Self-directed learning

Self-directed Learning

“We have no idea what the job market will look like in 2050. It is generally agreed that machine learning and robotics will change almost every line of work – from producing yoghurt to teaching yoga.”

Yuval Noah Harrari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Why Do We Teach?

We know that online and blended courses typically require a higher degree of self-directedness, and that first-year students tend to struggle with the time management and study skills necessary to succeed in independent learning. We also know that autonomous, self-directed and self-regulated learning is an important skill to develop to adequately prepare students for the fast-paced, constantly changing world of tomorrow.  

Students’ self-direction may be an important variable to assess when teaching online and in person, and turning to self-regulated and self-directed learning theories can help you encourage your students to grow beyond the “just-tell-me-the-right-answer” mindset.

Guiding Questions

How do we encourage learners to take ownership of their own learning?  

How do we develop their identities as lifelong, curious learners? 

What is Self-regulated and Self-directed Learning?

  • Self-directed learning is both the learning process and the learner’s characteristics.  
  • “[Self-regulated learning] means being mindful, intentional, reflective, introspective, self-aware, self-controlled, and self-disciplined about learning, and it leads to becoming self-directed” (Nilson). The learner takes ownership of the learning process (setting, planning and accomplishing learning goals, monitoring the progress and adjusting their strategies accordingly) (Nilson, 2014). 
  • “[L]earners advance through stages of increasing self-direction… teachers can help or hinder that development. Good teaching matches the learner’s stage of self-direction and helps the learner advance towards greater self-direction” (Grow, 1991, p. 125). 
  • Both self-regulated and self-directed learning embrace a growth mindset (Linkous, 2020). Growth mindset is a belief that one’s intelligence is not fixed and can be developed as opposed to fixed mindset, which is a belief that one’s intelligence remains unchangeable.  
  • Developing meta-skills such as metacognitive thinking and critical reflection can support students in becoming self-directed learners. 

How can Staged Self-directed Learning Model Help?

Gerald Grow (1991) proposed a staged self-directed learning model where learners progress gradually in developing their autonomy and self-regulated learning skills. The boundaries between the stages are fluid and context dependent. The following story illustrates a student’s journey through the stages, along with brief descriptions of each stage. After reading the narrative and the descriptions, reflect on how this staged model can add to your teaching practice. 

Meet Ezra!

Ezra is an adult learner who needs to obtain a particular credential to get a new job. Ezra has been out of school for a while now, and he’s struggling with how much responsibility he has to take for his learning. This is very different from high school! 

Ezra feels frustrated when instructors want him to find the answers on his own. Isn’t that their job? What’s he paying all this money for, anyway? All this stress and responsibility has led Ezra to feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Maybe going back to school wasn’t such a good idea after all. 

Then, in one of Ezra’s classes, he takes a quiz designed to reveal his learning preferences. The quiz results indicate that he prefers to learn in big leaps. This causes Ezra to start thinking about what kinds of learning strategies work for him, and why. After thinking it through, he realizes that he retains information much more easily when he creates graphic organizers (such as drawing maps showing how concepts relate to one another). 

Stage 1: Development

Learners in the dependent stage may respond well to didactic, transmissive pedagogy, including lectures, drill and practice, immediate feedback, and correction. Learners at this stage may struggle with making choices. 

To encourage your learners to move to the next stage, facilitate reflective activities that uncover insights into who your learners are and how they learn best. 

Ezra's Curiosity Sparks!

Ezra is starting to feel more empowered by discovering how he prefers to learn and which tools he can use to help him succeed. He is further encouraged when he takes a class where the instructor has chosen to use an embedded academic strategist.  

Based on the academic strategist’s suggestions, Ezra decides to attend a time-management workshop and learns about the importance of setting goals. He also follows the suggestion to take the available CliftonStrengths assessment to discover what his greatest strengths are. Ezra then books an appointment with an academic strategist to review his assessment results and get some tips and guidance on how he can use his strengths to succeed.  

Thanks to the skills and information he’s gained, Ezra starts to feel better about himself and about his decision to return to school. From here, he takes a class where his instructor displays contagious enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter being taught. The instructor’s energy and positivity brushes off on Ezra and he feels inspired, motivated, and encouraged to take risks in his learning.  

Stage 2: Interested

Learners in the Interested stage can benefit from inspiring lectures and carefully guided discussions. 

Motivation can help learners move to the next stage. Explaining what skills your activities and assignments can help develop, along with the importance of those skills, can help to motivate your learners. Learners might also benefit from learning how to set goals. 

Building Confidence

A year has gone by since Ezra started his adult education journey. During this time, he has improved his metacognitive, time-management, and learning skills.  

