Self-Directed Learning Theory


Learning helps us to become experts by enabling us to acquire new skills and knowledge. Learning helps to strengthen the brain through the construction of new pathways. These new pathways help to increases connections that we rely on when learning (Conner, 2007, para. 1, 2). This type of learning has always taken place. The earliest kind of adult learning can be traced back to the ancient man who discovered how to craft tools out of stone. Human beings have always tried to get more favorable treatment for themselves by engaging the forces of nature (Leakey & Lewin, 1977, P. 10). The simple act of crafting tools from stones encompasses the nature of learning. This kind of learning from observation is the kind of learning that adults do and self directed programs are used in educational settings and organizations. Self-directed learning enables learners to pursue learning activities that fulfill their needs. This type of learning is continual and the adults keep learning long after having left formal educational settings. The study of self- education has not been a major topic of study until recently. Interest in adult learning can be traced to Houle’s study. In this study, he used twenty –two subjects. He analyzed his subjects through interviews and categorized them into two to three groups. The groups were not pure types and overlap. The first group is the goal-oriented learners. They use education to achieve specific objectives (Houle, 1961, p. 181). The second group is the activity-oriented learners. They take part in learning when they find themselves in circumstances of learning. They join learning to get human relationships (Houle, 1961, p.23-24). That last group is the learning oriented learners. They seek knowledge for its own sake and are engrossed in learning (Houle, 1961, p.24-25). He designed this study to discover the reason why adults choose to engage in continuing education. Furthermore, the study helped to explain how adults learn. From that time research on self- education has taken root and it is one of the most researched areas in adult learning.

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The study of intentional self-education is also called autodidaxy. This is the kind of learning associated with adults. The concept of autodidaxy can now be studied systematically after it was conceptualized by Tough. The kind of learning involved is deliberate and those involved in it do so to gain specific skills or transform.

Tough thought that for a learning project to be successful a learner would need a series of interrelated learning episodes. He found that a typical learner conducted about five different learning projects annually. His work led to the completion of about twenty five dissertations, and many other autonomous research studies. These studies used Tough’s approach of interviews. This led to the widening of understanding about the self-directed learner as well as the learning process in general.

Autodidaxy is broad and is not limited to only the scholars who have studied it through higher learning or secondary learning. It is estimated that autodidactic learning has been practiced by about eighty to a hundred percent of the total adult population. Thus, it is not restricted to any social, occupational, educational, or ethnic group. It is widespread among adults from all parts of the world ( Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991, p 25-28 ) Self-directed learning is effective because it is normally the initiative of the learner. The trainer should handle adult learners properly because they like the kind of learning where they are in charge. He or she should take the role of a facilitator and aid the students in the learning process by employing the best learning methods. In addition, trainers must remember that learners are unique and learn at different speeds (Lieb, 1991, Learning Tips, para. 1). This paper shall look at the benefits of self-directed learning, criticism, comparison of two learning theories using a case study.

Benefits of self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is advocated for because it has some benefits over pedagogical learning. To begin with when an individual takes charge of their learning he or she is more likely to understand and retain what they learned than a leaner who had to be forced to learn or a passive one.

In self-directed learning an individual takes the initiative of the learning process. This is a natural process of psychological development. This makes learning very natural as it follows the natural processes. This makes learning an enjoyable process for adult learners because they are the ones who initiate the process.

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Self –directed learning places the learning on the shoulders of learners. This responsibility that is placed on the learners may act as a drive to achieve their learning objectives because they are the ones who set them in the first place (Brockett & Hiemstra, p 10).

Knowles sums up the importance of self-directed learning as follows

“The why of self-directed learning is survival- your own survival as an individual, and also the survival of the human race. Clearly we are not talking here about something that would be nice or desirable; neither are we talking about some new education fad. We are talking about a basic human competence- the ability to learn on one’s own-that has suddenly become a perquisite fro living in this new world (1975, p.16-17).

In self-directed learning learners come with prior experience.. The experience gives adult learners an advantage in their learning process. It also serves as a reference point for new learning, application and exploration. “All learning begins with experience” (Jarvis, 1987a, P.16). Thus, learners are able to effectively because leaning is meaningful and they can relate to it.

Criticisms of the studies

There have been a number of criticisms about the research done on adult learning. In the past few years little has been done to advance research in this area of study. Many scholars have said that the area has “reached the pint of dullness.” Brookfield gives legitimacy to many of these claims (1984, p. 60).

