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15 Ways of the Successful Self-Directed Learner

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. – Malcolm Knowles, 1975

While lifelong learning and self-directed learning are not equivalent, they overlap substantially – and both have become exponentially more important in our current world, where continual learning – and unlearning – are the key to adapting and thriving.

I think the following points apply equally to both. The successful lifelong learner is is a self-directed learner ans is someone who:

1. Takes initiative

This first one is core to the entire concept of “self-directed.”  The successful learner does not wait for someone else to say “you must learn this.” Rather, she is intrinsically motivated toward self learning, recognizes the learning opportunities all around her, and regularly seeks out new opportunities.

 2. Is comfortable with independence

Self-directed learners do not always act autonomously or independently. Indeed, increasingly they must cultivate their networks and collaborate to learn effectively. Nonetheless, successful learners know how to be self-reliant and they recognize that solitude and time for reflection are essential for effective learning.

3. Is persistent

Self-directed learning – like all learning – takes time, it takes repetition, it takes practice. Successful self-directed learners stick to it, recognizing that learning is not an event but a process – one that, of course, happens over a lifetime.

4. Accepts responsibility

The successful self-directed learner embraces responsibility for doing the work of learning and doing it well. She recognizes, also, that learning is not just about herself: it is essential to the health of the groups and communities of which she is a part.

 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. In fact, she recognizes that stress can be useful and necessary for learning.

6. Is capable of self-discipline

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

7. Has a high degree of curiosity

Successful self-directed learners have a high propensity for asking why – and lots of other questions. And they are eager to explore the unfamiliar, whether that means reading a lot, learning a foreign language or trying out a virtual conference.

8. Has a strong desire to learn or change

The successful learner is intrinsically motivated. She has a will to learn and sees learning as a positive path forward. She recognizes the yin and yang of learning: no learning, no change; no change, no learning.

 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 many times, skills like taking notes effectively are useful for a lifetime. The self-directed learner knows this and practices note-taking and other effective learning strategies.

11. Organizes his or her time

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

 12. Sets an appropriate pace for learning

The successful 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 planning as a critical element of self learning.

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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. Also, if you are – or aspire to be – a serious lifelong learner – I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter to get ongoing resources and insights


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)

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Leave a Comment:

Garrett Vargas says

Another habit that has really helped me as a lifelong learner is breaking down a large goal into smaller pieces. This not only helps you get started down the road of lifelong learning, but also gives you a sense of accomplishment along the way. Don’t set out to be a master pianist – start out small, learn your scales, a favorite song, etc.

Rafael Castillo says

This is an amazing article!! TOTALLY LOVE IT!! I agree with the 15 ways. I discover I was doing some of these principles unconsciously.

3000words says

Those 15 points describe a perfect student! The question is how to help a person who doesn’t want to learn! Like my friend who is crying about low-income work but doesn’t speak English and he just never studies it!

Jack Samuel says

there may be many types of learning. Academic learning is one of them. revision is the key to improve it.
this is one of the best articles i have ever read. thanks for sharing with us

Gertie Alabi says

Very educative! I do procrastinate a lot, I have a lot to learn in organizing my time. Thanks for this article.

Solomon Lebbie says

I want to express my profound thanks for sharing this knowledge,The point you indicated portrays the power in self learning and gives optimism for the feature.

Glory Alexander Samuel says

You have just made it so easy for one to take on in life as a Go-getter. For even when no one else is there to push you up you can do it by self-direction. This is so encouraging and spiritful.

Habiba Umaru says

I am a student at the university of the people and I find this article so encouraging and gives me a great zeal believing I can succeed in my dreams while majoring in health sciences.

Emmanuel Okai Ablakwah says

This is exactly what one needs, to be able to make life meaningful in future by being a self directed leaner,this is what the University of the People expects from us.

Bathsheba says

I have found something totally useful for what am writing. Iit has validated what i have written in my yet to be printed auto. I have learned more from life experiences that from my degrees. I appreciate lifelong learning.

Patrick Nyambe says

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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Juan Carlos Lugo Perez says

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!

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Anthony H. Roberts says


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.

Lordson Benson says

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.

Samuel says

A self directed active learner is an explorer and inventor.

James Evans says

I think this was a great article and I can’t wait to share the information with my son.

Reinaldo says

I enjoyed the lecture because for the first time I was able to identify myself as a self learner, and I didn’t really understand because even at my age I eagerly love learning, but to acquire the knowledge mainly by myself, even tough when it takes a lot of “trial and error”. I also advise my students
“when in doubt find out”

Gideon Brefo says

I must admit that having read the points above I don’t feel as a 100% self-directed learner. But I will love to be and will work harder on ares I am lacking, especially notes taking. It is a pain for me.

Henock says

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.

Bruce says

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.

Justin Friedman says

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!


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Tew Marc says

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

Igili Onyedika says

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.

Muntari says

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?

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ruphin joel says

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

Jeff Cobb says

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

Andrew Weiler says

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

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