In one of Ezra’s current classes, he’s assigned a project that involves creating a sustainable energy plan for a learning community. His instructor facilitates learning by providing relevant tools and techniques and by connecting learners with industry partners. Ezra’s instructor also provides learners with learning contracts and checklists they can use to monitor their own learning.  

It’s taken Ezra a while to understand and appreciate this more self-directed style of learning. However, now that he can see and experience the benefits for himself, his confidence has increased. He is enjoying building relationships with his instructors and with other learners, and he is continually developing his emotional intelligence along with the practical skills and subject matter knowledge he’s gaining.  

Stage 3: Involved

In the Involved stage, learners have begun exploring the meaning of self-regulated learning. They may have clear goals in place, and they enjoy collaborating with each other on projects. 

Learners at this stage can benefit from expanding their toolkit of strategies, techniques, and approaches to learning and interpreting experiences. 

End of the Narrative:

After two years of hard work, Ezra graduates from his college program! During the last year of his program, he made several important industry connections that now help him to find the right positions to apply for. He aces his job interview because he’s able to reflectively identify the employment skills and life skills he developed during his time at Lethbridge College (thank you, LC Student Core Competencies!).  

Even with his college program completed and his new job secured, Ezra’s educational journey is not finished. He seeks out mentors and acts as a mentor to others, both at work and in his personal life. Ezra also decides to start learning French. He’s always wanted to learn another language, but thought he didn’t have time or it would be too difficult. Now that he knows what he’s capable of and how to get there, Ezra is able to take charge of his own learning by confidently setting and pursuing goals. 

Stage 4: Self-directed

Self-directed learners set and pursue their goals independently and benefit from internships and independent studies. 

As Grow (1991) concludes, “self-directed, lifelong adult learning is … the single most important outcome of a formal education” (p. 135). 

Key takeaways from the staged self-directed learning model:

  • The ability to engage in self-directed learning is situational and depends on the student’s learning environment. A student may be in the first stage for self-directed learning for some subjects and in the second stage for others. 
  • This model is not meant to be prescriptive. Use it as a reflection tool for planning and evaluating your teaching practices. 
  • Self-regulated and self-directed learning are skills that can be developed. This model can provide you with strategies and resources to support your students. 

What are Some of the Strategies to Support Learner's Self-directedness?

Chances are that the learners in your class will all be at different stages of self-directed learning. Below are some of the strategies you can use to support all learners regardless of where they’re at.  

Self-regulated and self-directed learning are both important, but they are parts of a system that is dependent on unique contexts. 

Provide Meaningful Choices

What: Providing students with choicesabout the materials they study, the assignments they complete, who can work with whom—can increase their motivation and engagement and allow students to develop their strengths

Why: The self-directed learning model places emphasis on the degree of control the learner has over their learning. What kind of choices do you provide learners with in your classroom?


  • Explore what the framework of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has to offer on multiple means of representation (CAST, 2022b) and multiple means of action and expression (CAST, 2022a). Start making small, gradual changes and check in with your students frequently. 
  • UDL seems great, but what if you have little to no experience using this framework? Consider joining the Faculty UDL Learning Community at LC to connect with colleagues, learn from their experiences, and reflect on your own next steps to grow as an educator. 
  • Students who are struggling with motivation can take the CliftonStrengths survey to discover their strengths. They will then meet with a strategist to explore ways to increase their engagement by using their strengths in their education-related tasks, and in life in general.  Instructors can refer individual students who they feel would benefit from this support by contacting Amanda Parker, Student Success Coordinator, at    

Embed Metacognitive Thinking into Assignments

What: Metacognition is colloquially known as thinking about thinking. Developing metacognition supports self-regulated learning (Nilson, 2013). 

Why: Supporting your students’ metacognitive reflection can help them develop self-regulating behaviours when it comes to learning and studying.


Discuss what learning is:

    • In the beginning of your class, consider this ice-breaker discussion on how students understand learning. This will provide you with insight into how your students conceptualize learning.
    • Talk about growth mindset. Here’s some information shared by Tanya Weber on this topic (T. Weber, personal communication, December 2021): 

For years, I had witnessed students deciding at one point or another that a concept, principle, or whole course was just “something they couldn’t learn.” For example, they’d say, “I can’t learn coding because my brain just doesn’t work that way.” I always had a hard time with this as it seemed like they were writing themselves off or putting up a barrier before they even tried before the attempt was even made.