The first criticism is leveled against the population samples used. The samples are biased and favor North American middle class English- speakers. Brookfield questioned if the behavior exhibited by the group of people who are educationally advantaged would be exhibited by people from another diverse background who did not have similar educational backgrounds (1984, p. 62). The other issue was that more research had been done on this group of people and very little on the other groups. Therefore, most researchers were biased towards this group as they knew a lot about it. This means that any generalizations would have been wrong because the groups are not diverse. However, this criticism brought about by Brookfield can be said to be questionable because in his studies he did not include researches done in other parts of the world for instance, Africa, Europe and so on.

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The Methodology used in self-directed research has also been criticized. It has been noted that interviewers lack a proper understanding of the projects they are working on. They do not understand the population they work with due to language barriers and low levels of education. The population is not able to explain how many hours they spend on the learning projects. Due to the low level of education some members of the projects are unable to explain the learning activities well to the interviewers. It limits them in understanding the concepts of the learning projects as well as inquiring about additional projects.

From the various studies it was noted that there was a great disparity in the number of hours the adult learners spent learning in the various groups. In addition, some of the people interviewed could not remember the number of times they had participated in the learning projects. Therefore, it is difficult to understand self-directed learning projects of some communities to be able to compare learning in various societies.

Interview schedules were also criticized. This was especially with interviewees of lower educational levels. There was over reliance on measurement scales. This led to using of structured interviews, prompt sheets and questionnaires (Brookfield, 1984, p. 63). These methods of interviewing may not have been the best method to use with adults with low educational qualifications because they may be more likely to react with suspicion. Furthermore, this type of interview style may have caused distress by bringing back memories from negative interactions with authority figures. Consequently, these criticisms led to an alternative method, methodological triangulation. Methodological triangulation is the kind of research that combines various techniques in a study to improve the validity. It is a good method because academics research their teaching process. This gives the researcher more insight into the learning processes and methodologies. Hence, they can make necessary changes to respond to the learners’ needs (Murray, 1999, para. 1). This kind of approach is more successful because it sheds light on the different learning processes practiced by adults in many parts of the world.

Adult learning

Adult learners throughout history are differentiated from children and youth because they are more likely to learning for themselves. (Zimmerman & Schunk, 1998, p.1). Malcolm Knowles urged that adulthood is said to have arrived when a person behaves like an adult and believes to be an adult. Therefore, such a person expects to be treated like an adult (1978, p. 18, 1990, p.36). He went on to give ways in which adult learning is special. For instance, adults usually bring more experience with them and it can be used as a resource. Adults expect to have a say on what they are taught and how they are taught and how they will be evaluated and they expect a response to their feedback about the program. Burns (1995, p.232) summarized adult learning as follows “By adulthood people are self-directing. This is the concept that lies at the heart of andragogy. Andragogy is therefore student-centered, experience-based, problem-oriented and collaborative very much in the spirit of the humanist approach to learning and education… the whole educational activity turns on the student.”

Another perspective of adulthood was advanced by Pogson and Tennant (1995, p. 48). They urge that adulthood is a social edifice and varies from one culture to another. Thus, trainers should be aware of the differences in adult learners to be able to treat them properly. On the other hand, an adult is assumed to be autonomous. He or she can make decisions about his or her life. When it comes to adult learning an adult comes in with personal autonomy. Autonomy is authorized by the society as a goal in education. As much as adults are said to be self-determining they are not always capable of taking control of their learning and they may need to learn how to control their learning. Just because adults are self-determining they should never be forced to act autonomously unwillingly. Adult educators should recognize that autonomous does not mean individualism and they should help the adult learners achieve their goals (Candy, 1991, p.120). Adult trainers use the andragogical model explained below to help adult learner achieve their goals.

Andragogic model

This is an approach that encompasses the knowledge of adult learning. Under this model five assumptions are made. The first one is that the adult learner is self-directed. Adult learners feel that they have the responsibility of taking control of their learning activities and methods including evaluation of their progress. Two, learners have experience that they gathered before they joined the learning institutions. Three, adults are willing to learn as long as they feel they will benefit from the new knowledge. Four, adults will be motivated to learn after experiencing a need (Knowles, 1980, p.43). This means that learning needs to be problem –focused. Adults are interested in learning that can be applied in real life as soon as possible. Therefore, learning activities should be tailored relevant to their needs. Five, adults are motivated to learn by internal factors. For instance, recognition, better life, self-esteem and so on. External factors such as management pressure are not very important (Knowles, 1980, p.43). This process of learning is student centered unlike the traditional learning process called pedagogy “the art and science of helping children learn” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p.272), which is teacher centered. This approach leads us to the next sub topic on self directed –learning because this is a key element in moving a learner from a pedagogical process to a self-directed one.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning describes a process in which adult learners are in charge of their own learning. In this process the adults stipulate their own learning goals, find appropriate learning resources, and decide on the methods of learning to use as well as on how to evaluate themselves (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 51-53).

