Helping Students Become Self-Directed Learners


By Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

The phrase self-directed learning is associated with the adult education theory of andragogy, which makes a distinction between teaching adults and children. A child needs to be taught how to learn and adults need guidance with what to learn. Self-directed learning further indicates that an adult student wants to be involved in and take responsibility for their involvement in the process of learning, because of their existing experiences, knowledge, and professional needs. Based upon this premise it would seem that all adults who are present in your classroom are ready to be actively involved and understand their role in this process. In reality this is not always the case. There are adult students who lack academic skills and experience, which includes students who have recently begun post-secondary learning. This may not be evident until class has begun and the instructor can monitor students’ behavioral patterns and involvement in the class.

As an adjunct you often see your students as a collective whole when the class begins, which means you start from the perspective that these are responsible adults who have the initiative necessary to be involved in the process of learning. As your class progresses you begin to recognize patterns in the students’ participation and the work product they submit, which helps to identify their developmental needs. There are several indicators that will let you know if students have an ability to be self-directed. Taking responsibility for completing assignments and submitting them in a timely manner is a starting point for your assessment of their needs. Another indicator is how students approach situations from a general perspective. If they respond in a reactive manner and believe that most things are beyond their control, they have not yet learned to take ownership for their involvement in the class and will likely request extensions for assignment due dates, along with exceptions to other policies or procedures.

Another indicator you can watch for is how students react to the feedback you’ve provided. When you take the time to provide meaningful feedback that guides them through areas of needed development you expect that students will take this information, process it, and address the areas you have indicated. If students have learned to be self-directed they are likely to accept this feedback and work with it, asking questions along the way. In contrast, if a student has not learned to take responsibility for their work they are likely to approach this type of feedback from an adversarial point of view. This reminds instructors of the importance of the tone used in feedback provided and that it precisely outlines overall strengths, areas of opportunity, and resources that are available to assist them.

If you have students who are not self-directed, which means they do not take personal responsibility for all aspects of their work as a student, you can assist them by providing clear expectations and a supportive facilitation approach, while reinforcing school policies and encouraging them to talk about their progress with you. Becoming a self-directed learner does not happen quickly and may not be fully realized by the time that your class has concluded. What you can do is emphasize the importance of being responsible as a student and that involvement in the class means more than appearing at the scheduled time. As you relate the process of learning to their needs, and students learn how they can be involved, you are likely to see progress made over time.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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