Self-Directed Learning Skills: Strategies to Support Student Learning in Online STEM Courses

Ellen Wasserman, Susan Bickerstaff, and Nikki Edgecombe
April 2024

The Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative (the Collaborative) is currently researching the obstacles students face in online STEM courses and the ways that institutions and instructors can better support these students. As part of this research program, the authors conducted qualitative research in partnership with six community colleges and two broad-access universities to learn if, when, and how instructors support self-directed learning (SDL) skill development in their online courses. SDL skills can be understood as motivational, metacognitive, and applied learning processes—in other words, the ways that students maintain motivation, reflect and think about their learning, plan and set goals, and adjust their study strategies. In spring 2022, the authors surveyed 141 STEM instructors online and conducted 12 virtual “course tours” with STEM instructors who shared their screens and walked researchers through their course structure and content in the learning management system.

Instructors in the sample perceived online courses as learning environments where it is more difficult to engage students and help them stay on track with their coursework. According to faculty, students in online courses are less likely than those in in-person courses to experience the excitement and motivation of being part of a community of learners because of the lack of opportunities to engage with peers. Instructors also described fewer opportunities to learn about and build connections with their students through informal conversations, and they emphasized a number of barriers to incorporating SDL skills into instruction. Despite this, the authors provide a variety of examples of strategies and activities instructors indicated they use to support the processes that are theorized—according to the Collaborative’s SDL framework—to lead to SDL skill development, as well as three case examples of SDL instruction that faculty incorporated into their STEM course teaching. The brief concludes with an overview of the types of instructional strategies that support SDL skill development and how they can be used throughout a course.

A more thorough discussion of the perspectives of faculty and staff on online learning during COVID-19 is available here: Supporting Learning Online: Perspectives of Faculty and Staff at Broad-Access Institutions During COVID-19.


Categories: Publications Self-directed Learning