This kind of learning can take place anywhere. For some self-directed learners learning takes place in isolation. Others learn from the radio, television or through materials received via the mail, others go through formal training (Candy, 1991, p. 5). Some believe that self-direction leads to the attainment of the innermost personhood of the individual. Self-directed learning is advocated for by people from various backgrounds. One reason for its popularity is because it leads to the development of the whole person. It also allows people to be responsive to the changing demands of the workplace (Candy, 1991, p. 6).

Many adult educators have advanced the idea of self-directed learning. Their many symposiums were held to discuss the theory of self-directed learning. On the contrary, criticisms have been directed towards self-directed learning. It has been said that the theory has been treated as though it is disconnected from political and social forces. This problem needs to be looked into with a critical tone (Candy, 1991, p. 97-105).

Canadian, Australian and American authors have conducted a research and these studies raised questions with reference to the political dimension of self-directed learning as well as the need of studying how serendipity and deliberation interconnect in self-directed learning (Candy, 1991, p. 35).

There are questions that are very important in understanding the concept of adult learning in self-direction. For instance, the cross cultural aspect of the concept has not been considered at all. More research about life history is needed to give us an understanding of how the periods in self-directed learning interchange with the traditional forms of adult learning. The concept of self-directed learning has been criticized for reflecting patriarchal principles (e.g. competition, division and separation). It is also important to understand what brings about the disposition of self-directed learning. Is it brought about by culture or an individual’s pre-disposed personality, political ethos, previous experience or the nature of learning tasks?

Clarification is also needed on the issue of power and control. This would help to understand why the adult learner assumes the responsibility of choosing the learning methods, resources and evaluation methods. When we fail to look into the cultural dimension it becomes easy to equate self-directed learning with selfishness as well as separateness which can lead to the pursuit of private interest that disregards others. This kind of learning gives the impression of adult learners who are self-contained and this works against cooperation. Self-direction undermines the importance of basic interdependence of human beings and focuses on self (Brookfield, 1994, p.123-79).

Theory of adult learning Facilitation

Adults can be helped to learn in many ways. The most effective one is facilitation. Facilitation describes the process of learning in which learners are guided to attain self-growth via self-evaluation as well as cooperation with other learners. The trainer in this case assists; guides and empowers learners in their learning process instead of telling them. In other words, facilitation can be said to be the process of aiding adults to learn.

The theory of adult learning facilitation is informed by other theories of adult education, such as self-directed learning. For instance, this theory states that the adult learner is the one in charge of learning. He or she decides on the learning methods, resources and evaluation. This means that the trainer has to be very careful with their words and actions as they will influence the adult learners. For example, when the trainer shows disinterest in the learners they may disengage. On the contrary, when the trainer is enthusiastic he or she can raise the morale of the learners. Therefore, a trainer needs to study the mood of his or her learners. This will enable the trainer to know how to deal with the learners. It is also important for the trainer to create a good rapport with the learners. This makes them feel free and hence they can make suggestions about methodologies and alternative tasks as long as they reach a consensus (Burns, 1995, p.235-238).

