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Key considerations for successful self-directed learning: Part 2

In the first part of this series, LEO Learning’s Strategic Consulting Lead, Gareth Jones, shared some of his key tips for designing self-directed learning. In this second blog, he looks at six more ways to create a successful self-directed programme.

Inspiring learners to start and, perhaps more importantly, continue a self-driven learning journey could be said to come down to two main activities:

  • Understanding what motivates your learners to learn and catering to those triggers
  • Identifying design strategies to maintain engagement and motivation long after the initial learning need may have been satisfied

In this blog, we’ll explore six tips that can aid with the second part of these activities: maintaining engagement and motivation.

having a sense of progress is critical to self-directed learning

Self-directed learning tip #7: Show progress

As with any journey, understanding where you are, how long you have to go and your final destination is critical to providing that drive to continue. A lack of visibility on progress and success can lead to a loss of momentum – and, ultimately, a drop-off in engagement.

For self-directed learners, progress needs to be clearly communicated in a way that allows them to easily understand how far they’ve come and how close they are to reaching their goals.

There are several ways to set those goals. The first is for the learner themselves to set a destination. Simply thinking through what you want to achieve helps clarify and prioritise what you need to learn. Avoid anything too specific, because that can narrow your target and in a rapidly changing world you need to be quite flexible about what your need to learn.

Received wisdom is that it’s best to set short-term, specific and moderately difficult goals. It’s worth keeping a written record of your progress and checking it with a colleague or coach.

A more formal route is to test your knowledge from time to time, and this is where gamification has such a huge role to play. Making testing fun makes it far more likely that learners will happily engage.

Game designers have long understood the powerful combination of setting short-term goals in an engaging and exciting environment. Gamers will spend hundreds of hours learning how to move from level to level without losing interest.

There’s a lot we can learn from the gaming world. If you can create the right culture, learners can also be encouraged to test their skills and behaviours. Create a simple checklist, and a colleague or a manager with a good coaching style can then observe, providing feedback as appropriate.

As a profession, we love talking about informal learning but we find it more difficult to provide the tools and supportive environment to enable informal assessment.

a variety of learning modes is important for self-directed learning

Self-directed learning tip #8: Provide different learning modes

Variety is the spice of life (so they say), but this is particularly true for learning.

There are two key reasons to consider delivering a range of different types of learning content within a self-directed learning programme:

1. To cater to different learning preferences (note I’ve avoided the word ‘styles’)

Some learners will be happy to consume large amounts of digital learning with little variety. Others will prefer the opportunity to learn in different ways: through a face-to-face workshop or online discussion forum, for example.

Providing a range of ways for learners to progress increases the chances that every learner can find a way to learn that suits their needs and preferences. This used to be difficult because of the cost, but low-cost digital authoring tools now make it very easy and cheap to create alternative modes of learning.

2. To meet different learning contexts and needs

An effective blended learning journey will provide the right mode of learning for the right context. It’s also important to think about the ‘channel.’ Too often in the digital world, it’s assumed that every learner will have a digital device. Spend some time investigating the lifestyle of the learner. Sometimes good old paper, for example a PDF, is the most suitable channel. Yes, it might be delivered via a digital device, but these days most people have access to printers.

setting goals is important in self-directed learning

Self-directed learning tip #9: Identify triggers to maintain momentum

Motivation is often quite high among learners at the start of a programme, especially if you’ve clearly communicated the goals of the learning and what they can hope to achieve (see part 1 for more on this).

But once learners have started their journey, and perhaps already gained useful skills and knowledge, engagement levels can start to drop off.

It’s critical to identify effective ‘nudges’ that will keep learners coming back. It’s worth spending a little time developing a deeper understanding of ‘nudging’, which has been turned into a quasi-science (but there’s plenty of evidence that it does work). This is particularly the case if nudging taps into the intrinsic drivers which we talked about previously.

Nudges could include:

  • Managers, in particular senior executives, talking genuinely about the importance of learning to the organisation
  • Stories about staff who have achieved something remarkable, partly as a consequence of some great learning
  • A line manager simply taking interest in what learning their staff are undertaking
  • A line manager setting aside time in his or her diary to coach a colleague
  • Opportunities for quick ‘learning breaks’ – 15-minute webinars, for example
  • Proper reward for learning in the performance management process
  • Stories about great learners, based on the stats available through the learning portal
  • Posters on office walls displaying learning journeys
  • Making some learning a privilege, rewarded for achievement in the workplace
  • Points, badges and leaderboards – again using gaming techniques

The list is pretty endless, constrained only by your imagination.

Self-directed learning tip #10: Involve managers

I’ve already touched on the role of line managers, but research has shown that involving managers in learning, even in small ways, can increase motivation and lead to better outcomes1.

Harness this involvement to maintain commitment in self-driven learners. Tasking managers to schedule regular check-ins with learners on self-driven learning programmes can be a highly effective tool to maintaining engagement.

manager involvement is key in self-directed learning

Self-directed learning tip #11: Provide challenge

Make the challenges you use to motivate learners as concrete as possible.

Most of the language we use when talking about learning challenges is couched in HR speak: What are the competencies the individual needs to achieve? What are the capabilities in terms of knowledge, skills and behaviours, etc?

Challenges should be very focused on a work task, with the right level of difficulty to provide sufficient toughness without seeming insurmountable. It would be perfectly valid for a personal development plan (a phrase that fills most people with dread!) if it was composed solely of three workplace tasks, described in gaming-like language i.e. levels with a tangible reward at the end.

Self-directed learning tip #12: Track and Trust

I would like to conclude with a reminder that this is about self-directed learning, not informal learning. In a corporate environment, this is about equipping the learner with the capability and motivation to weave a course between formal learning, coaching and on-the-job learning. This is really what is meant by personalisation.

The L&D function can provide the environment – the learning roads, parks, bandstands and bus stops. It’s important to track the efficacy of the infrastructure and with the advent of xAPI, we can now track the usefulness of the informal learning resources, something that used to be invisible to the organisation. However, in our increasingly complex world, it is facile for an organisation to imagine that it alone can create the most appropriate learning journey.

It’s essential that the individual has the skills and motivation to create their own way; crucial that they have a good fix on the strategic direction of the organisation and some sense of the professional direction they are heading in.

Beyond that, if you want a genuinely agile organisation (and you have deployed tips 1-11, of course) put trust in the individual to find the right learning path.

LEO Learning can supercharge self-directed learning programmes

LEO Learning has deep expertise in designing and delivering self-directed learning. Contact us today to find out how we can help.

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1. LinkedIn (2018), Workplace Learning Report, p.22