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15 Ways of the Successful Self-Directed Learner

by Jeff Cobb

The “why” of self-directed learning is survival—your own survival as an individual, and also the survival of the human race.  Clearly, we are not talking here about something that would be nice or desirable….We are talking about a basic human competence—the ability to learn on one’s own—that has suddenly become a prerequisite for living in this new world. – Malcom Knowles, 1975

While lifelong learning and self-directed learning are not equivalent, they overlap substantially. I think the following points apply equally to both. The successful lifelong learner is someone who:

1. Takes initiative

This first one is core to the entire concept of “self-directed.”  The successful self-directed learner does not wait for someone else to say “you must learn this.”

 2. Is comfortable with independence

Self-directed learners do not always act autonomously or independently. Indeed, increasingly they must cultivate their networks to learn effectively. Nonetheless, successful self-directed learners know how to be self-reliant.

3. Is persistent

Learning takes time, it takes repetition, it takes practice. Successful self-directed learners stick to it.

4. Accepts responsibility

The successful self-directed learner embraces responsibility for doing the work of learning and doing it well

 5. Views problems as challenges, not obstacles

The successful self-directed learner embraces a growth mindset and is not easily thwarted when the going gets tough.

6. Is capable of self-discipline

Even when learning is enjoyable (which, for the successful self-directed learner, it usually is), it often requires discipline. The self-directed learner knows (or learns!)  how to develop and maintain discipline.

7. Has a high degree of curiosity

Successful self-directed learners have a high propensity for asking why – and lots of other questions.

8. Has a strong desire to learn or change

The successful self-directed learner is intrinsically motivated. She has a will to learn and sees learning as a positive path forward.

 9. Is self-confident

Successful self-directed learners have a solid sense of “self-efficacy” – the belief that one is capable of performing in a certain manner to attain certain goals

10. Is able to use basic study skills

As I have said here before, skills like taking notes effectively are useful for a lifetime. The self-directed learner knows this.

11. Organizes his or her time

While self-directed learning does not require the obsession with productivity that seems to be everywhere on the Interweb, the successful self-directed learner nonetheless knows how to find and manage time effectively to allow for learning.

 12. Sets an appropriate pace for learning

The successful self-directed learner recognizes that learning is as much (if not more) about the process than the outcome and doesn’t try to do too much too fast.

13. Develops a plan for completing work

Setting a plan is part of setting the pace and ultimately reaching the destination. The successful self-directed learner recognizes this.

14. Has a tendency to be goal-oriented

While not all self-directed learners consciously set goals, they nonetheless tend to have an end in mind when they start down the learning path.

15. Enjoys learning

The proverbial bottom line: the successful self-directed learner simply likes to learn.


How well do these points describe you as a learner?

How effectively are you cultivating these ways in those you teach (your children, you members, you employees, your students – you name it.)

Please comment and share. I also encourage you to follow me and share your thoughts on Twitter.


P.S. – These “ways” have been extracted from a description in a 1977 survey that ultimately led to development of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale, which was subsequently renamed the Learning Preferences Assessment. In the post above, I have expanded upon the characteristics highlighted in the description with my own comments.

A highly self-directed learner, based on the survey results, is one who exhibits initiative, independence, and persistence in learning; one who accepts responsibility for his or her own learning and views problems as challenges, not obstacles; one who is capable of self-discipline and has a high degree of curiosity; one who has a strong desire to learn or change and is self-confident; one who is able to use basic study skills, organize his or her time and set an appropriate pace for learning, and to develop a plan for completing work; one who enjoys learning and has a tendency to be goal-oriented. (Guglielmino, 1977/78, p.73)

posted on October 8, 2013

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