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 self-directed 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 successful self-directed learning, 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 self-directed 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.


Udemy Generic 125x125One of my favorite resources for self-directed learning is Udemy. If you have never checked them out (or even if you have), visit their site today. The selection of courses is great and the quality of the content and teaching is very high.
Start learning on Udemy today!

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)

If you like this post, you may also like Applying the 6 Key Principles of Adult Learning to Yourself.

Jeff Cobb is a co-founder and managing director of Tagoras, the leading advisory firm to organizations in the business of lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development. He is also author of Leading the Learning Revolution: The Expert’s Guide to Capitalizing on the Exploding Lifelong Education Market.

posted on October 8, 2013

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Weiler October 26, 2013 at 12:31 am

One more I would add be a readiness to learn from their own mistakes.

Jeff Cobb October 26, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Andrew – Thanks for commenting, and good point. I was working off of the characteristics highlighted in the Learning Preferences Assessment. The authors of that might argue that “readiness to learn from their own mistakes” is implicit, but I think it is worth making that more explicit. – Jeff

ruphin joel February 6, 2014 at 7:36 pm

for me every things depend of what you realy want to do if you are motivated it is true that you can overcome all the challenges

Muntari July 15, 2014 at 6:06 am

Hello Jeff
Your points are very spot on and it has help me to identify something i have being ignoring for a while now- critical thinking. critical thinking starts with asking the question “why”. i feel wanting to accumulate more knowledge by reading is slowly making me loose this ability. Does reading more impede critical thinking skills in any way?

Igili Onyedika July 16, 2014 at 4:29 pm

This is a wonderful article. It is an eye opener and will go a long way to redirect students who have missed the right road to learning.

Tew Marc July 27, 2014 at 1:44 pm

For me, I set many milestones along the way so I could enjoy small accomplishment along the way.

Justin Friedman August 8, 2014 at 10:16 am

I just discovered this blog on Lifelong Learning! This blog has excellent content, on the values of self-directed-learning, and being a passionate lifelong learner. I think the biggest point comes back to being a disciplined person, which requires a great deal of focus on your goals, and the work-ethic to remain committed. This is where motivation comes into play, and how one can constantly be improving in their self-discipline.

I will keep following your blog as I love the content just great stuff all around!


Netcom Learning

Bruce July 9, 2015 at 3:30 am

Hello Jeff Jacob,
I was reading through this for a school assignment and noticed a couple errors I thought I would bring to you attention.
In 8. Has a strong desire to learn or change, you stated she has the will to learn. depending on your intent is may need changed to he/she.
15. Enjoys learning
your children, you members, you employees, your students – you name it.)
you used you members, you employees, you should be changed to your.
I enjoyed reading this article and appreciate all the insight. Thank you.

Henock July 12, 2015 at 1:10 pm

I am a student at the university of the people and I am directed by my instructor to read it. I found it very interesting and helpful to see where I stand as a successful self directed student.

Samuel July 10, 2016 at 9:30 am

A self directed active learner is an explorer and inventor.

Lordson Benson July 10, 2016 at 12:26 pm

I really gained a lot, i am a student of UoPeople, i was directed here by my instructor, i think i will love to be such a learner, thanks for the tutor.

Anthony H. Roberts July 12, 2016 at 9:23 am


Thanks for sharing this knowledge. The points you outlined depict the strength of a self directed learner. They are insightful to me, a self directed student of the University of the People.

Juan Carlos Lugo Perez February 18, 2017 at 10:24 am

I found this article very interesting. I have taught English in for over 15 years and I can say that people who are successful language learners have all these qualities mentioned above. Thank you, it is a great article!

Patrick Nyambe February 28, 2017 at 3:20 am

Good points have been highlighted concerning self directed and long term learning.I have been able learn something about this type of learning. People who have invented things or came up with new concepts are people who were self directed in their learning approach I believe.

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