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Self-Directed Learning

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Hiemstra, R. (1994). Self-directed learning. In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International
Encyclopedia of Education (second edition), Oxford: Pergamon Press. Reprinted here by permission.
Most adults spend a considerable time acquiring information and learning new skills. The rapidity of
change, the continuous creation of new knowledge, and an ever-widening access to information make
such acquisitions necessary. Much of this learning takes place at the learner's initiative, even if available
through formal settings. A common label given to such activity is self-directed learning. In essence, selfdirected
learning is seen as any study form in which individuals have primary responsibility for
planning, implementing, and even evaluating the effort. Most people, when asked, will proclaim a
preference for assuming such responsibility whenever possible.
Research, scholarship, and interest in self-directed learning has literally exploded around the world in
recent years. Few topics, if any, have received more attention by adult educators than self-directed
learning. Related books, articles, monographs, conferences, and symposia abound. In addition,
numerous new programs, practices, and resources for facilitating self-directed learning have been
created. These include such features as learning contracts, self-help books, support groups, openuniversity
programs, electronic networking, and computer-assisted learning. This article extracts some
meaning from all this information.
1. What is Self-Directed Learning?
Several things are known about self-directed learning: (a) individual learners can become empowered to
take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor; (b)
self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person
and learning situation; (c) self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in
isolation from others; (d) self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both
knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another; (e) self-directed study can involve various
activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships,
electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities; (f) effective roles for teachers in self-directed
learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and
promoting critical thinking; (g) some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed
study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings,
and other innovative programs.
This latter component, educational institutions developing innovative responses to self-directed learning
preferences, has spawned several unique programming efforts. For example, establishment of the Open
University in England in 1969 generated similar efforts around the world. St. Francis Xavier University
(Antigonish, Nova Scotia), Teacher College (Columbia University, New York City), Syracuse
University's Adult Education Program (Syracuse, New York), and the Ontario Institute for Studies in
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Education (Toronto, Canada) have incorporated self-directed learning principles into various of their
adult education efforts. These latter two (Syracuse University and Ontario Institute) have assimilated
some computer-mediated instruction into their programs.
Brookfield (1986), a British adult educator now residing in the United States, describes other higher
education efforts where individualized, self-directed learning opportunities exist, including locations in
Germany, Denmark, and Eastern Europe. Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) describe several self-directed
efforts in China, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Tanzania. Knowles and
Associates (1984) describe various self-directed learning efforts in various government, industry, health,
religion, and military settings.
1.1 History of Self-Directed Learning
Self-directed learning has existed even from classical antiquity. For example, self-study played an
important part in the lives of such Greek philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Other historical
examples of self-directed learners included Alexander the Great, Caesar, Erasmus, and Descartes. Social
conditions in Colonial America and a corresponding lack of formal educational institutions necessitated
that many people learn on their own.
Early scholarly efforts to understand self-directed learning took place some 150 years ago in the United
States. Craik (1840) documented and celebrated the self-education efforts of several people. About this
same time in Great Britain, Smiles (1859) published a book entitled Self-Help, that applauded the value
of personal development.
However, it is during the last three decades that self-directed learning has become a major research area.
Groundwork was laid through the observations of Houle (1961) (University of Chicago, Illinois). He
interviewed 22 adult learners and classified them into three categories based on reasons for participation
in learning: (a) goal-oriented, who participate mainly to achieve some end goal; (b) activity-oriented,
who participate for social or fellowship reasons; (c) learning-oriented, who perceive of learning as an
end in itself. It is this latter group that resembles the self-directed learner identified in subsequent
research.
The first attempt to better understand learning-oriented individuals was made by Tough, A Canadian
researcher and one of Houle's doctoral students. His dissertation effort to analyze self-directed teaching
activities and subsequent research with additional subjects resulted in a book, The Adult's Learning
Projects (1979). This work has stimulated many similar studies with various populations in various
locations.
