By Nathan Schiller, Director of Academic Support  

If you’ve had a tutoring session with an LEC specialist, you know that we are guided by principles of self-directed learning. We believe self-directed learning is critical for educational and professional empowerment—even more so in an online environment. 

Let’s talk about it! 

What is self-directed learning?

It may be helpful to think of self-directed learning as a concept whose definition changes depending on circumstances. In the LEC, we think about self-directed learning as a process of helping students develop the skills and confidence to learn in all environments.   

In a time when all classes and LEC tutoring sessions are online, this process of self-directed learning will involve not just academic work but technology. The act of completing assignments will help students become their own best teachers of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Zoom, and other tech tools. 

Of course, professors, classmates, and LEC specialists—as well as friends and family members—will be there for support. Remember, “self-directed” does not imply “alone.”   

How does self-directed learning work? 

In the LEC, we focus on deep engagement with our students. Our goal is to learn how our students think and learn, so that we can support their unique, individual needs.  

Our tutoring style varies among specialists, but one thing we all do is ask a lot of questions. We want to hear from you, the student. We often find that students learn a lot by simply articulating their issues in a constructive, collaborative environment. 

Why self-directed learning? 

A self-directed approach is not the only way to help students learn. But another reason we embrace it is that it gives learners and integral role in their own education. 

In a more traditional learning mode, the premise may be that the instructor knows everything and the students know little. Therefore, the instructor gives a lecture, which transmits information to the learner.  

A self-directed mode, on the other hand, involves interaction, guidance, mutual aid. A tutor guided by self-directed learning often finds that their students are teaching them things as well. The tutor then synthesizes that new information in order to build a better learning plan with the student. 

Self-directed learning and online classes 

Taking classes online involves a lot of figuring things out. Without a physical classroom, instructor and student must navigate a virtual space that can seem distant yet intimate, infinite yet confined. 

Navigating these paradoxes is part of the online learning experience, and it’s an organically self-directed one. If you’ve ever had to spend a few minutes figuring out how to submit an assignment in Moodle, or how to hear someone in a Zoom meeting, you know that you and your instructor often learn together. 

One last thing! 

We’ve spent this blog post talking about how the LEC approaches self-directed learning. To finish, we thought it might be interesting to get a glimpse of how a scholar thinks about self-directed learning. The following is excerpted from an article written in the mid-990s, well before online classes played an integral role in higher education: 

Several things are known about self-directed learning: (a) individual learners can become empowered to take increasingly more responsibility for various decisions associated with the learning endeavor; (b) self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation; (c) self-direction does not necessarily mean all learning will take place in isolation from others; (d) self-directed learners appear able to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skill, from one situation to another; (e) self-directed study can involve various activities and resources, such as self-guided reading, participation in study groups, internships, electronic dialogues, and reflective writing activities; (f) effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking; (g) some educational institutions are finding ways to support self-directed study through open-learning programs, individualized study options, non-traditional course offerings, and other innovative programs. There is no fixed definition of self-directed learning (Hiemstra, 1994).