Self-Directed Learning

There is growing talk in education circles about empowering students to be self-directed in their learning. Whilst there is much talk, the actual implementation of this takes years of scaffolding and planning, as well as a true understanding and change in the role of the teacher within the learning environment. This, of course, is an exciting journey, to empower your students and allow them to fulfil their potential. Let’s explore this more…

What is Self-Directed Learning?

Being self-directed means students have a voice and choice in their learning. It is about empowering students to be an active, rather than a passive participant in the learning process. Where possible the learning may be driven by student interest with meaningful and relevant activities.

The seven facets of self-directed learners:

  1. Being Aware: Students are able to describe their strengths and learning gaps. This metacognitive awareness requires an understanding of how the brain learns, where they are in their learning journey and where they are heading.
  2. Setting goals: Once students know where they are at and their gaps, they can formulate appropriate goals to further their learning. This is firstly initiated with the teacher and over time students are entrusted to plan their learning steps.
  3. Taking the initiative: Students can work without constant guidance from a teacher and can problem solve when they are stuck. They have multiple learned strategies to assist them to problem solve, rather than relying on the teacher as the first responder.
  4. Identifying and choosing resources: Students have the ability and agency to identify and choose both people and material resources to complement and enhance their learning. This may include experts in the field, internet searches, books, podcasts and videos etc.
  5. Choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies: This means students can make choices in their learning with and/or without teacher direction, to be ‘an agent’ of their own learning. This may include using thinking maps, note taking techniques, study strategies, questioning techniques, working alongside others or independently etc.
  6. Evaluating outcomes: Students can reflect upon their learning and their process and evaluate the effectiveness of both.
  7. Resetting goals: Using the data and evidence from their evaluations, students are able to increase their self-awareness of their learning abilities and reset their goals to develop their next steps in their learning.

Why is Self-Directed Learning Important?

With a constantly changing world and futurists predicting that over 40% of our five-year-old children will be self-employed to have any form of income when they leave school, the ability to be self-directed in paramount for our students. Traditional education has been focused on the ‘employee mindset’: Turn up on time, do as you are told, achieve to a certain standard, and clock out at the end of the day. This factory model served an important purpose in the nineteenth and twentieth century. It is not, however, as valid in the 21st Century with instant access to information and the continually changing landscape of the future. The ability to think, problem solve, be a self-starter, create and innovate are just some of the important skills for a prosperous future. These skills and dispositions are strongly developed in a self-directed culture.

Gradual Release: Understanding the Role of the Teacher in Self-Directed Learning

One of the biggest issues for teachers when developing self-directed learners is to be able to ‘let go’ of the control in the classroom. To be able to empower and then trust students in their learning and for the teachers to shift from being the font of knowledge to a facilitator of the learning. This includes being able to instruct, guide, coach, personalise, motivate and give feedback to students to further their learning. This, of course, does not happen overnight and requires deliberate scaffolding. It means allowing students to take increasing and incremental responsibility for their learning over time. Students will make mistakes, fail and learn throughout this process. A cartoon I saw said, “I expect you to all be independent, innovative, critical thinkers who will do exactly as I say” is the not what this about!

Developing students to be self-directed learning requires the teacher to embrace students as partners. This gradual release from teacher-directed to student-directed with teacher supervision to student self-directed happens over time. This means teachers gradually shift the responsibility of the learning from the teacher to the student. Dr Bena Kallick explains the progression like this: Let me do it while you watch, let’s you and I do it together, you do it while I watch and help, now do it on your own.

The Trinity of Self-Directed Learners is the ability to be

  • Self -Managing
  • Self-Monitoring
  • Self-Modifying


Prof. Art Costa & Dr Bena Kallick define self-managing as knowing the significance of and being inclined to approach tasks with clarity of outcomes, a strategic plan, and necessary data. It involves drawing from past experiences, anticipating success indicators, and creating alternatives for accomplishment.

A self-managing student knows how to manage at least two areas of themselves:

  1. Physical self: staying in their seat, keeping their hands to themselves and has an awareness of stress within their body and ways to release this.
  2. Executive function: this includes metacognitive awareness, the ability to delay gratification, planning & organisation skills, prioritisation, the ability to get started and finish work, and being able to stay focused on a task.

