Teaching and Learning Resources

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning is much more than students doing what they want, when they want. It is a shift in learning where the learner takes responsibility for his or her own learning. This includes recognizing what they need to learn, setting learning goals using certain strategies and ultimately assessing their own progress.  The instructor as a facilitator, builds an appropriate learning environment, helps students determine what to learn and guide them through the process.  As students assume responsibility for their own learning, they develop a deeper understanding of what they are learning.

The term self-directed learning is also used along with a variety of other concepts of learning including life-long learning, active learning, independent learning and student-centered learning. Self-directed learning is often understood through a comparison of its opposite learning approach – teacher-centered learning. The following chart illustrates the differences between the two approaches from the perspective of the instructor’s responsibility in the classroom. According to Malcolm Knowles (1975) these assumptions and processes should be read as a spectrum or continuum rather than as two extreme poles.

           Teacher Directed Learning

                  Self Directed Learning

Assumes the learner is essentially a dependent personality and that the teacher has the responsibility what and how the learner should
be taught.

Assumes that the human being grows in capacity (and need) to be self-directing as an essential component of maturing, and that this capacity should be nurtured to develop as rapidly as possible.

Assumes that the learner’s experience is of less value than that of the teacher, the textbook, the textbook writers and materials producers as a resource for learning, and that therefore the teacher has the responsibility to see to it that the
resource of these experts are ransmitted to the learner.

Assumes that the learner’s experiences become an increasingly rich resource for learning, which should be exploited along with the resources of experts.

Assumes that students enter into education with a subject-centered orientation to learning (they see learning as accumulating subject matter and that therefore learning experiences should be organized according to units of content.

Assumes that the students natural orientation is task or problem centered and that therefore learning experiences should be organized as task accomplishments or problem solving learning projects (or inquiry units).

Assumes that students are motivated to learn in response to external rewards and punishments, such as grades, diplomas, awards, degrees, and
fear of failure.

Assumes that learners are motivated by internal incentives, such as the need for self-esteem, the desire to achieve, the urge to grow, the satisfaction of accomplishment, the need to know something specific, and curiosity.


Self-Directed Learning (Inquiry, Problem Based Learning)

The diagram below uses a dichotomy to conceptualize a range of teaching options---who takes the initiative for learning, the teacher or the learner.

Who takes the initiative for learning?
Move your mouse over the terms for a fuller explanation. Some link to resources about the topic. (Diagram adapted from Self Directed Learning, Roy, D. 2002)
  • Simulation and role play have been successfully used at McMaster for years to involve students in their learning as well as to give them insight into their beliefs and values. Using a modification of the simulation, Bafa Bafa, (available at the CLL office) McMaster Social Sciences faculty have published their experience and results of using this method.
  • Inquiry has been used and researched extensively at McMaster.
  • McMaster has been a leader in the area of Problem Based Learning (PBL) for decades.

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Related Resources
Self Directed LearningAn overview of Malcolm Knowles’ book on Self-directed learning Piskurich, G. (1993). Self-directed learning. A Practical Guide to Design, Development, and Implementation.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.  

This book can be found in the CLL library, Mills Library 504.Call Number: LT029