In parallel scholarship during this same time period, Knowles popularized in North America the term,
andragogy, with corresponding adult instructional processes. His 1975 publication, Self-directed
Learning, provided foundational definitions and assumptions that guided much subsequent research: (a)
self-directed learning assumes that humans grow in capacity and need to be self-directing; (b) learners'
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experiences are rich resources for learning; (c) individuals learn what is required to perform their
evolving life tasks; (d) an adult's natural orientation is task or problem-centered learning; (e) selfdirected
learners are motivated by various internal incentives, such as need for self-esteem, curiosity,
desire to achieve, and satisfaction of accomplishment.
Another important research effort was Guglielmino's (1977) dissertation. She developed the Self-
Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS), an instrument subsequently used by many researchers to
measure self-directed readiness or to compare various self-directed learning aspects with numerous
characteristics. Spear and Mocker's (1984) work on organizing circumstances showed how important it
is to understand a learner's environmental circumstances in promoting self-directed learning.
Establishment of an annual International Symposium on Self-Directed Learning in 1987 by Long and his
colleagues completes this historical picture. The Symposia have spawned many publications, research
projects, and theory building efforts by researchers throughout the world.
1.2 Competing Concepts
As with the development of many new ideas, self-directed learning has created some confusion in that
many related concepts are often used interchangeably or in similar ways. Examples include self-directed
learning, self-planned learning, learning projects, self-education, self-teaching, autonomous learning,
autodidaxy, independent study, and open learning. Yet these terms typically offer varied, though
sometimes subtly different, emphases. To illustrate some of these differences, six competing terms will
be examined. Section 1.4 provides a conceptual model and corresponding definition of self-directed
learning.
(a) Self-planned learning and learning projects - Tough's (1979) research on people engaged in learning
projects involved obtaining information on "a series of related episodes, adding up to at least seven
hours" where "more than half of the person's total motivation is to gain and retain certain fairly clear
knowledge and skill, or to produce some other lasting change" (p. 7). Tough used the seven-hour
parameter because he felt it approximated a typical working day and separated brief learning activities
from more major endeavors. Actually, he and many others have found that most learning projects far
exceed the seven-hour minimum. Nearly 100 learning project surveys with various groups in ten
countries have confirmed that approximately 90 percent of adults conduct at least one intentional
learning project annually. A typical adult spends about 500 hours a year in such learning with
approximately 70 percent planned by the learner. This self-planning predominance spawned
considerable research on self-directed learning.
(b) Autonomous learning - autonomy often is associated with independence of thought, individualized
decision-making, and critical intelligence. Gibbs (1979) notes this concept "is probably the most
familiar, for it is part of an individualistic, anti-authoritarian ideology . . . deep-rooted in Western
capitalistic democracies" (p. 121). Chene (1983), another Canadian researcher, suggests autonomy
stands for psychological and methodological learning dimensions. Boud (1988) provides several ideas
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on developing student autonomy. Candy (1991), an Australian adult educator, suggests that continuous
learning is a process in which adults manifest personality attributes of personal autonomy in selfmanaging
learning efforts. He also profiles various autonomous learner characteristics (pp. 459-66).
(c) Autodidaxy - Candy (1991) urges that self-direction be differentiated as a goal for learner control of
decision-making from an educational method in which teachers use processes for promoting selfdirection.
He proposes autodidaxy as a term for referring to self-instruction which takes place outside of
formal institutional settings.
(d) Self-education - self-directed learning can be called something else from country to country or
culture to culture. For example, in Russia it is known as self-education:
The role of self-education naturally increases in adults, for the potential possibilities of the personality
are extremely great, and the formed world outlook . . . will make it possible to develop one's abilities
more successfully, systematically and comprehensively. This is especially true since life does not stand
still and society is developing scientifically and technically. Anyone who does not engage in selfeducation,
voluntarily or not, lags behind the demands of the time. (Ruvinsky 1986 p. 31)
Ruvinsky also describes several Russians who engage in self-education.
(e) Open learning - individualized study often is associated with external degree, open learning, or nontraditional
programs where most learning takes place outside formal classrooms. One of the most widely
known is England's Open University, started in 1969, and emulated now in many countries. Currently,
development of many distance education efforts using computer-assisted learning is necessitating new
research and understanding regarding how technology can enhance self-directed learning.
1.3 Synthesizing Relevant Research
There have been many overviews of self-directed learning research. Brockett and Hiemstra (1991),
Caffarella and O'Donnell (1987), Candy (1991), and Merriam and Caffarella (1991) are some important
sources to read.
