ERIC Identifier: ED312457
Publication Date: 1989-00-00
Author: Lowry, Cheryl Meredith
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Supporting and Facilitating Self-Directed Learning. ERIC Digest
Perhaps because the concept is so central to what adult education is all
about (Mezirow 1985), self-directed learning has been one of the field's
high-interest topics for more than a decade. Researchers, theorists, and
practitioners have all asked the questions: What is self-directed learning? Who
is engaged in it? What are the proper roles for educators and institutions
wanting to provide it?
WHAT IS SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING?
An estimated 70 percent of
adult learning is self-directed learning (Cross 1981). Self-directed learning
has been described as "a process in which individuals take the initiative, with
or without the help of others," to diagnose their learning needs, formulate
learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning
strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes (Knowles 1975).
Mocker and Spear (1982) included self-directed learning in a descriptive
model of lifelong learning based entirely on the locus of control for decision
making about the objectives and means of learning. The model is a two-by-two
matrix of learner and institution; the self-directed learning situation occurs
when learners--not the institution--control both the learning objectives and the
means of learning. The following situations occupy the other cells of the
matrix: (1) formal learning, in which institutions, not learners, control
objectives and the means of learning; (2) nonformal learning, in which learners
control the objectives and institutions control the means; and (3) informal
learning, in which institutions control the objectives but learners control the
means of learning.
Thus, whether or not learning is self-directed depends not on the subject
matter to be learned or on the instructional methods used. Instead,
self-directedness depends on who is in charge--who decides what should be
learned, who should learn it, what methods and resources should be used, and how
the success of the effort should be measured. To the extent the learner makes
those decisions, the learning is generally considered to be self-directed.
Perhaps only degrees of self-directedness are actually possible, given the
frequent necessity of maintaining institutional standards and, as Mezirow (1985)
points out, the impossibility of freely choosing among objectives unless all
possible objectives are known. Some writers have pointed out that Mocker and
Spear's model could be viewed as a continuum rather than as a matrix.
Some self-directed learning takes place in comparative isolation in secluded
libraries. Other self-directed learners engage in more interpersonal
communication (with experts and peers, for instance) than is typically available
in conventional classroom education.
The resources available to self-directed learners include printed and
audiovisual materials; experts interviewed by letter, telephone, or in person;
cultural institutions such as museums, zoos, and arboretums; and associations of
WHO IS ENGAGED IN SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING?
About 90 percent
of all adults conduct at least one self-directed learning project per year.
Typical learners engage in five, spending an average of 100 hours on each
project (Tough 1978). (It is important to bear in mind that most of the research
that has been conducted on self-directed learning has investigated the
activities of middle-class adults.)
Many self-directed learners are attempting to gain new skills, knowledge, and
attitudes to improve their work performance. Others conduct their self-directed
learning to improve family life and health, enjoy the arts and physical
recreation, participate in a hobby, or simply increase their intellectual
Adult educators have found that some adults are incapable of engaging in
self-directed learning because they lack independence, confidence, or resources.
Not all adults prefer the self-directed option, and even the adults who practice
self-directed learning also engage in more formal educational experiences such
as teacher-directed courses (Brookfield 1985).
WHAT ARE THE PROPER ROLES FOR EDUCATORS AND
The following list summarizes points made by several writers
(Ash 1985; Bauer 1985; Brockett and Hiemstra 1985; Brookfield 1985; Cross 1978;
Hiemstra 1982, 1985; and Reisser 1973) regarding how adult educators can best
facilitate self-directed learning:
o Help the learner identify the starting point for a learning project and
discern relevant modes of examination and reporting.
o Encourage adult learners to view knowledge and truth as contextual, to see
value frameworks as cultural constructs, and to appreciate that they can act on
their world individually or collectively to transform it.
o Create a partnership with the learner by negotiating a learning contract
for goals, strategies, and evaluation criteria.
