4 steps to becoming a self-directed learner

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What is a self-directed learner and why do you need to be one? Self-directed learning, as defined by foremost adult educator Malcolm Knowles, is the following:

“In its broadest meaning, ‘self-directed learning’ describes a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18, as cited from Self Directed Learning.org.)

In short, it is taking charge of your own learning needs. It involves recognizing what you need to learn and then finding out various ways of learning that work for you. In Canada, this is the key to career growth. With the continually changing demands in the workplace, professional development is necessary to stay at the top of your game. And if you are a newcomer, not only will you need to continually develop your technical skills but your soft-skills as well to meet Canadian standards (watch Dr. Lionel Laroche’s video below to know how important soft skills are in the Canadian workplace).

Why is it important to become a self-directed learner?

With the amount of learning newcomers need to keep up – from the knowing the language to the intricacies of Canadian culture– it can be overwhelming at times. For many of us, the idea of learning involves going to a class, and listening to a teacher. While this can be an effective way to learn, (and in fact, the way most of us are used to), not all will have the time nor the resources to enroll in formal classes. This is why it is important to become a self-directed learner. When you develop the drive and the discipline to conduct independent study, online learning and self-study through books, videos and other tools become easy and time-saving ways to build your competencies.

Here are 4 easy steps towards taking charge of your own learning journey:

  1. Understand your learning style

    Do you learn better on your own? Or when there is a teacher that tells you what to do? Are you curious, patient, disciplined, good in managing your time? Understanding your study habits and how you take in and process information are essential in developing traits that are ideal for self-directed learning. Look back on your school days and think about the learning strategies that worked for you. You can also take this learning skills assessment tool from the University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence. But don’t worry if you don’t exactly fit the profile of a self-directed learner. You can develop self-motivation with a little effort.

  2. Find motivation

    Successful self-directed learners are said to be intrinsically motivated. But for some of us, learning for learning’s sake is not enough. To help you sustain and persist in independent study, setting goals or targets is a good way to reinforce your will. Ask yourself: Will learning a new skill get you a promotion? Will improving your language make you better at your job? If you finish certain course units will it beef up your resume? When we visualize the outcome of our efforts, it pushes us to continue with our plans.

  3. Make a plan

    Writing down goals and listing down the possible paths makes the journey clearer and easier to follow. Keeping in mind SMART, for Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Based, will help keep you on track when drafting your plan. Read the article Setting English Learning goals the SMART way to learn how to set your goals and how to reach them (this also works for any kind of endeavor). You can download the goal setting plan sheet from the article to guide you.

  4. Try it

    Many online resources are free. You can probably start by reading articles on topics you are interested in, or try joining a short webinar. If your goal is to improve your English proficiency, you can start with English Online’s self-study resources or multi-week sessions. You can also join our multi-week session Become an Autonomous Language Learner to learn more tips and strategies.

Article updated February 16, 2021.

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Community Resources

In this TED Talk entitled the Revolution of Self-directed learning, Sean Bengry explains how the ways of professional development has changed:

Also read Brightside’s Top tips for independent learning to help you become an efficient and effective learner.

Read these related articles on 5 ways to make distance learning work for you and 5 reasons why you should try online learning to know more about this growing trend.

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