Confessore and Confessore (1992) conducted a three-iteration delphi study involving 22 self-directed
learning experts from several countries. Consensus was reached in several areas, such as the most
important self-directed learning research findings, research trends, practical applications, and published
works.
Based on such literature and research, five major findings can be extracted: (a) several instruments for
measuring some self-directed learning aspect have been developed; (b) self-directed learning readiness
has been associated with a various performance, psychological, and social variables; (c) a majority of
self-directed learning research efforts have been qualitative in nature; (d) practice implications and
techniques for facilitating self-directed learning are being devised; (e) a coherent self-directed learning
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theory is still not available.
1.4 Towards a Theory of Self-Directed Learning
Some of the confusion still existing and the fact consensus views regarding self-directed learning just
becoming available are some reasons a coherent theory is not available. Candy (1991) outlines some
useful dimensions of a theory and cautions about the often unrecognized dichotomy that exists between
self-directed learning as a process and as a goal. Long (1989) also urges any self-directed learning
theory building be examined in terms of sociological, pedagogical, and psychological dimensions.
Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) synthesized many aspects of knowledge about the topic and
conceptualized the PRO (Personal Responsibility Orientation) model. This model recognizes both
differences and similarities between self-directed learning as an instructional method and learner selfdirection
as a set of personality characteristics. Personal responsibility refers to individuals assuming
ownership for their own thoughts and actions. This does not necessarily mean control over all personal
life circumstances or environmental conditions, but it does mean people can control how they respond to
situations.
In terms of learning, it is the ability or willingness of individuals to take control that determines any
potential for self-direction. This means that learners have choices about the directions they pursue.
Along with this goes responsibility for accepting any consequences of one's thoughts and actions as a
learner.
Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) view the term self-directed learning (see Figure 1) as an instructional
process centering on such activities as assessing needs, securing learning resources, implementing
learning activities, and evaluating learning. Hiemstra and Sisco (1990) refer to this as individualizing
instruction, a process focusing on characteristics of the teaching-learning transaction. In essence, this
aspect of self-direction centers on those factors external to the individual.
While much early research and seminal thinking (see section 1.1) focused on this process orientation,
more recent research has related to better understanding various personal or personality characteristics of
successful self-directed learners. Self-concept, readiness for self-direction, the role of experience, and
learning styles have been some of the characteristics. This emphasis on a learner's personal
characteristics or internal factors is shown in Figure 1 as learner self-direction. In essence, learner selfdirection
refers to those individual characteristics that lead to taking primary responsibility for personal
learning.
Consequently, self-direction in learning is a term recognizing both external factors that facilitate a
learner taking primary responsibility, and internal factors that predispose an adult accepting
responsibility for learning-related thoughts and actions. At the same time there is a strong connection
between self-directed learning and learner self-direction. Both internal and external aspects of selfdirection
can be viewed on a continuum and optimal learning conditions exist when a learner's level of
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self-direction is balanced with the extent to which self-directed learning opportunities are possible.
The PRO model's final component is represented by a circle that encompasses all other elements. While
the individual's personality characteristics and the teaching and learning process are starting points for
understanding self-direction, the social context provides an arena in which the learning activity or results
are created. To fully understand self-directed learning activity, the interface existing between individual
learners, any facilitator or learning resource, and appropriate social dimensions must be recognized.
Thus, Brockett and Hiemstra recommend that self-direction in learning be used as an umbrella definition
recognizing those external factors facilitating adults taking primary responsibility for learning and those
internal factors or personality characteristics that incline one toward accepting such responsibility.
2. Usefulness of Self-Directed Learning Approaches
Formal education and schooling remain highly valued in most societies, and many educators, employers,
policy-makers, and average citizens find it difficult to place high value on what is learned on your own
or outside the formal system. However, adult educators have shown how non-traditional programs,
distance education, and self-directed learning efforts can meet many challenges associated with keeping
current on constantly changing knowledge. Self-directed learning researchers have challenged the
assumption that adult learning can take place only in the presence of accredited teachers. In addition,
because people can carry out self-directed learning outside of training organizations or formal schools,
many administrators are beginning to look toward such learning as a means for stretching scarce
education dollars.
