Embracing Self-Directed Learning

Neither adult education nor self-directed learning are new. However, the study of these topics is fairly new. During the past century or so, our knowledge of how adults mentally acquire skills and information has grown, and with it, opportunities to improve the quality of their educational experiences. If you are considering applying to an online degree program, it helps to gain basic understanding of these concepts.

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What is Andragogy?

Andragogy is the study of adult learning, explains professor Sharan B. Merriam. The concept of andragogy began in 19th century Germany to distinguish between the educational programs of children and adults. Later in the 20th century, the word came to be associated with the professionalization of adult education in both Europe and America. However, American educator Malcolm Knowles is credited with defining our modern understanding of the concept.

Unlike children, adults require different educational interactions that speak to their needs as students. You might, for example, need explanations for why certain topics are being taught, show a preference for a self-directed approach to learning, or retain information better when working on common tasks with others.

Assumptions of Andragogy

Early on, Knowles’ research assumed five core aspects of adult learners:

  1. Adult learners have an independent self-concept. Therefore, they are capable of directing their own learning.
  2. Adult learners have accumulated a large quantity of life experiences, which provide rich resources for learning.
  3. Adult learners have learning needs that relate closely with their changing social roles.
  4. The learning style of adult learners is problem-centered and focuses on immediate application of knowledge.
  5. Adult learners are motivated to learn by internal (rather than external) factors.


Although Knowles’ premise was considered a strong one, many criticized his assumptions.

Some thought that the list above better described principles of good education practice. For example, identifying one’s learning needs and setting personal learning objectives can just as easily be the result of successful classroom facilitation as they can of maturity. Others thought that the list was unclear. Did it characterize what an adult learner is, or what one should ideally be like? It could be read as both a theory about learning and a model of teaching. And some questioned whether the assumptions actually described adult learners properly. (For example, adult learners may be externally motivated by required work training, while children may be internally motivated by curiosity.)

After working through these criticisms, Knowles acknowledged that andragogy is defined more by the learning situation than the learners.


Knowles identifies certain outcomes that make any venture in andragogy successful. As an adult learner, you are considered successful if you:

While andragogy explains the theoretical aspects of adult learning, the practical aspects of this phenomenon are different. If successful adult education is a destination, self-directed learning is the vehicle that gets you there.

What Is Self-Directed Learning?

Knowles also wrote extensively about self-direction in learning. He defines it as a process:

“… in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help 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.”

Knowles goes on to explain three reasons why self-directed learning is important.

  1. Evidence suggests that self-directed learners learn more and better than those who wait to be taught (known as “reactive learners”). Self-directed learners also have more motivation, purpose, and make greater use of what they learn over lengthier periods of time.
  2. Self-directed learning is coordinated with the natural psychological development process. An essential aspect of maturity is, in fact, self-direction: the increased responsibility we all take for our own lives.
  3. Developments in education have put an increasingly heavy responsibility on learners to take self-initiatives. Students who do not have the skills necessary to participate in self-directed learning will be more likely to get frustrated, anxious, and fail at their studies.

How do you develop self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning is essential to success as an online student. Roger Hiemstra, a well-known adult education scholar, suggests that you begin the process of developing as a self-directed learner by evaluating your competency in the following areas:

  • Inquiry and problem solving
  • Keeping an open mind to alternative viewpoints
  • Quickly distinguishing relevant resources and data
  • Obtaining information on your performance, both through self-observation and feedback
  • Assessing personal academic performance
  • Creating learning goals, plans, and activities based on personal learning needs
  • Setting performance objectives
  • Improving academically by watching others
  • Committing to working on goals
  • Sustaining self-motivation continuously

Understanding your personal learning style is another way to develop as a self-directed learner. Richard M. Felder identifies a number of potential learning styles observed in students:

Dimension of LearningLearning StylesExplanation
PerceptionSensoryYou prefer to take in sights, sounds, physical sensations
IntuitiveYou prefer to perceive through possibilities and insights
InputVisualYou take in information most effectively through visual means
AuditoryYou take in information most effectively through sounds
OrganizationInductiveYou respond best to information presented as facts and observations, with underlying principles inferred
DeductiveYou respond best to information where underlying principles are explained, and its applications are implied
ProcessingActiveYou process information through physical engagement or discussion
ReflectiveYou process information through contemplation
UnderstandingSequentialYou prefer to organize information in a linear and logically sequenced fashion
GlobalYou prefer to organize information holistically

To be a successful self-directed learner, you should know that the traditional roles of student and teacher may shift. Your teacher may no longer serve in an authoritative role. Instead, a teacher may serve as an advisor, helping to encourage and direct learning experiences without providing easy answers or simply offering information for you to memorize.

This change leaves room for you to take more responsibility for your learning. It boosts your motivation to self-assess and self-monitor progress. You are able to define your own goals and adapt as necessary. Ultimately, all this makes it possible for you to achieve greater academic success.

Finally, seasoned self-directed learners display or develop certain characteristics as self-motivators, self-managers, and self-appraisers. Ideally you should demonstrate the following characteristics, according to educators Kath Murdoch and Jeni Wilson:

Self-directed learning is a skill that takes time, effort, and practice. However, if you wish to take a more active role in your education, it is also practical and highly effective.

The Promise of Self-Directed Learning

Adult education is not simply an afterthought of the education system. It is in fact a well-paved path that relies heavily on the strengths unique to adult learners — namely introspection and a complex understanding of the world. Because of this, online degree programs offer a unique promise to help you reach your full potential as a learner, a professional, and as a person.

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