Self-directed learning (SDL) is the way in which students manage their own learning process. Self-directed learning is a collection of emotions, beliefs, attitudinal mindsets, and cognitive or behavioral processes used to manage learning tasks. Building such mindsets and skills can improve students’ academic and career outcomes. In concept, when instructors create inclusive conditions that feature the use of instructional supports targeting self-directed learning, students can achieve in courses better.
Our definition of self-directed learning groups the various processes into three categories: motivation, metacognition, and applied learning skills.
Below we provide a glossary of terms that researchers use to describe SDL competencies.
Terminology related to self-directed learning
Note: this glossary includes two different types of definitions: ones that we have defined according to our project needs and others drawn directly from research. We also include a list of foundational research at the bottom of this page and include hyperlinks as able.
Agency: Ability for a leaner to have an active role in their learning
Applied learning strategies: Learning techniques and self-discipline strategies that help learners to take greater ownership for achieving specific learning goals.
Expectancy value: A motivational concept that describes the process that learners use to weigh the personal value of assigned tasks against their confidence that the effort they invest will result in the tasks’ successful completion. In practice, these two types of expectations interact to shape motivation. For example, when both are high, learners are highly motivated, and when one is high and one is low, learners experience conflicted motivation. Instructors can support students by understanding which of these factors might be compromising motivation. (For a concise summary, see this link).
Fixed mindset: Belief that talents, knowledge, abilities, or goals cannot grow or develop.
Goal setting: The process used to identify and commit to desired outcomes or results.
Growth Mindset: Ability to perceive learning challenges as opportunities to improve intelligence, knowledge, and skills in a domain.
Help-seeking behavior: These behaviors comprise the abilities to identify when a problem requires additional resources to learn effectively and avoid the competing tendencies of giving up; it is preferred over independently persevering around a problem without visible progress. Learn more.
Metacognitive strategies: Processes used to plan, monitor, and assess learning and performance.
Motivational process: Emotions and beliefs about learning; often affect the amount of energy and effort students invest in learning.
Monitoring progress: Tracking of performance and capacity to meet personal goals and benchmarks.
Negative beliefs: These comprise doubtful views of one’s self-efficacy in a subject domain, sense of belonging, and/or expectations and personal value of succeeding in a subject domain. These negative beliefs may include “STEM imposter syndrome.”
Planning: Process to anticipate learning strategies needed to meet short- and long-term goals; includes estimating time and effort demands, planning out the steps to complete tasks by deadlines, and establishing networks of support.
Reflection: Sometimes called “self-reflection,” these are processes used after tasks to assess what worked and what didn’t. It includes self-reactions, such as satisfaction, feelings, or responses that may be classified as adaptive or defensive. It also includes self-judgments, such as evaluation and decisions about what caused problems.
Resource management strategies: Strategies used to manage and control time, effort, learning environment, and social support.
Retrieval practice: Active efforts to practice recalling information; facilitates retrieving information from memory, which strengthens and automates access to useful information.
Self-efficacy: Confidence in one’s ability to execute behaviors to achieve a goal or outcome and overcome challenges.
Sense of belonging: Perceived social support on campus, which includes having a feeling of connectedness and experiences of feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to others, such as faculty, staff, and peers.
Spacing practice: An approach to studying that establishes a period of time between episodes of practice to coincide with the point that the learner is close to forgetting the content; contrasts from concentrating practice within one continuous episode. Learn more.
Stereotype Threat: Self-consciousness or anxiety that those from a particular demographic group feel when engaged in an activity associated with a negative stereotype about their demographic group. Learn more.
Task analysis: Refers to how learners initially review assigned tasks and then set goals and make study plans.
The following citations reflect foundational research informing our project definitions:
Aleven, V., Stahl, E., Schworm, S., Fischer, F., & Wallace, R. (2003). Help seeking and help design in interactive learning environments. Review of educational research, 73(3), 277-320.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc., New York, NY.
Newman, R. S. (1994). Adaptive help seeking: A strategy of self-regulated learning, in D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.) Self-regulation of learning and performance: Issues and educational applications, 283-301.
Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge.
Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(2), 64-70.