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Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Self-Directed Learning at the Workplace

Self-directed learning (SDL) is on the minds of many L&D professionals right now. Training managers, HR professionals, and instructional designers want to promote this strategy at the workplace because it facilitates the creation of a robust and sustainable learning culture in the organization. 

In this post, learn about the features and benefits of SDL and how you can implement this learning model at the workplace to turn reluctant and dispassionate learners into dedicated and inspired ones.


What is Self-Directed Learning (SDL)?

Adult learners are mature, responsible individuals who want to take charge of their own learning. This is a natural psychological and cognitive development that takes place as human beings mature intellectually (Knowles, 1975). In this respect, the concept of SDL is a cornerstone of adult learning because it taps into a natural human behavior. 

SDL includes knowing what you need to learn, how to learn it, and being able to judge if you’ve learnt it. It assumes that learners have a role in selecting those learning tasks that fit their learning needs.

(Loyens, Magda, & Rikers, 2008).

Characteristics of SDL:

Self-directed learning is a revolutionary shift away from the traditional classroom-based way of learning. This is evident from its characteristic features:

  • Flexibility: It is the most distinctive feature of SDL. Learners have the flexibility and freedom to design and structure their learning. The steady development of information and communication technologies enhances this flexibility.
  • Learner Responsibility and Ownership: SDL hinges on learners assuming responsibility for their own learning. Adult learners view learning as a tool that will help them solve their real-life problems so that they can fulfill their personal and professional duties and obligations. They are intrinsically motivated to learn, and they take ownership of their learning endeavors.
  • Learner Empowerment: SDL empowers learners to take charge of their learning journey and steer it along whatever track they want. The training is developed keeping in mind the learning style of adult learners. So experiential learning and training that can be readily transitioned from the desk to the job are the critical features of SDL. The availability of the right tools and technology, easy access to content, and an organizational learning culture that encourages and facilitates SDL are integral for empowering learners to make their own decisions regarding their learning paths.

Also read: The Rise of the Empowered Learner: 4 Things You Need to Know

What are the Advantages of Implementing SDL at the Workplace

There are several benefits of implementing SDL, and many of these advantages translate to improved bottom line for your company.

Let's take a look:

  • Improved Scheduling: According to the cognitive flexibility theory, learning is more effective if complex information is explained through multiple perspectives, analogies, and examples. Adults claim that they learn more effectively when they analyze and internalize knowledge on their own by switching between viewpoints, referring to case studies, and looking up other resources within the virtual space. SDL gives adult learners the flexibility to schedule and learn whenever and however it is convenient for them to do so.
  • Greater Synchronicity with Adult Learning Styles: SDL aligns perfectly with the natural learning style of adult learners who don’t want to be spoon-fed by teachers. This synchronicity removes resistance and motivates adult learners to seek out the learning.
  • Greater Relevance to Learner Needs: SDL facilitates learning at one’s own pace, according to one’s needs, and per one’s unique learning preferences. This makes SDL more relevant to learner needs. The relevance also increases because employees are motivated to learn from their own experiences while applying their newly-acquired knowledge to the job in hand.
  • Greater Facilitation of Knowledge Updates: When learners are motivated to learn and have the tools and resources easily available to them to chart their own learning path, they can be on top of the latest information. Employees who keep up with the developments in their industries are assets to an organization.
  • Improved Learning of Specialized Skills: Adult learners want to learn and master specialized skills to keep up with competition at the workplace. Being able to choose how they want to go about it is a huge motivation. Also being able to schedule their learning according to their convenience without waiting around for training managers to organize classroom sessions gives learners the opportunity to practice and master their skills.
  • Greater Facilitation of Subject Mastery: When learners can learn the way they do best—by pacing the lessons according to their needs and moving between resources to analyze and synthesize information to build their own body of understanding—there is greater mastery of a subject.

How Can You Create a Culture of SDL in Your Organization? 

To survive in the marketplace, you need employees who are motivated to learn and evolve continuously. You need employees who are masters in their fields and keep on top of the trends and thoughts in their industries. Creating a culture of SDL achieves these purposes.

Here are some tips on how you can promote a culture of SDL in your organization:

  • Encourage employees to embark on the path of SDL by informing them about its benefits and educate them on how they can take charge of their own learning journeys.
  • Elicit the support of the top brass. Create a supportive workplace environment where learners feel encouraged to pursue their learning journeys. The top brass should not only believe in the competence and ability of the employees to manage their learning but also exhibit their confidence by creating opportunities for employees to pursue their learning goals.
  • Show support for the SDL culture by allowing for experimentation, tolerating errors, and giving time off from work to pursue unplanned learning activities.
  • Allow Self-Paced Learning. Allow learners to choose training times, schedule learning activities, and select topics.
  • Facilitate SDL by investing in the appropriate technologies. Broadcast webinars, roll out eLearning modules, and create linked resources databases to let learners easily access learning.
  • Build a robust and sophisticated learning infrastructure by tapping into the latest offerings in mobile, social, and cloud technologies. Powerful learning platforms let you host various types of learning content, update information easily, and let learners manage their endeavors more efficiently.
  • Train employees to use the digital tools and technologies that facilitate SDL.
  • Obtain feedback from employees on how you can improve their SDL experience.
  • Create platforms where employees can connect with each other and share resources and their learning experiences.
  • Create a resource library: Curate multiple resources from different places and make them easy to access when needed by your employees. 

More tips on how to promote SDL in your company here: How to Promote Self-Directed Learning in Your Company

Creating a culture of SDL in your organization not only helps your employees improve their skills and productivity but also optimizes your L&D investment. In a business environment where not knowing is akin to falling behind the competition, you can no longer ignore the power of SDL at the workplace.

Additional reads:

Self-directed Learning in the Technological Age

Nuts and Bolts: Self-Directed Learning

But how do I help learners be self-directed?

Audience Analysis Template


A Conceptual Model for Understanding Self-Directed Learning in Online Environments 

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