Self Directed Learning

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It’s a typical day in an elementary classroom. The students are working on various science reports.   All seems well until you hear, “Someone stole my pencil!”, “Teacher, do you have some tape I can use?”, “My paper needs holes punched in it.” “How do you spell mayonnaise?” And even “Can I go to the bathroom?”  The teacher stops her work and looks up with an exhausted look on her face.  So many children need something all at once.  What’s a teacher to do?  She attempts to manage the activity one student at a time.

In the next classroom you see similar students also working on a science project. You watch for several minutes, sure that you will eventually see the same scenario play out for your dismay (or amusement).  One student’s pencil lead breaks and another tears her paper while taking it out of her notebook.  “Here we go.” you think.  But instead, there is no chaos.  The students simply get up and take care of their own problems.  The student with the broken pencil quietly gets up, walks over to a nearby table, places the pencil in a small tray, and trades it for a freshly sharpened one.  The student with the torn paper also gets up quietly and retrieves a piece of tape from the same table.  But wait, there’s another child at the table looking on the computer at a website about bugs.  The first two children quickly and quietly walk back to their desks without interrupting any of the learning.  The teacher notices the movement, and when she looks up from her work with another student, she has a smile on her face.  Several children needed something all at once here as well, but the difference was that the second teacher’s students had been trained very early in the year how to manage themselves and to self-direct their learning and needs.

Students work on various activities with independence.

Students work on various activities with independence.

Self-Directed Learning is a complex set of behaviors, attitudes, and strategies that are used to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Roger Heimstra, for the International Self-Directed Learning Symposium, defines Self-Directed Learning as “any study form in which individuals have primary responsibility for planning, implementing, and even evaluating the effort.” (Heimstra, 1994)  From this, I’ve come to understand that self-directed learning goes beyond the problem solving situation, and flows into the learning environment.

Many of the students in the second classroom showed evidence of self-management (Laureate, 1996) as they worked during their Science time. They knew that there could be times when the teacher would not be available to answer their questions.  The students had learned to solve some of their own problems.  For instance, when a student needed supplies, they went to the Student Supply Center, in the classroom, where they found paper, pencils, glue, scissors, sticky-notes, tape, paper clips, extra reading logs, graphic organizers, and more.  Before being trained to take responsibility for acquiring supplies, the students frequently interrupted the teacher’s work with another student, or meetings with small groups, with questions.  This ability to self-manage is a skill that not only saves valuable time each day, but it will benefit the students in the future.  The jobs that the students may acquire someday may require him/her to solve his/her own problems and manage his/her own routines and operations (November, 1996).

Upon your further observation of the second classroom another situation arose: self-directed learning during the science discovery experiments.  Students were given supplies and posed with a question.  From there, they worked in small groups, experimenting with the materials, discussion the results, changing their approach, and trying again.  The teacher acted as the observer and questioner.  During those discovery times the students demonstrated self-modifying behaviors by making changes as needed and learning from their experiences, (Laureate, 1996) as well as collaborating with others.  They had primary responsibility for implementing and evaluating their efforts.  These behaviors will help the students achieve a meaningful learning experience that carries on into their adult life (Abdullah, 2001).

So, what about the teacher and students in the first classroom? Well. Maybe you should answer that.  What would you do to help all to be more successful and responsible?


Heimstra, R. (1994). Self-Directed Learning, in T. Husen and T.N. Postlethwaite (Eds). The International Encyclopedia of Education (Second Edition).  Oxford: Peramon Press.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (1996). Helping students become self-directed learners. [Video recording]. Los Angeles: Author.

November, A. C. (1996). Beyond technology: The end of the job and the beginning of digital work. Principal, 72(1), 13–14.

Abdullah, M.H. (Dec. 2001). Self-Directed Learning.  ERIC Digest. Retrieved January 4, 2007 from