Working Toward a Definition of Self-Directed Learning and a Unifying Framework to Support Students

July 5, 2023 | By Amy E. Brown, Louise Yarnall, and Rebecca Griffiths

The term self-directed learning—as we are currently using it within the Postsecondary Collaborative—encompasses an intricate set of mindsets and intrapersonal skills that students use to manage their learning. Though educators and researchers often think of them as discrete skills, we theorize that they are more powerful together than alone.

Self-directed learning includes motivational mindsets such as sense of belonging and growth mindset, metacognitive processes such as planning and progress monitoring, and applied learning strategies such as seeking help and managing time effectively. This definition draws from research on self-regulated learning, motivation, self-determination theory, and sense of belonging, but we have put them together into a new model that is guiding our research.

We believe, and research shows, that what we refer to as self-directed learning skills can be a tool for supporting student success in online courses.

The Collaborative selected the term self-directed learning to underscore the importance of helping college students take an active, directive role in managing their learning processes. To better address the needs of historically marginalized students, we also wish to elevate the importance of supporting college students’ sense of belonging and the personal relevance of their course learning. Ultimately, we aim to connect this set of concepts to provide a useful framework for practitioners to support related mindsets and skills that underpin student success.

There is no established and commonly used umbrella term for these mindsets and skills. In interviews with faculty and staff over the past year, we were interested to learn what language they used to speak about the mindsets and skills at their institutions or in their departments and how they saw those mindsets and skills interacting to affect learning. They expressed a range of awareness of the mindsets and skills that we include in our definition of self-directed learning.

Faculty and staff talked about individual skills and additional dispositions, competencies, or concepts that may be related to self-directed learning, such as growth mindset, self-discipline, confidence, grit, reflective practice, advocating for oneself, and college and career navigation. Some used an alternative term for collections of these skills, such as “portable skills,” “metacognitive skills,” “cross-functional skills,” “soft skills,” or “self-sufficiency.”

Because people use many different terms and concepts to describe these types of skills, it can be challenging to discuss them and to identify practices that support students’ development of the skills. A unifying framework could help practitioners take an intentional and integrated approach to supporting students.

On the other hand, we recognize that the term self-directed learning has drawbacks. It can suggest that students alone bear responsibility for developing and applying these mindsets and skills, when in reality they are largely influenced by the course, department, and institutional contexts in which the students are learning.

One administrator we interviewed said they did not like the term self-directed learning because they felt it misleads students about what happens in online courses.

“I’m 100% behind the [specific skills you are discussing], but that title, ‘self-directed learning’—and it just could come back to me and my experience with students—we have way too many students who take an online course and feel like they’re teaching themselves and that they’re on their own,” the administrator said. “And the phrase self-directed learning seems to feed into that.”

The term stems from several decades of adult learning theory and research. There is even a research society and annual conference in the name of self-directed learning. In our work, we aim to explore how classroom context can be designed to support the development of these skills.

Despite a lack of consensus on terminology, many faculty and staff said they viewed these skills as important for students, particularly in online courses. Critically, faculty also saw a role for the institution to help students develop these skills, especially as not all students arrive at college with equitable opportunities to build the skills.

“I do weave [support for self-directed learning skills] throughout all my courses because I think they’re really important,” said one faculty member. “When it’s time to register for courses again, I’ll say to everybody, ‘Okay, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough time to do all this. We’re going to look at what are the milestones in the program. Why do you want to take this course face to face? Why do you want to take this course remote? What are your reasons for this?’ Because I think all those things are really important for a student to actually evaluate.”

Over the next couple of years, Collaborative researchers and partners will explore additional ways to describe the concepts we refer to as self-directed learning. Regardless of the term used, our research thus far has confirmed the importance of understanding how instructors can foster motivational attitudes, metacognitive processes, and applied learning skills that can work together to make students more successful in online courses.

For more information on the terms we are using to frame our research, visit the Collaborative’s new glossary.