Why Self-Directed Learning Practices Make Us Better Learners

by | Oct 16, 2017

What exactly do we mean by self-directed learning? Whoever heard of learners teaching themselves?

Let’s begin by considering a few real-life examples. In sports, when a player plays a bad game, he or she knows what they need to work on in their own time. They go home and practice that skill so the outcome is better for their next game. Likewise, artists and musicians are always honing their craft and choosing what to leave in and what to take out.

When you’re finished with school, do you stop learning things after you graduate? Of course not, and why should you? In a basic sense then, self-directed learning could be called the conscious, willing, and continuous growth of intelligence. It’s about taking ownership of learning, and that’s exactly what we want our students to do.

Identifying Self-Directed Learning

The following definition of self-directed learning comes from University of Waterloo. It stresses four key stages to independent learning:

  • being ready to learn
  • setting learning goals
  • engaging in the learning process
  • evaluating learning

How can the idea of self-directed learning benefit all students? If we identify the roadblocks to lifelong learning, we see it boils down to mindset. Boyle points to 3 deconstructive mindsets that prevent self-directed learning:

  • I’m not self-motivated enough
  • I’m not smart/talented enough
  • I’m not that type of person

Do you see this mindset playing out in your classroom? 


Tearing Down Walls

Let’s tackle “self-motivation” first. There’s a myth that people cannot be motivated by themselves. It suggests they must be given some kind of incentive.

A good example to look at is Edward Deci’s 1969 experiment. He gathered two groups of college students to engage in solving various puzzles over a period of time. To one group, he made no promise of money or mentioned any compensation or reward, while the other group was paid for their puzzle solving. After a while, the paid group was told they were not going to be paid anymore.

Also read: 10 Essential Self-Directed Learning Questions Every Learner Can Use

The results of the study indicated the group that was not paid churned out more solved puzzles and continued to do so after the third day. In other words, they were doing it for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction. Deci concluded that intrinsic learning is more powerful than incentive learning, yet it’s more fragile. Once you attach a reward, the value decreases.


In the study above, after being told they would not get paid, the amount of work produced plummeted. Why is this so? Daniel Pink, author of Drive, suggests that there are 3 very real internal motivations for self-directed learning:

  • Autonomy: freedom to determine your path
  • Mastery: the chance to grow competency
  • Purpose: connection to some greater good

Here’s Dan on TED Talks verifying Deci’s results above, and talking about how motivation is not increased with outside incentives.

Type and Talent

Now let’s address block 2 (I’m not smart/talented enough) and block 3 (I’m not that type of person). This kind of thinking is a common self-fulfilling prophecy of self defeat. If we can change this language that our students internalize about not being smart or talented enough, it would be a step in the right direction. However, let’s be clear—self-directed learning is hard work.

We talked about intrinsic motivation earlier as a component of self-directed learning, and the other side of that coin is “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is the hard work of self-directed learning. Though this may sound unappealing, consider that deliberate practice has been shown to build intrinsic motivation, not take it away. Intrinsic motivation is autonomy, mastery, and purposeThrough deliberate practice, we can make “excellence a habit,” as Aristotle instructed.

When we call ourselves “not smart, not talented, not that type of person,” our own thoughts and mindsets stop us dead in our tracks. Self-directed learners eschew these labels in favor of a growth mindset, explained in detail by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology for Success.

In essence, growth mindset allows us to believe that our intelligence is not fixed, that failures are merely transition points, and that we can change our personalities. Can you imagine if all your students adopted this way of thinking? For these kinds of thinkers, the grade matters less than the sheer love of learning and acquiring knowledge.

Again, self-directed learning is hard work, but that hard work fuels intrinsic motivation. Often the barrier to allowing students to self-direct is our need as teachers to be in control of our students’ paths. Sometimes it takes letting go of our expectations and allowing students to blossom in ways that only they can determine.


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