5 best techniques to boost self-directed learning

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You have to be self-directed to be a successful online learner. What does this mean?

Most of us are used to learning in a classroom setting: The teacher provides the lessons, tells us what to study and how to accomplish projects or tests. At the end of the course, we earn a grade. Teachers set the pace and students participate.

With self-directed learning, students have more say about what, how and when to learn. They can decide which materials to use and the pace they go about learning. They are accountable for their own learning process. They could have an e-facilitator, but their role is mainly to provide support.

Self-directed learners are found to be better at generating their own learning, finding appropriate resources to sustain and supplement learning, collaborating with others, and applying what they learned in various contexts.

Each learning method has pros and cons. One method can work better than the other depending on a person’s learning style. However, even in a classroom setting, being self-directed is an advantage. How? Self-directed learners are found to be better at generating their own learning, finding appropriate resources to sustain and supplement learning, collaborating with others, and applying what they learned in various contexts.

Here are five techniques to start developing a self-directed frame of mind:

  1. Strive for intrinsic motivation

    This means enjoying the process of learning for learning’s sake. You study something because it is interesting to you and you feel fulfilled by doing so. Learning becomes more powerful because you do not rely on external factors to learn.

    How do you cultivate intrinsic motivation? It starts with prioritizing internal benefits rather than external ones. Intrinsic motivation requires setting higher goals and aligning them to your life’s purpose. This is easier said than done, but when you start focusing on developing into a better person, intrinsic motivation follows.


  3. Set your own SMART goals

    SMART means specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound goals. Having these goals can strengthen your resolve to learn and increase your focus to achieve your desired results.

    Experts say that you are more likely to achieve your goals when you write them down. This is because you tend to define your goals more clearly when you put them on paper (The importance of writing down clearly defined goals, ADSactly, Medium). Written goals can also act as a reminder that you can review when you need motivation.

    Need help setting yours? Watch this video from MindTools about setting SMART goals:

  4. Have a growth mindset

    A fixed mindset believes a student is either great at a subject or not, as reflected by the grades they earn. A growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that anyone can improve and learn even if the subject isn’t easy. However, it will require perseverance and grit. It sounds hard, but you may already have what it takes. For example, do you like DIY (do-it-yourself) projects? Have you ever followed a YouTube video to learn how to do something? Then you’re on your way to developing a growth mindset. Read What is a growth mindset and how can it help you succeed? to know more.

  5. Make your own learning ritual

    It’s hard to be self-directed at first, especially when you’re not used to it. But having a consistent schedule will help you form good learning habits and stick to them. Famous self-directed learners who do this include Benjamin Franklin who has his “five-hour rule”. During week days, he would set aside an hour to learn (or write, reflect or make experiments). Likewise, Bill Gates is said to read one book each week, while Warren Buffet reads 600 pages per day.

  6. Find practical ways to apply what you learned

    Rewards may not be as concrete for self-directed learners as compared to traditional learners. In traditional learning, you get high grades and recognition (certificates, medals, or trophies) when you do well. With self-directed learning, learning IS the reward, and that’s it! But if you want to make the rewards more concrete, make it a point to apply what you learned in your life, start a project, or help others learn too. You will find this more rewarding. It can help sustain your love for learning.

Article updated February 10, 2023.
Sources: Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation: What’s the difference? Kendra Cherry, verywell mind; 7 habits of the best self-directed learners, Kevin Dickinson, Big Think; and Intrinsic motivation: How to pick up healthy motivation techniques, Adrienne Santos-Longhurst, Healthline. Accessed August 9, 2019.

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English Online’s learning options for Manitoban newcomers are designed for self-directed learning. Whether you like learning with a group, with your peers, on your own, or one-on-one with an instructor, we have a program for you. Join us today!

English Online offers the Become an Autonomous Language Learner (B-ALL) Multi-Week Workshop every term. You can check the materials in the link and register when the B-ALL workshop is offered.

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