BlogLearning & Development

The Power of Self-Directed Learning for Organizations

Emily Mason
Writer, Learning and Development
Learning & Development
November 27, 2023

Explore the power of self-directed learning: a guide to fostering autonomy, enhancing skills, and driving personal and professional growth.

Cultivate a Culture of Learning

Whether we’re 2 or 82, we can all agree that we usually don’t like being told what to do! Autonomy in professional life has become highly valued, and employees are asking for workplace training to be more personal and self-selected. 

If you’re struggling with low engagement rates and a lack of buy-in from your teams, it may be time to investigate, plan, and bring self-directed learning strategies into your training toolkit. 

There are some powerful benefits from the self-directed learning method, plus key considerations for your employees and administrators if you want to start using it.

What is self-directed learning? 

Self-directed learning is discovery or study that’s planned, undertaken, and driven by the student or learner. It’s a formal theory of adult learning – explored most prominently by Malcolm Knowles in the 1980’s. Self-directed learning theory acknowledges that most adults undertake learning projects of their own initiative, whether it’s to solve problems or gain a new skill.

Self-directed learning has lots of applications to workplace training. Give your employees greater ownership over which courses they take and how they spend their training hours, and you will likely see an increase in engagement and reported satisfaction with your training program.

An important note: the self-directed learning model is not just about the pace of the content. It’s also about freedom for learners to choose topics and skills they want to explore in greater depth. Self-paced learning is excellent for efficiency, but self-paced topics are usually still pre-selected by the employer or training manager. Self-directed learning is more about putting the employee in control to craft their overall training plan and choose areas of focus. 

Why is self-directed learning important? 

Cultural trends are shifting towards decentralization and democratization of ideas and influence online. Corporate life and practices have shifted too. Employees have more tools than ever to find answers to their questions and to learn new skills. 43% of Gen Z workers say they prefer to set their own plan and approach for workplace learning.  

Self-directed learning treats the employee as the authority on what they want to learn – as well as their own strengths, weaknesses, and top areas for growth. It provides the freedom that employees crave – but it’s balanced within a larger training strategy that includes required training like health and safety training. Employees can’t opt out of those requirements, but a combination of self-directed and required training will deliver higher engagement and learner satisfaction. 

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Examples of self-directed learning 

In life outside of work, self-directed learning is an expression of curiosity, like when you read a headline and decide to research further to get the full story. Or when you decide to start a garden and begin the process of researching, project managing, and testing your ideas through trial and error to go from seed to ripe tomato. You would probably start discussing your ideas with others and try to find a more experienced gardener to learn from.

Here are three examples of the self-directed learning model in action in the workplace: 

1. Using an LMS to organize training content. 

An LMS is the foundation of a self-directed learning strategy. It provides anywhere access for employees on multiple devices, so they can search and explore your training courses when inspiration strikes or when they’ve planned some time for training into their schedule. No need to wait for a future seminar or conference for learning opportunities. 

2. Cross-functional projects 

Social learning is an excellent way to test new information. Collaboration with coworkers in different departments will encourage learners to problem solve, brainstorm ideas, and naturally put their self-directed learning into action.

3. Workplace mentoring programs 

Just like you would seek out experienced gardeners to grow in your horticulture skills, workplace mentors can support less-experienced employees to grow in skills like project management, communicating through conflict, or customer relations. Mentors can pose questions to encourage critical thinking and coach employees to work through their individual learning plans.

Benefits of self-directed learning

There’s a lot to gain when you add more self-directed learning into your L&D strategy. These are some of the top benefits of a self-directed approach for employees and for training administrators: 

Benefits for learners:

  1. Focus on the skills you want or need to learn. 
  2. Enjoy more autonomy and choice in what you want to pursue.
  3. Choose the learning style that works best for you, or discover your learning style by trying different things.
  4. Engage more with workplace learning. Because you’ve chosen the topic or training method, you’re motivated to go deeper and find ways to practice what you’re learning.
  5. Start at any time, and use whatever chunks of time you have available.
  6. Build up your confidence and knowledge, plus show managers your willingness to step up and learn. 

Benefits for administrators and training managers: 

  1. Reduce the time you spend assigning and managing training courses.
  2. Pinpoint learners who are going above and beyond, and those who are struggling or disengaged. This helps you to triage interventions and to encourage employees as they progress.
  3. Create better content based on specific requests from learners
  4. Turn your attention to higher-value analysis and activities:
  • What’s our training ROI?
  • What new courses should we create next? 
  • How can I help employees to create better training plans for themselves?

Align with modern workplace expectations for self-directed training – and increase employee training satisfaction.

Self-directed learning strategies for success

First, have you developed a culture of learning to be the foundation for this more independent method? 

Consider these questions: 

  • Do your employees have a positive or negative attitude toward training? 
  • Does our current learning environment (in-person or our current LMS) provide a good learner and admin experience? 
  • How much of our learning is formal vs informal? 

Encourage collaboration and celebrate what your employees choose to pursue, and provide sufficient time and space to fit training into the work week.

Continu Reading: How to Cultivate a Culture of Learning [free download]

There are some important limitations and things to keep in mind as you implement self-directed learning: 

For learners/employees: 

Remember, self-directed learning isn’t a blank check to do whatever you want with training hours. Autonomy is great, but check yourself with these questions: 

  • Am I motivated to stay on track with required training, or my employer’s minimum expectations? 
  • Do I need help to choose the right courses? 54% of learners say that they would spend more time learning if they had specific course recommendations to help them reach their goals. 
  • Did I take the time to make my own training plan? Does it have attainable goals? 
  • Will I reach out for help if I get sidetracked in my training? 

For administrators or managers:

Remember, learner-directed doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. 

  • It’s still critical to keep training content updated and relevant.
  • Strike the balance of structure and freedom. Ensure that hours spent on self-directed training are still supporting business goals. 
  • Support your learners when training or skills gaps become evident. Create avenues to offer more support and guidance.
  • Stay active with direction, suggestions, feedback, and follow-up, even when an employee seems confident or appears to be making progress.
  • Keep tracking learner progress and measure outcomes from self-directed learning. 

Don’t skip self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is the shift in workplace training that employees are looking for. Traditional approaches to workplace training have fallen short of engaging and empowering modern teams. There are lots of strategies to increase learner engagement, and putting some responsibility back on your learners is a proven method. 

As we’ve seen, self-directed learning isn’t a free-for-all. It takes thoughtful planning and does best when it’s used in an organization with a strong learning culture. But when you create customized learning plans with employees, based on their preferred learning styles and goals, they will be empowered to build confidence and knowledge at their own pace. 

Self-directed learning emphasizes the connection between learning and life. Because that’s easier said than done, we’ve created your guide to corporate training success. It’s full of practical methods to help workplace learning stick for your teams. 

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About the Author
Emily Mason is the Content Writer at Continu.
Emily Mason
Writer, Learning and Development

Emily is a copywriter and content marketer specializing in Learning and Development. Emily is currently based in West Michigan. She loves words, coffee, and walking by the lake.