SDL Rule #6: You Enjoy the Process (and Time It Takes) to Learn

Learning doesn’t usually happen in an instant. For most things, especially the complex topics we learn in college, learning doesn’t come at a moment, but rather over weeks and months. When you’re in a classroom setting, you can often rely on an expert that can answer questions directly and frequently in class. Self-directed learning environments, on the other had, require you to search, sometimes painstakingly. Granted, most good self-directed learning programs will have mentors, coaches, and other faculty that will help guide you through the process. But in the end, you’ll be learning on your own and you must enjoy that. Be prepared to work harder than you likely would in a classroom environment; you’ll likely have to read more, watch more tutorials, and seek out more resources. If this doesn’t sound like fun to you, you may not like self-directed learning. If you do the process on your own, you’re likely to learn much, much more, so that’s the huge payoff. Learn on your own, then counsel with a mentor–that’s what self-directed learning is about. It’s more time consuming, but you’ll almost always be better off for it.

SDL Rule #7: You Don’t See Producing Work as a Binary–Not Everything is “Right” or “Wrong”

Lastly, when you engage in self-directed learning, you recognize that rarely in life are there only “right” and “wrong” ways to do something. Even with prescriptive structures like grammar, you recognize that rules can be broken at times for rhetorical effect. If you find yourself wanting to ask teachers and experts “what’s the right way to do this,” you’re in the wrong mindset. Often, there isn’t just one right way to do something, but dozens or even infinite ways of doing it. Your goal is often to make good choices considering a particular context and environment, to make critical and analytical decisions based on sound knowledge and experience. If you tend to think that the expert in the classroom has all the right answers, then you fail to recognize the nuances that exist in true problem-solving situations. While experts do often have sound advice and you should listen to it, you can’t expect them to tell you precisely what to do; rather, you have to hope they’ll give you good counsel and direction, but that you’ll have to find a good solution on your own.