Several researchers also have demonstrated that giving some learning responsibility back to learners in
many instances is more beneficial than other approaches. For example, in the workplace employees with
busy schedules can learn necessary skills at their own convenience through self-study. Some technical
staff in organizations who must constantly upgrade their knowledge can access new information through
an individualized resource center.
Perhaps most important of all, self-directed learning works! Many adults succeed as self-directed
learners when they could not if personal responsibility for learning decisions were not possible. Some
will even thrive in ways never thought possible when they learn how to take personal responsibility. In
many respects, future learners will need to become very self-directed throughout their lives just to cope
with the enormity of information available to them.
3. Self-Directed Learning Controversies
There have been several associated controversies. Many sources shown in the bibliography discuss
them. Three of the most prominent in the literature will be discussed in this section.
(a) Brookfield (1988) provided several critical reflections on self-directed learning. For example, he
suggested the over-identification of adult education researchers and practitioners with self-directed
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learning is unwise because of its inadequate theoretical base. He also suggested that research on selfdirected
learning up to 1988 had been carried out mainly with middle-class, white subjects. Another
concern was his perception that research on self-directed learning had been primarily quantitative in
nature.
Comment. As discussed elsewhere in this article there continues to be a need for more adequate theory
pertaining to self-directed learning. Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) and others have been working toward
that end. Groups traditionally viewed as hard-to-reach or outside the middle-class mainstream actually
have been studied more widely than suggested by Brookfield. Regarding his concern about excessive
use of quantitative research, Long and others associated with the annual International Symposium on
Self-Directed Learning (see the bibliography) have discovered that the majority of research efforts
actually have been qualitative in nature.
(b) Another major controversy has centered on Guglielmino's (1977) SDLRS, an instrument used by
many self-directed learning researchers. It has been criticized as difficult to use with certain groups,
without appropriate validation, and both conceptually and methodologically flawed (Field, 1989).
Comment. Guglielmino, Long, and McCune (1989) refuted the criticisms in a subsequent publication.
The instrument appears to have some limitations in terms of with whom and how it is used, but if
employed appropriately appears to be appropriate in helping to better understand aspects of self-directed
learning. However, additional instruments are needed for future quantitative research.
(c) Candy (1991) suggests that research on self-directed learning has been stalemated in recent years
because of the absence of a consistent theoretical base, continued confusion over the term's meaning,
and the use of inappropriate research paradigms.
Comment. Candy's criticisms seem consistent with what others have reported and should prompt new
thinking and research.
4. Emerging Trends and Issues
A number of trends are emerging from the research on self-directed learning. Confessore and
Confessore's (1992) delphi study also obtained consensus views on several trends.
(a) One trend is research on the feasibility of self-directed learning meeting some job-related training
needs in industry (Ravid, 1987). For example, during the 1992 International Symposium, nine out of
thirty-five concurrent sessions dealt with self-directed learning in the workplace.
(b) Another trend is efforts to better understand the role of technology in self-directed learning (Brockett
and Hiemstra, 1991). In the 1992 International Symposium, eight of thirty-five sessions dealt with selfdirected
learning and technology or distance education.
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(c) A third trend described here relates to researchers' focus on enhancing self-directed learning by better
understanding environmental factors (Spear and Mocker, 1984). For example, Hiemstra (1991) and his
colleagues describe various ways physical, social, and psychological aspects of the learning environment
can be affected.
4.1 Future Research Issues
Even though several research trends are observable, there still remain much needed research.
(a) Additional research is required to test conceptual ideas like the PRO model (Brockett and Hiemstra,
1991), and other emerging ideas to ensure the evolvement of a theory of self-directed learning.
(b) Ways need to be found whereby organizations and educators can facilitate self-directed learning and
enhance critical thinking skills without impinging on the value of self-directed or spontaneous learning.
For example, Smith and Associates (1990) describe how learners can be helped to learn, ask critical
questions, and reflect on what they are learning.
(c) It is important that better ways of incorporating computer technology and electronic communication
into self-directed learning be determined as more distance education programs are created.
(d) Future research is needed on such issues as expanding the repertoire of design and methodology for
studying self-directed learning, how competencies necessary for effective self-directed learning are
developed, and how the quality of self-directed learning resources can be measured.