Facilitation has six dimensions. One is the planning dimension. It is goal-oriented and includes the means and ends of the learning process. It involves the aim of the learners. As mentioned earlier adult learners are interested in the kind of learning that they think will be beneficial to them. Thus, the aims of learning should be clearly stated. The main issue is on how to attain objectives. The second dimension is meaning. It has to do with the cognitive aspect of learning in the facilitation. The dimension is about the adult learners’ understanding. Just like in the cognitive learning theory the dimension looks at how the learners make sense of their experience and the way they react to things. Giving meaning to the experiences of the learners is paramount. The third is the confronting dimension. This deals with the challenges that are likely to encounter in the learning group. The challenges occur because the adult learners may not be willing to do everything they are told and resistance may be experienced. The learners’ consciousness should be raised about matters that may bring about challenges so that they know how to deal with them. Four, we have the feeling dimension. Adult learners are sensitive and unique. Their feelings and emotions should be put into consideration in the learning group. The trainers should remember that his or her learners are diverse and one thing that may make one learner happy may be offensive to another due to cultural difference. Educators should manage the feelings of his or her learners. Number five is the structuring dimension. This dimension deals with the learning methods. The learning methods should be relevant so as to achieve the goals of learning. The adult learners want to be in charge of learning and the trainer should listen to their suggestions. Lastly, we have the valuing dimension. This has to do with the aspect of building a supportive environment for the learners. They should be able to talk about their feelings, reality, interests and so on without fear. This means the integrity, value and respect of every learner should be upheld (Fidishun, n.d, Technology and Assumptions, para.1-6).

Critical Reflection

Adult educators look at experiences as a fundamental factor in adult learning. Many believe that adult learning should be grounded on experiences as they are a valuable resource. The concept of experience is discussed in several books and journals. Experimental methods are for example games, case studies, role -play, internships and so on are considered crucial in adult learning. Today, in many universities and colleges a student has to go through internship before they graduate. Thus, the concept of learning is seen as the main difference between pedagogy and andragogy learning. However, this method of defining adult learning has some faults (Yi, 2005, p.34).

Self-direction exhibited by these adult learners helps them in self-directed learning. They are able to learn on their own as they can take control of the learning process. In andragogy learning the role of the trainer is minimal because the students are in charge of the learning processes and when the learners fail it is not the fault of the teacher like in pedagogical learning.

To begin with, experience should be taken as a neutral phenomenon which we decide when to use or not. The reason experience should not be taken as a neutral phenomenon is because it is shaped by our culture. Experience changes depending on culture, language, moral and ideological views that we use to analyze events or things. The way we interpret things that happen to us and around us depend on our structures of understanding and lenses that are engrained in our culture that we fail to recognize them. The other thing is that the length or quantity of experience is not always connected to its quality. For instance, one may have worked in for 20 years in a firm doing the same thing learned during the first year over and over. This means that the experience is repeated twenty times. For such person their twenty –year experience is based on their cultural interpretation. This kind of experience can become the evidence for self-fulfilling values that may hinder critical thinking. This gives stereotype an opportunity and one may label a certain group of people as lazy, stupid, and insensitive and so on. This becomes an issue in self-directed learning as the trainers may judge adult learners unfairly using their pre-disposed perceptions. On the other hand, adult learners may rely on the prior experience they bring and fail to give new knowledge a chance because they are unable to shake of their way of thinking as it has been they only way they have known for a long time.

Malcolm Knowles adult learning theory (andragogy)

Malcolm introduced the notion of adult learning. In his theory he says that adults are self-directed learners who want to be in control of what they learn. Some people say he only introduced a teaching theory, and not a learning theory (Knowles, 1975, p. 18). Merriam and Caffarella (1999, p. 67) state “that it is not clear whether Knowles had presented a theory of learning or a theory of teaching, whether adult learning was different from child learning, and whether there was a theory at all-perhaps these were just principles of good practice” (p. 273). Brookfield, further posited that Malcolm did not develop a theory. Instead, he came up with principles of good practice (1986, p. 86).

His concepts can be applied in adult learning in companies today. Companies require their workforce to learn to improve their skills. The instructional methods are designed to improve their skills. In this case, the abilities of the adult learners should be identified to be able to incorporate the values of adult learning. This will make the learning effective (Yi, 2005, p.34). This kind of learning will not only improve the workers, but the company too.

Yi suggested three ways of promoting adult learning in an organization. The first method suggested was that the learning had to be problem based. This method promotes critical thinking as well as skills in problem solving. The other method is cooperative learning. It will help to improve interpersonal skills as well as communication skills. His last suggestion was situated learning. This targets specific skills which can be applied directly to the field. These methods are based on assumptions about the way adults learn. The assumptions are that adults are self-directed; learn when they have a need and learning together well by sharing their experiences (Yi, 2005, p.36-37).

Mocker and Spear model of self-directed learning

Their model focused on the control for decision making and the means of learning. The model had a two by two matrix of institution and learner.

