Strategies for Encouraging Self-Directed Learning

Today’s college graduates must be able to think critically and creatively, and be able to communicate and collaborate effectively. Twenty-first century teaching and learning must be focused on more than knowledge acquisition. It must also involve a process that empowers students to self assess and take responsibility for their own learning. Yet most students are unaware of how they learn or what constitutes the most effective ways to study.

What is self-directed learning?

“Self-directed learning” is a term we use broadly to encompass many aspects of taking initiative for, being aware of, and monitoring one’s own learning, including aspects of self-regulation, metacognition, and motivation. A self-directed learner knows how to learn in different environments and for different purposes, and takes initiative and responsibility for one’s own learning. It is one of the biggest predictors of a student’s overall academic success because the learner drives the learning experience.

Self-directed learning is about creating lifelong learners. It helps students see their own learning gaps and develop skills to make the most of any learning situation. It is about socializing students to be productive citizens in a world where access to information and the construction of knowledge is rapidly changing.  Self-directed learning helps students understand the value of what and how they are learning.

Why is self-directed learning important?

Many of our course improvement efforts require that students know how to learn in different ways in order to be successful. Many of our promising teaching initiatives have also shown that students struggle with new teaching methods and can not always easily adapt to different learning environments. Many students are unaware of how they learn or what constitutes effective ways to study.

The good news is, self-regulation is not an innate ability but can be developed by any student. Independent learning skills can be taught and encouraged through specific teaching methods.

Planning for Learning
  • Include self-directed learning outcomes in your syllabus.
  • Ask students to set their own goals or learning outcomes for the class, through a discussion, a short assignment, or a learning contract.
  • Include a short reflective assignment such as, “How I earned an A in this class.”
  • Help students learn about learning. For example ask students to read and discuss Robert Leamnson’s article Learning (Your First Job)
  • Use knowledge surveys (where students do not actually answer content questions but report their confidence at being able to do so) at the beginning, beginning and end, or throughout a course as a way for students to reflect on what they think they know and can apply.
Monitoring Learning
  • Wrappers” are short handouts or surveys that students complete along with an assignment or exam. The wrapper focuses on the learning process rather than on the content itself. Exam wrappers are often completed after an exam is returned. Other types of cognitive wrappers  help students self assess their learning progress before, during and after an assignment.
  • Reflective writing assignments can help students explore their own learning. Ask students to arrive in class with 2-3 questions about the reading as an “entry ticket.” Or give them some prompts such as ‘What concepts most stuck with you, what do you disagree with, what connections can you make to other concepts in our course?
  • Simple Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) can be used to help students monitor their learning progress. Useful methods include One Minute Papers (simply asking students to take a minute to answer 2-3 questions such as “what was the most important thing you learned today? or What question remains unanswered?) and The Muddiest Point (“What is the biggest area of confusion for you in this assignment/today’s class?”)
  • Concept maps are useful tools for both students and instructors to explore how ideas and concepts relate to each other. Some instructors have students create simple concepts maps early in the course, and then revisit them over time as a way to see how their knowledge has changed and grown.
  • “Test autopsies” ask students to describe their study time and strategies, and examine their test answers, to look for patterns and identify successful and unsuccessful study methods.
Evaluating Learning
  • After providing detailed feedback to students, ask them to paraphrase your feedback back to you in their own words.
  • Ask students to write a letter to the next class/cohort, describing what worked for them in this course and what they would have done differently.
  • Have students create a list of personal takeaways or write a “future uses” paper describing how they anticipate using 3-5 course concepts or skills in their future lives.
Additional Resources

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