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Key considerations for successful self-directed learning: Part 1

As organisations start to move away from highly-structured formal learning and towards more self-directed learning, LEO Learning’s Strategic Consulting Lead, Gareth Jones, outlines six key tips for designing successful self-directed learning programmes.

An office workers using self-directed learning to support her learning goals

The days of organisations delivering the majority of their learning via one-off, formal training courses are fast disappearing. Today, many L&D teams are looking at different approaches to deliver effective learning to their workforces. Supporting self-directed learning is one such intervention.

A learning programme designed to support self-directed learning has the capacity to:

  • Empower learners to take control of their own development – creating greater motivation and commitment to learning
  • Embed a culture of continuous learning in the organisation – increasingly needed in a rapidly evolving, increasingly-specialised business landscape
  • Cater to modern learning habits – by enabling point of need, on-demand learning over spaced out, discrete learning events

With this kind of potential, it’s no surprise Towards Maturity notes that many organisations want to increase self-directed learning within their organisations. The problem is that few are actually achieving this goal1.

My experience working with clients in this area has led me to develop and refine a set of 12 key tips and considerations that will support the success of self-directed learning.

Here’s the first set of tips (see here for part 2):

Self-directed learning tip #1: Define and communicate business goals and learning outcomes

The temptation with self-directed learning is to ‘leave them to it’. But if the learning is to deliver real business impact then it requires a degree of structure and scaffolding.

This places the onus on team leaders to ensure staff clearly understand the goals of the learning and take an active interest in helping the individual understand the capability gaps they have to address. Self-directed learning needs to be supported by effective coaching and support.

Scaffolded learning is one of the key considerations for successful self-directed learning

Self-directed learning tip #2: Understand learner motivations

Understanding and targeting learner motivations is particularly critical when designing for self-directed learning.

When you’re asking a learner to ‘drive’ their own learning, you need to generate sufficient motivation and enthusiasm to kickstart and then underpin that effort.

First, identify exactly what motivates your learners. Some learners will be highly driven by financial rewards (increased sales, which leads to higher commission, for example). Others will be less motivated by financial reward and may have more intrinsic drivers, such as providing better service or more job satisfaction.

Self-directed learning tip #3: Clearly present outcomes and rewards to learners

Once you have identified what drives your learners, clearly present the outcomes of the learning in a way that will tap into and fuel this motivation.

Adult learners are very result-oriented. They want to know exactly what they will get out of the learning – and how it will improve their working lives, both in the short and long term.

Present these outcomes clearly and empower learners to decide for themselves whether the learning is of value to them.

Self-directed learning tip #4: Show them the journey…

Even when the goal is self-directed learning, learners still need a clear idea of the journey they are embarking on.

Map out and communicate all the elements of the learning resources available to them. If the content delivery is phased then clearly define when the next phase of learning will be available.

If all the learning is available immediately, consider creating a visual map showing all the elements, how they contribute to improvement in business performance, and how they will further develop the individual’s competencies.

Self-directed learning tip #5: …but give them control

There is a always a tension within the design of self-directed learning: providing structure but also providing a sense of control.

A clearly defined learning journey is necessary to help learners structure their own learning, but this journey also needs to be flexible enough to provide ample opportunity for exploration and independent discovery.

The search for and evaluation of potential resources is part of how we learn. Consider how we use Google outside of work to hunt down answers and learn new things such as recipes and DIY hacks. This non-linear, unstructured way of learning needs to be enabled within a self-driven learning experience.

An open road to signify a learning journey

Self-directed learning tip #6: Remove barriers

Often overlooked, but when it comes to supporting self-directed learners it can be worth looking at what barriers they have to access learning, rather than just concentrating on making the learning itself as enticing as possible.

These could be physical, environmental or technological. For example, implementing single sign-on across all of your learning platforms can limit the barrier that trying to remember multiple log-in details can create.

Read our second set of tips on self-directed learning

As you can see, an effective self-directed learning experience requires just as much needs analysis and learning design expertise as more traditional, formal learning interventions. But it requires considering a different set of challenges and learning contexts.

If you enjoyed this post, read the second part of this blog, where we explore six more key considerations to create self-directed learning that delivers real impact.

A manager helping a staff members with her self-directed learning

Do you want to empower your workforce with self-directed learning? Contact us today to find out how we can help.

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1. Towards Maturity (2018), Bridging the Divide In-Focus report, p.6