o Be a manager of the learning experience rather than an information
o Help learners acquire the needs assessment techniques necessary to discover
what objectives they should set.
o Encourage the setting of objectives that can be met in several ways and
offer a variety of options for evidence of successful performance.
o Provide examples of previously acceptable work.
o Make sure that learners are aware of the objectives, learning strategies,
resources, and evaluation criteria once they are decided upon.
o Teach inquiry skills, decision making, personal development, and
self-evaluation of work.
o Act as advocates for educationally underserved populations to facilitate
their access to resources.
o Help match resources to the needs of learners.
o Help learners locate resources.
o Help learners develop positive attitudes and feelings of independence
relative to learning.
o Recognize learner personality types and learning styles.
o Use techniques such as field experience and problem solving that take
advantage of adults' rich experience base.
o Develop high-quality learning guides, including programmed learning kits.
o Encourage critical thinking skills by incorporating such activities as
o Create an atmosphere of openness and trust to promote better performance.
o Help protect learners against manipulation by promoting a code of ethics.
o Behave ethically, which includes not recommending a self-directed learning
approach if it is not congruent with the learners' needs.
For educational institutions and employers engaged in providing self-directed
learning experiences, Hiemstra (1982, 1985) and Brockett and Hiemstra (1985)
recommend the following:
o Have the faculty meet regularly with panels of experts who can suggest
curricula and evaluation criteria.
o Conduct research on trends and learners' interests.
o Obtain the necessary tools to assess learners' current performance and to
evaluate their expected performance.
o Provide opportunities for self-directed learners to reflect on what they
o Recognize and reward learners when they have met their learning objectives.
o Promote learning networks, study circles, and learning exchanges.
o Provide staff training on self-directed learning and broaden the
opportunities for its implementation.
Ash, C. R. "Applying Principles of Self-Directed
Learning in the Health Professions." In New Directions for Continuing Education
No. 25 (Self-Directed Learning: From Theory to Practice), edited by S.
Brookfield. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.
Bauer, B. A. "Self-Directed Learning in a Graduate Adult Education Program."
In New Directions for Continuing Education No. 25 (Self-Directed Learning: From
Theory to Practice), edited by S. Brookfield. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.
Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. "Bridging the Theory-Practice Gap in
Self-Directed Learning." In New Directions for Continuing Education No. 25
(Self-Directed Learning: From Theory to Practice), edited by S. Brookfield. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985. (ERIC No. EJ 313 258).
Brookfield, S. "The Continuing Educator and Self-Directed Learning in the
Community." In New Directions for Continuing Education No. 25 (Self-Directed
Learning: From Theory to Practice), edited by S. Brookfield. San Francisco:
Cross, K. P. "The Missing Link: Implications for the Future of Adult
Education." New York: Syracuse University Research Corp., 1978. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 095 254).
Cross, K. P. "Adults As Learners." San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981.
Hiemstra, R. "Self-Directed Adult Learning: Some Implications for Practice."
March 1982. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 262 259).
Hiemstra, Roger, ed. "Self-Directed Adult Learning: Some Implications for
Facilitators." July 1985. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 262 260).
Knowles, M. "Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers." New
York: Association Press, 1975.
Mezirow, J. "A Critical Theory of Self-Directed Learning." In New Directions
for Continuing Education No. 25 (Self-Directed Learning: From Theory to
Practice), edited by S. Brookfield. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985. (ERIC No.
EJ 313 257).
Mocker, D. W., and Spear, G. E. "Lifelong Learning: Formal, Nonformal,
Informal, and Self-Directed." Information Series No. 241. Columbus: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, The National Center
for Research in Vocational Education, The Ohio State University, 1982. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 220 723).
Reisser, L. J. "A Facilitation Process for Self-Directed Learning." Ed.D.
diss., University of Massachusetts, 1973.
Tough, A. "Major Learning Efforts: Recent Research and Future Directions."
Adult Education 28 (Summer 1978): 250-263. (ERIC No. EJ 197 451).