Then several years ago, I attended a conference where Trevor Ragan, the keynote speaker, spoke of the power of growth mindset for learning. This really resonated with me as the antidote to the aforementioned problem. The next fall, I began speaking to students on the first day of classes about growth mindset and ways to cultivate it within their educational journey. I also circle back to it a few times throughout their two years in the program. I really encourage them not to see assignments as a scary thing or a pain in the ass. They chose this college program because it is what they want to do for a career and assignments are how they learn. I encourage them to see them as OPPORTUNITY. As a chance to consolidate their learning in a hands-on way. To try, fail, fix, experiment, and most importantly to be curious about why things. That ALL of these so-called barriers are points for learning.

This is a powerful realignment. Of course, these mindsets are a spectrum. As they are learning to cultivate this in themselves, they will fluctuate back and forth and that is okay. But to hear an instructor say that these little points of failure are okay and that they are learning opportunities really helps to take some of the engrained pressure and perfectionism off. They start asking more questions. I also am sure to express my moments of growth and what moments in my career where I have failed or how I go about my lifelong learning to help demonstrate to them the importance of this in our quickly changing world. This helps to normalize their feelings of doubt and insecurity. This confirmation that it is okay that they don’t know everything right now and that their skills and understanding will develop overtime is powerful. You can see their body language change as they breathe a breath of calm and begin trusting the process.

Failure isn’t a bad word.  It is where we have learned one way not to do it and can put that into practice on the next iteration.

Use self-assessment

Facilitating self-assessments can strengthen students’ self-efficacy, as it can help students reflect on the progress of meeting learning outcomes (Panadero et al., 2017).

Incorporate reflection on learning

Have students write letters or create a video/podcast/infographic for future students in your class on “How to succeed in this class.”

Scaffold Writing Assignments

What: First-year students struggle with the transition to a post-secondary environment and may find academic writing assignments challenging. Using various citation styles (APA, for example) can also present a significant learning curve.

Why: Demystifying the writing process and integrating supports can alleviate some of the anxiety that students experience.

How: Writing Dropbox

Writing dropbox

Early feedback on writing assignments is often beneficial, as it allows students time to think about how to improve their written work before handing in assignments. Students can make an appointment with a writing strategist to discuss their writing with respect to an assignment, or they can submit their written work through the writing dropbox.

Lethbridge College Writing Drop Box (

The writing dropbox aims to provide written feedback in 3 to 5 business days. Reach out to the Learning Café if you’d like to explore how to integrate this service into your assignment.  Also, if you anticipate a large portion of your students will submit to the WDB in a short period of time, please contact the Learning Café.

Create Opportunities to Learn from Quizzes and Exams

What: We know that cramming is ineffective and does not lead to strong learning.

Why: Instead, try incorporating frequent, low-stakes assessments and other activities that lead to active recall of information. Regular retrieval practice results in deeper learning and knowledge retention (Brown et al., 2014).


Have students create questions

Have students create their own test questions based on learning outcomes, course reading, or specific assignments. This practice helps learners increase awareness of their own learning with respect to the goals of the course.

Gamify learning

Gamify learning in your classroom: In her Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, Bonni Stachowiak discusses how one of her assignments involves students submitting screencasts of themselves playing Quizlet in teams. It’s a low-stakes, marked-for-completion-only assignment that can improve student engagement. (Hyflex: Create Engaging Asynchronous Activities, 20:00 [Stachowiak, 2021])

Have an in-class test-taking workshop

The Learning Café’s test-taking workshop for students focusses on the three stages of test taking.

  1. The first is preparing for the test. That is, using good study /time-management /self-care strategies and considering how they will deal with anxiety if it’s a concern for them.
  2. The second stage involves strategies to use during the test (reading the questions carefully, for example).
  3. The final stage is using the test as a learning tool. We encourage students to note the types (multiple choice or short answer, for example) and styles (memory, comprehension, evaluation or application) of questions that were difficult for them and the content that they didn’t know as well as they should have.

By carefully analyzing the test-taking experience at all three stages, students can think about what they can do to improve for next time.

Have students complete a post-test analysis

Students (on their own or at the suggestion of the instructor) can request a meeting with a Learning Café strategist to complete a test analysis (if it’s possible to have access to the test after it’s been completed).

Students meet with an academic strategist to go over the test with the goal of identifying key areas of difficulty. Perhaps there’s one type of question that they struggle with more than others (e.g., multiple choice), or it could be a specific content area.  Instructors arrange to send the test to the Learning Café prior to the appointment. We have a system in place to work with instructors (guarding the privacy of the test) when this service is requested. Please contact the Learning Café for more information or to book an appointment for a student.

Bring in Learning Café into your Classroom

What: The Learning Café is Lethbridge College’s academic success centre; helping students prepare, advance, and excel. Learning café staff are available in-person or online to help students with research papers, APA, science, math and study skills.

