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One of the earliest forms of cognitive development, since the times of Aristotle and Socrates, Self-directed learning is by no means the latest buzzword or trend in education. It is an organic and natural method to help students develop more profound understanding and efficacy of subject matter – encouraging sociability and curiosity.

A deeper dive into self-directed learning questions might include:
  • What is the self-directed learning definition?
  • What is self-directed learning?
  • What are some self-directed learning examples?
  • What are a few self-directed learning strategies?
  • What is the self-directed learning theory?

By encouraging mindfulness of self-directed learning within the classroom, both with educators and among students, we can utilize this technique as an integrated, effective way to learn. This helps to create a more well-rounded and meaningful experience of learning for students – beyond simply regurgitating content that has been memorized. Instead, self-directed learning skills can have countless applications through life, encouraging independence and life skills. (Video below)

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First, what is self-directed learning?

So, how does self-directed learning actually work?

One of the primary modern theories created for self-learning within an education setting comes from two locations. These are the progressive modern education movement, in combination with John Dewey. Dewey believed that experience was a cornerstone of the learning process in education. Keep in mind all students have different learning styles.

This theory integrates both current and past experiences through personal interpretation and the development of subject matter to encourage more effective learning. In combination, these elements form a fully-realized teaching method that educators can use, alongside a supportive atmosphere. The formulation of investigative questions, encouragement of greater exploration and the testing of hypotheses are some of the key elements of this theory.

In modern education, there is a range of different systems in place that makes use of the theory of self-directed learning. Based on the concept of individuals being responsible for their personal cognitive development, these models include the DFS, or Democratic Free Schools programs. These are inclusive of the Institute for Democratic Education (IDEA), plus the Sudbury School. Focus in these programs is on freedom of education, personal responsibility and democratic governance.

There are countless ways to incorporate self-directed learning into a curriculum, whether it’s thinking critically, as suggested by Ennis, about discovered information or contributing to a larger learning community. Even seeking out your own learning resources and information fall under the umbrella of self-directed learning.

How can I use self-directed learning?

Whatever the way you choose to include self-directed learning strategies in your educational environment, there is a variety of methods to suit your needs. These help educators and the parents of students to improve the responsibility and increase the ownership of those learning, as well as supporting them in creating their own learning paths and methods.

Here are a few paths and methods:

How to think critically?

An invaluable resource for any form of self-directed learning, the ability to have better awareness both of the self and the greater world is a must; as is the ability to inquire about all of the above. There is a range of different opinions and interpretations of what critical thinking actually entails, but Robert Ennis defines the subject as “Reasonable, reflective thinking […] focused on deciding what to believe or do”.

Ennis frequently describes the ‘5 W’s and H’ as a form of critical thinking, which includes:
  • What
  • Why
  • Who
  • When
  • Where
  • How

For a critical thinker that takes responsibility for their own learning, there is more to self-directed learning skills than simply asking questions of the world around them.

For critical thinking to be effective, all of the following must be considered:
  • A greater awareness of responses and self-interest
  • Consideration of the credibility of any and all content
  • Openness to new or unexpected information sources and perspective
  • Continuation of self-learning skills through building information and discoveries

How to use thinking critically in the classroom?

When it comes to fostering the tools for learning, rather than telling students the best way to learn, activities that promote a technique known as Design Thinking can be of great value. This method offers students opportunities to create critical queries about the content they learn. Use questions that enable better questioning skills, such as what information or perspectives they may need to uncover further information about a topic.

Locating resources about self-directed learning

While students may express great interest in a subject or skill, it can be a challenge for many to know where to start when it comes to self-directed learning. As an educator, it’s crucial that you meet the evolving needs of your students with new resources that match their learning skills. Resources such as mentors, learning programs, or even step-by-step processes can help to unlock that cognitive scaffolding.

Giving your students the experience of having to discover and locate information and resources for themselves doesn’t just offer them greater autonomy. It also provides them with a new sense of pride in figuring out something for themselves and proving their capacity to learn and develop their skills through practice and insight. This empowerment encourages them to continue learning.

How can I use the resources in the classroom?

If, for example, you teach a student who particularly enjoys languages, then a typical school curriculum would likely set them on a path towards formal language courses and training. But for students to really integrate with a language and develop fluent speech, simply teaching is not enough. This student should have the resources in place to allow them to go above and beyond for subjects they are passionate about, whether it’s through community support, online courses like Duolingo or travel opportunities like AFS.

Of course, language is only one area your students may show interest in. For other subjects, the Open Education platform has the tools needed for self-directed learning across a range of topics. OER, or the Open Education Resource Commons, offers many valuable resources at no cost, offering students access to literature, instructions and courses for free.

Effectively review information

In a world where fake news is increasingly common, giving your students the ability to think critically about the information they access is vital.

One of the primary elements of self-directed learning is not just gaining knowledge, but also vetting it to ensure that every source is reliable or legitimate.

Sites like Facebook, for example, review news sources on social media, while sites like Snopes offer online fact checking for news articles to check if they are real or fake. Self-directed learners should also learn that larger sources should not do the work for them – instead, they should be a starting point to form their own informed impressions based on credible materials.

How to use effective information in the classroom?

A vital part of self-directed learning is providing your students with the information to explore sources and discover the impact of differing perspectives, without taking that guidance at face value.

Self-directed learners should aim to experience information in varying ways, and understand the impact of not researching sources effectively.

So, how does this work in a classroom? Here are just a few ideas:
  • Create activities that provide students with insight into weighing different outcomes
  • Use mind mapping or infographics to explain different perspectives on topics
  • Use comparative and contrasting methods to help students spot and take note of differences
  • Encourage journaling or dialogues for exploring more emotive subject material relating to environments or social situations

Modeling self-directed learning experiences

When you’ve achieved all of the above steps with your students, you’re well on your way to employing successful self-directed learning for your classroom. But once those basic skills are there, both for critical thinking and for vetting sources, these experiences must be modeled to help the student form new, informed experiences.

As described by Bloom, employing deeper learning should include the capability to create unique, new experiences – which can then offer us further, new information.

How to use modeling experiences in the classroom?

As a teacher, it’s your job to support students to both emulate and ‘pilot’ the decision making process through ongoing critical exercises. This provides a way for students to improve their learning and gain greater experience in a safe setting, ideal for problem-based skill building.

Consider the following when designing your curriculum surrounding self-directed learning:
  • How can educators help their students to explore conclusions safely and responsibly?
  • In what way can students use their learning experiences as scaffolding for further discovery?
  • What support can you offer to ensure students feel prepared to manage bias, discrimination and other important life skills when learning?
  • How can you provide your students with the space needed to allow them to test new hypotheses and identities safely?

A capable and robust learning community in education is one that is designed and developed by self-directed learners. By encouraging more in-depth understanding and inclusion, further innovation and collaboration are possible.

It’s vital that students and teachers alike know the importance of learning outside the box – and incorporating such an essential type of learning into the curriculum can help to illuminate and encourage students beyond the topics they learn in the classroom.

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Interesting read: Learning Styles