Art & Bena explain self-monitoring to mean being aware of our own use of thinking skills, strategies and dispositions and their effects on others and on the environment. It involves having sufficient self-knowledge about what works, establishing conscious metacognitive strategies to alert the perceptions for in- the-moment indicators of whether the strategic plan is working or not, and to assist in the decision-making processes of altering the plan and choosing the right actions and strategies.
The goal here is for students to be able to observe, record and assess their own academic and social behaviours. They have awareness of their stories, narrative and self-talk, know where they are in the process of their learning and can evaluate themselves against pre-defined criteria and rubrics.

Art and Bena define self-modifying as taking time to reflect and to gain insightfulness by making meaning from an experience. Meaning is made by analysing feelings and data, comparing results with expectations, finding causal factors, and projecting ahead to how these insights may apply to future situations. Self-modifying implies making a commitment to learn from and to employ those insights and meanings autonomously in future events and situations.
A self-modifying learner is able to use their self-evaluation and awareness to change their behaviour and strategies. They seek evidence of where they are in their learning process and amend their efforts to an improved outcome.

Where to start…

A great place to start might be to define your learner profile or ‘who’ you want your students to ‘be’ because of the teaching and learning happening in your classroom/school. Next, decide on a scaffolded approach at different year levels or a development over time. This process is more akin to the tortoise than the hare and should not be seen as addition to your curriculum. It is an integrated approach which will not only deepen the learning. Start slowly with small steps. Ultimately you are aiming to empower your students to be able to navigate the complexities of life within and beyond the classroom. This takes time.

Tags: , , , , ,

Published on Tuesday, January 26th, 2021, under Habits of Mind, Learning, Modern learning environment, Teacher Effectiveness, Transformational Learning

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

6 Responses to “Self-Directed Learning”

  1. Claudine Grinker says:

    Dear Karen
    I believe a goal of a teacher must be to get learners to become self-directed. Yes, teachers need a scaffolding approach depending on the age and experience and maturity of the learner to achieve self-directed thinking.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Yes Claudine – I agree! Teaching is so much more than curriculum and government mandates. The goal of SDL takes time and needs deliberate thought and planning. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Great article! My homeschooled kids use these seven facets – some better than others – and there is an eighth that I think is important.

    My kids also have the autonomy to decide when they want to stop learning something.

    Angela Duckworth in her book ‘Grit’ defines this as the ‘hard things rule.’ Everyone in her family has to do one hard thing that is self-directed, and they are allowed to quit at the end of an interval – end of the semester, milestone of the project, etc.

    I think having the ability to decide when to stop studying things is a key component of empowering kids to be self-directed learners.

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Great point Caelan – I love the autonomy of being able to stop and the distinction of stopping not because it’s hard. 🙂

  3. Paula McMullen says:

    Well articulated Karen. Slow and steady is key and it is vital to keep this type of change simple, for both teachers and students.
    I often suggest to teachers to start in an area that they feel comfortable in. Even just changing the pronoun that a teacher uses whilst having a conversation with students and adults alike is a start. For students… letting them choose when and how the learning can be managed throughout the day can be empowering.
    I use the gradual release of responsibility as one of the many tools I have to guide instruction in all areas of curriculum but the trick is knowing what part of the process to use and for what purpose.
    (I have to keep reminding myself that learning is not lineal and all parts of the process needs to be deliberately and explicitly taught.)
    Finally, as educators/leaders we must make it clear that learning (for students and teachers) can be incredibly messy, hard and chaotic at times but having a deep knowledge of ourselves as learners can be liberating. Giving students the ‘freedom’ to self direct, monitor, modify and learn at a pace that is suitable to their own process gives them the confidence to be learners for life!

    • Karen Boyes says:

      yes Paula 🙂 The tortoise approach is key! Plus knowing is will be hard at the start, messy in the middle but gorgeous at the end (Robin Sharma quote). Thanks for taking the time to share your journey. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Copyright © 2024 Karen Tui Boyes Speaker Website created by Web Matters in collaboration with School Branding Matters