Why: Students often don’t know which learning supports are offered on campus. Encourage your students to speak to learning strategists about available services.


Introduce your students to our supports

Invite us to your classroom for a brief introduction to our supports. Students will be more likely to seek help if there’s a friendly face associated with a service. We can come by in person, share information via Zoom, or you can embed this video into your Canvas course.

Request an in-class workshop or presentation

Learning Café staff can present in-class workshops/presentations on different study skills topics. Here are the services we offer and a list of presentation topics. Instructors can also request a customized workshop best suited to the needs of their learners—perhaps a combination of topics, or a presentation aimed at a specific type of program.

To request an in-class presentation, .

Goal setting is discussed in several of our workshops, (Time Management, Procrastination and Studying Effectively, for example), and we often refer students to the following assignment calculator:

The Assignment Calculators – The University of British Columbia (

This can help them break larger assignments down into more “doable” smaller goals.

Integrate the Thriving in Action online resource into your Canvas courses

Integrate this resource into your Canvas course: Dr. Diana Brecher and Dr. Deena Kara Shaffer of Ryerson University (Ryerson Student Affairs, 2019) have created a great resource called Thriving in Action Online that focuses on life skills and study strategies. They have graciously made it available online free of charge.

Home — Thriving in Action Online (

Direct your students to the Thriving in Action course

The Learning Café offers a 7-week course called Thriving in Action using the resources from Ryerson (members of our team have completed the training and have adapted the program to meet our student’s needs, with Ryerson’s permission). Information about the course and the registration link are available in the Student Hive and other various social media platforms around the second week of classes. For details about upcoming sessions, please contact the Learning Café at or call 403-382-6952.

Curious about Self-directed Learning?


Linda Nilson’s Creating Self-Regulated Learners is an excellent primer.

Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills  (Nilson, 2013)


Here are two more episodes of Bonni Stachowiak’s Learning in Higher Ed podcast that provide valuable information about how to encourage and facilitate self-directed learning in your classroom.

Self-regulated Learning and the Flipped Classroom (Stachowiak, 2016)

Specifications Grading (Stachowiak, 2015)


Join the LC UDL Faculty Learning Community to reflect on integrating UDL principles into your teaching. Email Tatiana at


Bracey, P. (2010). Self-directed Learning vs self-regulated learning: Twins or just friends? In J. Sanchez & K. Zhang (Eds.), Proceedings of e-learn 2010–World conference on e-learning in corporate, government, healthcare, and higher education (pp. 1600–1607). Orlando, Florida, USS: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

CAST. (2022a). Principle: Provide multiple means of action & expression.

CAST. (2022b). Principle: Provide multiple means of representation.

Conradie, P. W. (2014). Supporting self-directed learning by connectivism and personal learning environments. International Journal of Information and Education Technology, 4(3), 254–259.

Grow, G. O. (1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly (American Association for Adult and Continuing Education), 41(3), 125–149.

Hays, L., & Handler, K. (2020). Good design is universal: Using universal design principles to promote self-regulated learning in learning management systems when teaching information literacy. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 14(2), 127–140.

Linkous, H. M. (2021). Self-directed learning and self-regulated learning: What’s the difference? A literature analysis. American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, 2020.

Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness and learning skills (First ed.). Stylus Publishing.

Onah, D. F. O., Pang, E. L. L., & Sinclair, J. E. (2020). Cognitive optimism of distinctive initiatives to foster self-directed and self-regulated learning skills: A comparative analysis of conventional and blended-learning in undergraduate studies. Education and Information Technologies, 25(5), 4365–4380.

Panadero, E., Jonsson, A., & Botella, J. (2017). Effects of self-assessment on self-regulated learning and self-efficacy: Four meta-analyses. Educational Research Review, 22, 74–98.

Ryerson Student Affairs. (2019). Thriving in action online. Ryerson University.

Stachowiak, B. (Executive Producer). (2021, March 4). HyFlex: Create engaging asynchronous activities (No. 351) [Audio podcast episode]. In Teaching in higher ed. Teaching in Higher Ed.

Stachowiak, B. (Executive Producer). (2016, July 1). Self-regulated learning and the flipped classroom (No. 110) [Audio podcast episode]. In Teaching in higher ed. Teaching in Higher Ed.

Stachowiak, B. (Executive Producer). (2015, January 1). Specifications grading (No. 29) [Audio podcast episode]. In Teaching in higher ed. Teaching in Higher Ed.

Tharayil, S., Borrego, M., Prince, M., Nguyen, K. A., Shekhar, P., Finelli, C. J., & Waters, C. (2018). Strategies to mitigate student resistance to active learning. International Journal of STEM Education, 5(7).

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