5 best techniques to boost self-directed learning

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To be a successful online learner, you have to be self-directed. What does that actually mean?

Most of us are used to learning in a classroom setting: The teacher provides the lessons and tells students what to study; directions are given to accomplish tasks like projects or tests; and at the end of the course, students earn a grade. In this scenario, the teacher directs the process while the student participates. With self-directed learning, students take up the reins – they decide how to learn, which materials to use, and the pace at which to go about it. They are accountable for their own learning process. Although there may be an e-facilitator/teacher as well, 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 method has its pros and cons. And depending on a person’s learning style, one method can work better than the other. However, you may consider that even in a classroom setting, being self-directed is an advantage that can help you learn better. 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. Consequently, being accountable for your own learning makes you better equipped and competent in this fast-changing world. This is why all of us must strive to become self-directed learners.

Here are five techniques to start with:

  1. Strive for intrinsic motivation

    A crucial ingredient to being a successful self-directed learner is intrinsic motivation. This essentially 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. When you are intrinsically motivated, learning becomes more powerful because you do not have to rely on external factors to learn. An example would be learning English because you enjoy new experiences. When this is the case, it is probable that you will continue learning the language until you have mastery because every new discovery will push you to continue. In contrast, if you’re learning English to reach a certain language level (to qualify for a program, for example), you may stop learning when you reach the level that you need.

    How do you cultivate intrinsic motivation? It starts with prioritizing internal benefits rather than external ones. It is nurturing curiosity, setting higher goals and aligning them to your life’s purpose. It’s 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 goals are an essential foundation for self-directed learning. SMART means specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound goals. Having these goals can strengthen your resolve and help you determine your learning priorities. This increases 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 which you can review when your motivation wanes and you get lost along the way. Need help setting yours? Watch this video from MindTools about setting SMART goals:

  4. Have a growth mindset

    Traditional learning tends to create a fixed mindset wherein 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 it isn’t easy. A growth mindset requires perseverance and grit – you will try, however many times it takes until you learn something. This sounds hard, but consider this: have you ever followed a YouTube video to learn how to do something? Or maybe tried to DIY (do-it-yourself) anything? You may already have a growth mindset and don’t know it.

  5. Make your own learning ritual

    Since self-directed learning is self-paced, it can be hard to get started, especially if you are used to traditional learning. Having a ritual will help you form learning habits and stick to them. Famous self-directed learners who do this include Benjamin Franklin and his five-hour rule. Every day during week days, he would set aside an hour to learn (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, 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, apply what you learned in your life, to building a project, or to helping others learn too. You may find the journey infinitely more rewarding. This will sustain your love for learning.

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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Community Resources

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 year. You can check the materials in the link and register when the B-ALL workshop is offered.

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