(e) Ways of measuring and maintaining quality in self-directed learning need to be determined.
(f) The most appropriate roles for educators and educational organizations in relation to self-directed
learning need to be found.
(g) Finally, ways for learners and others to evaluate the value and effectiveness of self-directed learning
need to be developed.
See also: Adult Learning; Autonomous Learning; Distance Education; Independent study; Open
Learning
References
Boud, D (ed) 1988 Developing Student Autonomy in Learning. Kogan Page Limited, London, UK
Brockett, R G, Hiemstra, R 1991 Self-direction in Learning: Perspectives in Theory, Research, and
Practice. Routledge, London, UK
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Brookfield, S D 1986 Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San
Francisco, California
Brookfield, S D 1988 Conceptual, methodological and practical ambiguities in self-directed learning. In:
Long, H B and Associates 1988 Self-directed Learning: Application & theory. Department of Adult
Education, Tucker Hall, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
Caffarella, R S, O'Donnell, J M 1987 Self-directed adult learning: A critical paradigm revisited. Adult
Education Quarterly, 37: 199-211.
Candy, P C 1991 Self-direction for Lifelong Learning. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California
Chene, A 1983 The concept of autonomy in adult education: A philosophical discussion. Adult
Education Quarterly, 1: 38-47.
Confessore, G J, Confessore, S J 1992 In search of consensus in the study of self-directed learning. In:
Long, H B and Associates 1992 Self-directed Learning: Application and research. Oklahoma Research
Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
Craik, G L 1840 Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: Its Pleasures and Rewards. Harper &
Brothers, New York
Field, L 1989 An investigation into the structure, validity, and reliability of Guglielmino's Self-Directed
Learning Scale. Adult Education Quarterly, 39: 125-139
Gibbs, B 1979 Autonomy and authority in education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 13: 119-132
Guglielmino, L M 1977 Development of the self-directed learning readiness scale (Doctoral dissertation,
University of Georgia). Dissertation Abstracts International 1978 38: 6467A
Guglielmino, L M, Long, H B, McCune, S K 1989 Reactions to Field's investigation into the SDLRS.
Adult Education Quarterly, 39: 235-245
Hiemstra, R (ed) 1991 Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning (New Directions for Adult
and Continuing Education, No. 50). Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California
Hiemstra, R, Sisco, B 1990 Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and
Successful. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California
Houle, C O 1961 The Inquiring Mind. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin
Knowles, M S 1975 Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Cambridge Book Co.,
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New York
Knowles, M S & Associates 1984 Andragogy in Action. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco,
California
Long, H B 1989 Self-directed learning: Emerging theory and practice. In: Long, H B and Associates
1989 Self-directed Learning: Emerging Theory & Practice. Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing
Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
Merriam, S B, Caffarella, R S 1991 Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. Jossey-Bass
Publishers, San Francisco, California
Ravid, G 1987 Self-directed learning in industry. In: Marsick, V J (ed) 1987 Learning in the Workplace.
Croom Helm, London, UK
Ruvinsky, L I 1986 Activeness and self-education (J. Sayer, Trans.). Progress Publishers, Moscow
Smiles, S 1859 Self Help. John Murray, London, UK
Smith, R M and Associates 1990 Learning to Learn Across the Life Span. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San
Francisco, California
Spear, G E, Mocker, D W 1984 The organizing circumstance: Environmental determinants in selfdirected
learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 35: 1-10
Tough, A 1979 The Adult's Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult
Learning, 2nd edn. University Associates (Learning Concepts), San Diego, and Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education, Toronto, Ontario
Suggested Further Reading
Confessore, G J, Confessore, S J (eds) 1992 Guideposts to Self-directed Learning. Organization Design
and Development, Inc., 2002 Renaissance Blvd., Suite 100, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
Long, H B and Associates 1990 Advances in Research and Practice in Self-directed Learning. Oklahoma
Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, Norman,
Oklahoma
Long, H B and Associates 1991 Self-directed Learning: Consensus & Conflict. Oklahoma Research
Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma
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Long, H B, Terrence, R R 1991 Self-directed Learning Dissertation Abstracts 1966-1991. Oklahoma
Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, Norman,
Oklahoma
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-- Return to the initial SDL page
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