Self-directed learning occurs when the learner controls the learning objectives and methods. In this case the institution does not have control of the learning process. The second matrix is occupied by the institution. The institution has control over the learning objectives as well as the methods. This kind of learning is formal. On the other hand, there is nonformal learning where learners are in control of the objectives and the institutions the means, in informal learning the learners control the means and the institutions the objectives. The bottom learn in self-directed learning is who is in charge of the learning, resources and methods of evaluation. This kind of learning can take place anywhere for example in a zoo, library and so on. Adults comprise about 90 per cent of self-directed learners and they come with prior experience (Mocker & Spear, 1982, p 23-45).

Comparison of the two theories

The two theories on adult learning are similar in that they recognize experience as a vital part of learning. Experience is crucial and creates the opportunity for learning.

The two theories urge that this is the basis of learning. On the other hand, the two theories differ in that Malcolm’s theory only concerns adult learning while Mocker and Spear’s model focuses on the control of the learning process. It includes learners of all ages and is not confined to adult learning, but acknowledges that experience gives adults an advantage in learning that the other younger learners lack. It represents a post modern view that experience is paramount. However, a question can be asked about what kind of learning takes place without experience.

Application of adult learning theory

A case study on effective adult learning was done at Erie Community College. The study found out that there is a void between concepts and facilitation of effective adult learning theory (Fey, 1996, para. 1). Qualitative research methods were used and the study obtained valid results because the technique of triangulation was used. The findings of the study showed that the personnel involved in adult learning lacked knowledge in the concepts of effective adult learning. Furthermore, there lacked support of adult learning from the community and this is associated with the lack of knowledge in training adults.

The practitioners of adult education in the college see their primary responsibility as just gathering resources and not formulating a theoretical framework to guide the adult learning programs. Hence, the way of conducting adult learning in the institution needs to change and adapt methods that will be effective to make adult learning successful. Adult learning theory is not limited to educational institutions and can be applied in workplaces (Fey, 1996, para. 3).

Theory of adult learning is applied in the workplace. The kind of learning that takes place at the workplace is both a personal activity as well as a social bound activity (Brookfield, 1984, 91). Individuals learn through self-directed learning and this depends upon their commitment to learning. The management has to let the learners learn at their own pace however, it becomes tricky for the management when the learners decide to become passive. It may decide to interfere and this may not go down well with some of the workers. On the other hand, the management benefits as it does not have to pay for training.

Self-directed learning at work is affected by social influences of an individual’s commitment to self-directed learning. The first influence is the type of employment relationship. In this case there is an agreement between the employee and the employer that the learning will largely depend on the individual. Occupational identity also influences an individual’s commitment. This depends upon their interpretation of what an expert means. Therefore, an individual will work towards becoming an expert even if it means learning from their fellow colleagues. The third influence results from workgroups. Individuals will work very hard to succeed so that their group can also succeed. Lastly, we have the inter-personal relations. Individuals in this case learn when they are told by someone else that they are an expert in a certain field. To satisfy that person they may take it upon themselves to learn more in their area of expertise. At the end of it all they end up learning even though that was not their idea at first (Brown, 2000, para. 7).


Adult learning is very important in the world today. This is because individuals working in various organizations need to learn new skills to be able to work comfortably in the new the workplace and with the advanced technology. Adult educators need to learn about the most effective ways of helping adults learn because the kind of learning they need is different from that of younger children. In addition, new trends in adult learning can be applied in the workplace. For example, distance learning, which is very useful as workers can learn in a convenient pace. This kind of learning will be very relevant to adult learners as they do not have to go for study leave. Therefore, they can learn as they continue to earn. What is more, this kind of learning is experimental and requires one to utilize their thinking skills. This will go in line with the 21st century trend of adults learning more. The trend in the 21st century is online learning. Online learning has become a common practice in higher education institutes. It has benefits such as convenience and flexibility. Learners can study at their convenient time and learning can take place anywhere as long as one has a computer that is connected to the internet (Poole, 2000, p. 165-177).

Self-directed learning and online learning has some implications for the trainers. Online learning is linked with self-directed learning in process and individuals attribute perspective. Online learning is effective to the kind of students that are self-regulated. This is because the trainer is not able to monitor every move of the learner e.g. paying attention in class. This becomes very hard for the trainer to control the learner and his or her success depends on the effort of the leaner. The trainer needs to understand how adult learners embrace the responsibility of their own learning. This will aid the trainer in implementation of learning and help the adult learners make the most of the opportunity that gets to leaner and acquire new skills and knowledge in self-directed learning.


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