Can students really decide how they learn best? That’s a question many schools are wondering as self-directed learning gains popularity across the country. The concept is not new. In fact, its roots trace back to Socrates and Aristotle, but today’s teachers are embracing this instructional strategy as technology offers more opportunities for students to explore topics they find interesting and seek information easily and independently.
Essentially, self-directed learning allows students to take ownership for their learning, deciding what they will learn, and how they will learn it. This empowers students, giving them a primary role in their education. Furthermore, research has emerged to indicate that this method is not only a highly effective way to increase retention, but has many additional positive side effects for students.
How Does This Work in a Classroom?
Allowing your students to choose what they are going to learn based on their own personal interests and strengths sounds nice, but how does this look in a classroom? Well, it’s different for every teacher and every student.
The truth is, there are many different paths to learning and some students will prefer one method over another. Certain students will learn best reading books or websites, while others prefer to watch videos or listen to podcasts. Kinesthetic learners may enjoy physical and virtual field trips. Teachers can help introduce students to these alternative paths to learning and guide students to find what works best for them.
You might give your students a general goal, like learning about marine life. Students would then work with you to determine a topic which interests them and how they will demonstrate their learning. An artistic student may be fascinated by colorful nudibranchs and create an informational pamphlet. Another student may decide to learn about the effects of pollution on beluga whales and write a persuasive letter to the editor of a newspaper. A third student may select to study the marine life in tide pools of their local area, creating a video teaching about the formation of the pools. Each student may have a different learning outcome, but each is deeply invested in the learning process because it is specifically tailored to his/her interests.
What Role do Teachers Play in Self-Directed Learning?
Self-directed learning requires a skill set that must be carefully taught and modeled by their teachers. To build and support self-directed learners, you will need to cover topics like:
- Functional computer skills
- Digital literacy
- Library and research skills
- Finding credible information
- Finding resources to assist in the learning process
- Introducing students to different types of learning outcomes
As students follow their individual pursuits, teachers act like a guide, monitoring progress, helping students find resources, and offering feedback, paving the way for learner independence.
Harnessing Technology to Create Self-Directed Learners
Technology plays a key role in supporting self-directed learners. You probably use it yourself all the time. Let’s say your dishwasher is leaking. Before you call for repairs, what do you do? You might type “leaky dishwasher“ into a search engine and see what comes up. After watching a DIY video or reading a blog post, you attempt to fix it, based on what you learned. That’s self-directed learning! Some tools self-directed learners use are:
- Video-conferencing tools
- Personal Learning Networks
- Video-streaming platforms
Today, there is an abundance of online resources available at students’ fingertips, making self-directed learning easy to conduct in the classroom. Using various resources such as Castle Learning and eDoctrina, teachers can reduce the workload of customizing assignments and personalize learning experiences, easily giving students different topics depending on their chosen area of interest. There is really no limit to how technology can develop and support self-directed learners.
Why is Self-Directed Learning So Effective?
The best part about developing self-directed learners is that these skills carry over to different classes and can also be applied in other areas besides school. It helps build skills which develop students into lifelong learners. Here are a few of the biggest ways.
It Cultivates Curiosity
Allowing students the freedom to choose learning objectives based on their own interests helps them enjoy learning. It creates the opportunity for students to follow “rabbit holes” which spawn new topics for discovery.
It Increases Student Motivation
Since students are actively engaged in setting their own learning goals, they are more motivated to participate and dig deeper into hard topics.
It Boosts Understanding and Retention
When students play a role in selecting their focus, they are better able to absorb and retain new information.
Benefits of Self-Directed Learning
As students become the independent architects of their own knowledge, they experience other benefits as well, such as:
Building Digital Literacy Skills
Technology is now firmly entrenched in our schools and classrooms. With more schools integrating a wide variety of online learning components, students need to have competence using digital resources to find and consolidate information.
Developing a Passion to Learn
Self-directed learning is all about creating a passion for learning. Allowing students to choose their learning path actively engages them in activities that they find relevant, interesting and, most of all, fun. It’s not a stretch to realize that active engagement allows students to retain more information than passively listening to or reading about topics. It also encourages deeper learning as students are more motivated to enrich their own learning.
Learning to Take Initiative
Self-directed learners are able to understand what they want to know and determine how best to achieve their learning goals. They are able to take initiative to build their own knowledge.
Building Skills for College and Career Readiness
As self-directed learners diagnose their own learning gaps and build knowledge in specific areas, they also build other important skills. Since they are responsible for their own learning, they develop intrinsic motivation and integrity. Self-directed learners become comfortable asking questions, and aren’t afraid to seek help when they need it. These are important life skills that will serve them well across classrooms, as well as college and career goals.
Here are just some of the life skills that self-directed learners develop and exhibit:
- Setting goals
- Problem solving
- Time Management
Self-directed learning provides a feeling of empowerment and is an amazing tool to develop essential life skills and lifelong learners. It encourages deeper learning and supports students to set higher learning goals. The more interested and invested your students are in what they are learning, the more willing and able they will be to do the hard work to achieve their learning goals. You may be surprised at the enthusiasm students exhibit when they are truly invested in their work.
At Harris Education Solutions, we provide solutions that help support educators and encourage students to take ownership of their learning.