Faculty Focus


Developing Students’ Self-Directed Learning Skills

Self-directed learning skills involve the ability to manage learning tasks without having them directed by others. They are skills necessary for effective lifelong learning and are one of many learning skills students are expected to develop in college. The expectation is that students will become self-directed learners as they mature and gain content knowledge. Here’s a study showing how students can become self-directed with explicit instruction.

This research was conducted in a junior-senior level international business course. Even so, a majority of the students (59 percent in the spring sections and 61 percent in fall sections) were not ready for independent learning as measured by their scores on the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale, a measure developed in other research and used extensively. Researchers were interested in an intervention that might improve these readiness scores. They hypothesized that students with low scores would improve in a structured environment that modeled the kind of learning skills used by self-directed learners. They structured the learning environment by asking students specific questions about their course work every week. They gave them explicit and detailed instructions for completing their assignments and very little freedom to self-define their work. Students with low, below average, and average scores were put in this structured learning environment.

Students with above average and high scores were put in an unstructured environment that provided them with much more freedom to shape their own work. They were asked to identify important aspects of the assigned readings and generate questions about them. They were able to define their research projects. In essence these students designed their own coursework.

Those in the structured environment increased their scores by 6.8 points and those in the unstructured environment increased their scores by 13 points on the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale. These increases were in comparison to students whose scores did not match the environment; a low scoring student who experienced an unstructured environment, for example. “The evidence suggests that structure match enhances SDL [self-directed learning] skills. The empirical findings suggest also that courses designed to enhance students’ readiness for SDL can do so.” (p. 99)

The researchers do note that the lack of readiness for self-directed learning in an upper-division course indicates a need to work on developing these skills earlier in the curriculum and then providing more opportunities for self-directed learning across the curriculum.

Reference: Dynan, L.; Cate, T.; and Rhee, K. (2008). The impact of learning structure on students’ readiness for self-directed learning. Journal of Education for Business, November, December, 96-100.

Reprinted from Developing Students’ Self-Directed Learning Skills, The Teaching Professor, vol. 23, no. 7, pg. 5.