Self-Directed Learning

Think about the times in your life when you wanted to know or learn something without having to take a formal lesson or course. Perhaps you wanted to learn how to play guitar or another musical instrument just for fun. Or maybe you wanted to be a different kind of “rock star”—to master a difficult recipe or a DIY project you found on Pinterest. Consider the moments you pursued knowledge entirely on your own because the topic interested you or you just wanted to learn how to do something.

Have you ever taught yourself a craft for your own enjoyment? Or read for fun because you wanted to learn more about the topic or were excited about the author? Perhaps there was an intriguing Facebook post that inspired you to start following a certain feed or to learn more about a particular cause. When is the last time you binge watched a TV series because the characters and story sparked your interest in some way?

Think about the times you pursued a special topic because it fascinated you but wasn’t connected in any way to your formal education. Have you ever downloaded an app so that you could learn something new? Or Googled a topic just for the fun of it? What kinds of life experiences have increased your understanding and knowledge? Have you ever volunteered for a community organization? What have you learned through those experiences?

At the same time, consider the times you were driven to learn something or complete an assignment in a course entirely on your own or in collaboration with others. Think about your motivations for successfully completing a particular assignment or course of study. Recall the times you may have inspired others or worked in cooperation with peers to successfully complete a team assignment. These are all examples of self-directed learning. This term is common in higher education theory and in conversations about the different ways we learn in both informal and formal settings. According to the renowned adult educator Malcolm S. Knowles:

Self-directed learning is a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes (1975; p. 18).

Knowles identifies several key aspects of learning that are self-directed, rather than managed by others. In this definition he argues that individuals determine their own learning needs and how to achieve their individual goals. Self-directed learners identify the resources needed to learn and be successful, and develop their own strategies for doing so. In this context, self-directed learners also evaluate the extent to which they achieved their own learning goals.

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For example, let’s take a self-directed learner in an informal setting who wants to learn how to play the guitar. Perhaps she was originally inspired by observations of her favorite guitarists. To begin, the learner pursues background information and explores Wikipedia to learn basic guitar chords. Then she visits YouTube for video tutorials on how to play the guitar and WikiHow for specific lessons on guitar chords.

The budding guitarist spends a lot of time on her own practicing the instrument and working from sounds and techniques that she has observed on her own. She may download guitar apps that help with the learning process as well. As an ongoing process, the self-directed learner is constantly evaluating her own learning.

In today’s open online environment learners can pursue knowledge through massive open online courses (MOOCs). Our future guitar hero may choose to take courses for free from the Berklee College of Music via the MOOC provider Coursera. Or she may determine that after practicing on her own and watching a series of how-to videos that she is ready to join a band, or may need more formal lessons. The self-directed learner reflects on her own learning, and the extent to which she achieved her own goals, and then makes decisions about what to do next.

Self-directed learning also takes place in formal settings such as courses in college. Some instructors may encourage self-directed learning through the design of creative assignments that challenge learners to be more independent and to make choices about their learning.

At other times, the learner may need to be a self-directed learner because he wants to go above and beyond what is expected, or he may not have all of the resources needed in the course to be successful. The course may be so challenging that the learner develops individual strategies to be successful. For instance, the self-directed learner may pursue learning materials outside of a particular course, such as the library or online tutorials, study groups, or writing center resources, because he has determined that he needs more than what is available in the course to achieve his own learning goals and objectives.

initial learning activity

Part 1: Individual Reflection 

For the first part of this learning activity, think about the times you have been a self-directed learner. Write a paragraph that describes your role in a particular situation as a self-directed learner. In doing so, consider the elements identified by Malcolm Knowles:

  1. When and why did you take the initiative to be a self-directed learner?
  2. How did you diagnose or determine your own learning needs?
  3. How did you determine or design your own learning goals and what were your specific learning goals?
  4. What specific materials were required for this learning process?
  5. How did you implement your learning strategies?
  6. How did you evaluate your own learning?

Part 2: Peer Reflection 

For the second part of this learning activity, speak with someone else (perhaps a friend, teacher or colleague) about how he or she has pursued self-directed learning, and compare it to your own experience. This interview will offer insights about the process of self-directed learning and allow you to possibly expand your own repertoire. Ask this person how he or she has engaged in self-directed learning, and then reflect on components from that person’s experience that could add to your own approach. Write about the results of the interview and how that person’s experience might influence your own self-directed learning adventures moving into the future.


  • individual reflection
  • peer reflection

in-depth learning activity

Complete the initial learning activity above, for which you most likely chose to write about something that you succeeded at learning.  Now, rethink the concept of failure. How do you deal with failure? How can you make the most of your failures? And how might failing actually benefit you in terms of learning?

In the public radio news program “Here & Now” the head of a business discusses his implementation of a “failure wall” to motivate and inspire his employees. Listen to him describe how his employees reacted in the following segment:

Now identify a time you failed to learn. Analyze and reflect on this failure:

  • Describe a time when you failed and what you learned from that experience.
  • Analyze what happened to cause the failure.
  • How might you use what you’ve learned to “fail better” next time?
  • If you were to attempt this learning again, knowing what you now know, what might you do differently to direct your learning?


  • individual reflection
  • peer reflection
  • reflection on learning failure with analysis of how to “fail better” and approach the learning differently for success

Related college Learning Goals

Active Learning: Assess and build upon previous learning and experiences to pursue new learning, independently and in collaboration with others.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Evaluate, analyze, synthesize and critique key concepts and experiences, and apply diverse perspectives to find creative solutions to problems concerning human behavior, society and the natural world.


For more information, see the College Learning Goals Policy.