Within the classroom setting there are two general ways of gaining knowledge: other-directed learning and self-directed learning. Other-directed learning is the traditional means of delivering instruction where a teacher leads the lesson and students are more passive in listening and taking notes. It is the means with which teachers are most comfortable because they are in control of what is taught and, in most instances, how students learned. However, around 1975, self-directed learning became a major movement in education, and it is proving to be a strategic instructional approach.

What is Self-Directed Learning?

Malcom Knowles made popular the idea that student choice should be the center of learning, especially in older learners. In his words, self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take control of their own learning, with or without the help of others. They initiate the diagnoses of their own learning needs, formulating their own learning goals, identifying necessary resources for learning, choosing appropriate learning strategies, and then evaluating their own learning objectives (Knowles, 1975, p. 18).

While not a new concept, today self-directed learning is gaining a new momentum as teachers discover the importance of this strategy both in the traditional and virtual learning models. It is the most natural means of acquiring new information, as both very young toddlers and older adults will attest. The idea is that if you are interested in something, you will naturally want to learn more about it.

What are the Benefits of Self-Directed Learning?

There are many benefits of students taking control of their own learning. As stated before, naturally we all learn best when we are interested in the topic. Because self-directed learning is driven by the intrinsic motivation to learn, students take ownership in acquiring new knowledge.

Another benefit is the way this strategy teaches students to learn through research and application of skills. Traditionally, teachers often tell students how to learn through memorization or note-taking, but students may lack the understanding of how to acquire knowledge on their own. When involved in self-directed learning, the student becomes in charge of collecting data, doing research, or performing experiments. This helps students understand the best approaches for gathering different types of information.

Another benefit of this type of learning is developing life skills such as setting goals and reflecting on progress. When placed in charge of their own learning, students also become college and career ready as they develop skills such as time management, problem solving, and presentation and communication. Finally, self-directed learning provides a means of reaching each learning style present in your classroom.

Self-Directed Strategies to Try in Your Class

Self-directed learning does not mean giving up on teaching standards. It is simply a way that allows students to decide how they learn and present the material. It also is not a means for replacing the teacher, as there is still a need for a teacher to guide and model important strategies. Some of these strategies include:

  • Learning to Set Goals – The teacher can lead students in setting goals. Together, they can make a list of topics about which the student will set out to master. Students can then document their learning results and feel a sense of accomplishment as they check off topics. Teachers can help students set realistic and obtainable goals until the student is ready to do this process on their own.
  • Advancing Understanding – It is important to allow students to start with a familiar topic. This will help guide students through the learning process and challenge them to learn new facts about a known topic. In this way, students will begin to understand how they learn new information.
  • Teaching the Difference in Useful and Useless Information – As students begin to take charge of their learning, it will be important for them to know how to determine if information is valid and reliable or simply fun or a fallacy. Part of learning how to learn is knowing what information can be trusted. Teachers may provide perimeters for gaining information until students acquire a full understanding of this process.
  • Sharing New Knowledge – Given a list of topics or standards, students may choose what most interests them to research and create a slide presentation. Once the research is completed, students can share their presentations. This will further develop skills needed to be both a presenter and an attentive audience member.
  • Creating a Challenge – Using game-based strategies will encourage students’ participation. Just like adults, students sometimes need friendly competition and rewards for working hard toward completion of a project. One strategy is to provide students with a Bingo card of options. Each card might have nine activities based on the standard needing to be learned. Students can then choose three to complete. The activities can then provide choices for each learning style. One choice may be a cooperative learning activity; one might be a creative writing; while one may be informative writing. One choice may reach the artistic learner while another may allow the student to do a book report or study a map or diagram.
  • Getting Creative – Have students create something to show what they have learned. By creating a habitat, a diorama, a song or poem, a short story, a model, or a map, students begin to apply their understanding and tap into their creativity.
  • Allowing Collaboration – Self-directed learning does not have to be a single-person strategy. Students need to know how to work together, and self-directed learning is a perfect way to encourage cooperative learning. Students who work together can support each other and learn to communicate their own understandings. They may brainstorm to collect ideas and then chose a common topic to further develop.

With the wealth of online resources at today’s students’ fingertips, self-directed learning is easily implemented in the classroom – whether traditional or virtual. It is a great way to reach virtual learners who may easily become distracted in video conferencing styles of teaching or who need valuable things to do independently. No matter which classroom setting, students will gain more than the just the knowledge they are researching as they will also develop important life skills in reaching their learning goals.

For those that are used to other-directed instruction, teachers may want to begin by modeling and using this new technique along with traditional means of instruction delivery. Remember, teachers are still needed to guide and monitor the exploration of topics. However, soon teachers and students will most likely determine that they learn best when students take charge of their learning.


Knowles, M. (1975) Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers, New York: Cambridge Books.