Self-Directed Learning

Self-Directed learning (SDL) is both a personal attribute and a process. It as a personal attribute refers to an individual predisposition towards learning and comfort with autonomy in the learning process. Knowles defined it as a process of SDL “ in which individual take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating those learning outcomes” (1975, p.18).


Self-Directed Learning

Knowles (1975) also outlined the six-step process which forms the basis of a learning contract for learners and instructors. The six steps are:

  1. Climate setting, i.e. creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and support
  2. Diagnosing learning needs
  3. Formulating learning goals
  4. Identifying human and material resources for learning
  5. Choosing and implementing learning strategies
  6. Evaluating learning outcomes

Goals of SDL

Caffarella (2000) suggested that there are four goals likely to motivate learners to engage SDL:

  1. The aspiration to gain knowledge or develop skill – say you want to learn to speak Spanish
  2. Becoming more self-directed in learning- might mean that after you take Spanish classes, you are ready to strike out on your own by watching Spanish TV shows, or travelling to Spanish speaking countries.
  3. SDL can also inspire transformational learning.
  4. Finally, SDL can be emancipatory, supporting social justice and political action i.e. moving beyond the realm of individual learning.

SDL is becoming a prominent feature of continuing professional education in many fields including physical therapy, dental education, veterinary and medical education, and library science. These professions recognize the need for continuous, lifelong learning and are attempting to it into the curriculum. Higher education is another site where SDL has taken hold.

Self-directed training is also used in business and organizational settings as a strategy for competing in a globalizing, changing environment.


Adult Learning – Linking Theory and Practice – Sharan B. Merriam & Laura L. Bierema





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