Self-Directed Learning is Here to Stay, and It’s Up to L&D to Make It Work
Training & Learning

Self-Directed Learning is Here to Stay, and it’s up to L&D to Make it Work

Fact: Employees want a self-directed learning experience.

Myth: To achieve self-directed learning, L&D departments just have to make or buy online courses, load them into an LMS, and let employees figure it out from there.

Here’s the thing: self-directed learning might sound like a hands-off affair, but that isn’t the case. If you want to give your employees more ownership over their training, you’re on the right track. But without a solid L&D infrastructure, freedom quickly crumbles into confusion and aimlessness.

Fortunately, even employees who prefer self-directed learning want guidance and support. According to LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report, 74% of learners want the freedom to take training courses during their spare time, at their own pace. But among that very same group, 75% of respondents want their managers to recommend courses.

What’s the takeaway? Learners want to drive their own learning, but they need a knowledgeable copilot to keep an eye on the map.

Self-directed learning is the future of workplace training, and that’s a good thing: it’s decentralized, flexible, and a good fit for our new digital normal. But leaving learners to fend for themselves in a sea of training content is a recipe for failure, both for the employee and for the organization. To make self-directed learning work, L&D must support it with the right tools, culture, and systems.

Here’s what you need to know to understand and execute great self-directed learning.

Learners want to drive their own learning, but they need a knowledgeable copilot to keep an eye on the map.

What is self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning is a training approach that gives learners control. It empowers them to identify their own learning needs, create their own learning goals, gather their own learning materials, set and execute their own learning strategy, and evaluate their own learning outcomes.

Now, just because self-directed learning makes learners more responsible for those things doesn’t mean it makes them solely responsible. In fact, giving employees unstructured, unsupervised responsibility is exactly what not to do.

Self-directed learning requires facilitators. Specifically, L&D needs to facilitate self-directed learning to ensure the following:

  • Learning hours contribute to business goals
  • Learning needs get uncovered and addressed
  • Employees have measurable learning goals
  • Learning content is effective and up to date
  • Self-directed learning is organizationally aligned

Just because self-directed learning makes learners more responsible for those things doesn’t mean it makes them solely responsible.

Self-directed learning vs. Self-paced Learning

Self-directed learning is often used interchangeably with self-paced learning. They’re similar — and even overlap — but they describe slightly different things.

Self-paced learning lets learners determine how much and how quickly they need to study something before properly understanding it.

Self-directed learning is necessarily self-paced, but that doesn’t work the other way around. For example, if a company assigns employees a standard curriculum but lets each of them work through it at their own speed, that’s self-paced, but not self-directed.

To be clear, this post is discussing self-directed learning. It encompasses self-paced learning but describes a larger learning approach.

Why self-directed learning is here to stay

We’re shifting toward a new decentralized normal, one where instructor-led training, old-school eLearning, and other traditional methods won’t survive. Self-directed learning (when it’s executed well) provides a flexible, engaging, and bottom-up solution—exactly what’s needed to keep learning alive and healthy in the future of work.

1. Self-directed learning offers flexibility and reduces friction

Self-directed learning makes employees the masters of their own training schedules, providing flexibility, and reducing friction.

Thanks to online learning platforms (like LMSs, LXPs, and Collaborative Learning platforms), training content is accessible across the globe and around the clock. Self-directed learning capitalizes on that accessibility by freeing employees to train whenever it’s convenient and however quickly they’d like.

If training isn’t self-directed, it can cause friction if peers and instructors operate at different paces. Faster employees have to slow down to accommodate slow-moving peers and instructors, while slower employees are at risk of getting left behind altogether. But with self-directed learning, employees can spend however much (or little) time they need to properly understand the material.

Self-directed learning (when it’s executed well) provides a flexible, engaging, and bottom-up solution—exactly what’s needed to keep learning alive and healthy in the future of work.

2. Self-directed learning Engages employees and reveals initiative

Self-directed learning puts employees in the driver’s seat, which means they have to keep their eyes on the road.

If you email employees a standard curriculum, you frame training as something to comply with, not something to actively pursue. But by handing over the keys and encouraging them to self-direct, they can no longer be passive.

Without self-directed learning, it’s also difficult to gauge initiative. If everyone is assigned the same set of eLearning courses, you can see who completes the course, but it’s difficult to know who is genuinely engaged and who is scrolling through TikTok.

With self-directed learning, though, the high-achievers (and the slackers) will naturally separate from the pack. That way, managers and L&D get more information to give praise or intervene when needed.

3. Self-directed learning liberates L&D and surfaces learner needs

We’ve covered the benefits of self-directed learning for the learner, but the L&D department gains plenty, too.

First and foremost, L&D no longer has to chase after employees and force them to learn, which can feel like herding cats.

Instead, L&D empowers learners to determine their own training schedules, monitor progress, and engagement alongside managers, and step in only when necessary.

Plus, by putting employees in charge of their own learning goals, L&D no longer has to take a best-guess approach to assessing learning needs. This way, employees surface their own training needs (with help from their managers) and share them with L&D, which leads to better needs analysis and stronger feedback loops.

By putting employees in charge of their own learning goals, L&D no longer has to take a best-guess approach to assessing learning needs.

When self-directed learning goes wrong: the set-and-forget mentality

The term “self-directed learning” might suggest employees are the make-or-break factor for self-directed learning. But really, L&D plays a more crucial role. When self-directed learning fails, it’s because L&D took their hands off the wheel before implementing the guardrails, systems, and tools needed to keep learners on track.

Self-directed relieves L&D from their role as day-to-day training police, promoting them to a supervisory role. With that extra bandwidth, L&D must focus on organizational alignment, asking questions such as:

  • Do employees have measurable learning goals?
  • Are courses role-specific, relevant, and up to date?
  • Are learners and managers communicating training needs?
  • Does training impact the company’s bottom line?

We’ll discuss specific strategies to become a great self-directed learning facilitator below. But first, we want to drive the point home: self-directed learning demands more than offering a monthly learning stipend or uploading courses to an LMS and hoping employees figure it out.

With that kind of set-and-forget mentality, it’s only a matter of time before self-directed learning deteriorates into directionless learning.

Self-directed relieves L&D from their role as day-to-day training police, promoting them to a supervisory role.

4 strategies to successfully facilitate self-directed learning

Since employees manage the nuts and bolts of their training, L&D can focus on high-level organizational alignment. Here are four concrete strategies to ensure self-directed learning is profitable, goal-driven, and aligned.

1. Establish a strong culture of learning

To be effective self-directed learners, employees need to feel like learning is at the heart of your organization. L&D should partner with executive leadership to create a culture that emphasizes the importance of learning, normalizes requesting new courses, and rewards the sharing of institutional knowledge.

While L&D and executives create the strategy behind a culture of learning, managers execute it. They have the most exposure to learners and must prioritize setting goals for their learners, evaluating their progress, and continually suggesting new opportunities for learning. For example, 54% of employees would willingly spend more time on training if managers offered specific course recommendations to help them advance their skills.

If everyone is eager to learn and contribute their expertise, you’ll have a thriving ecosystem where employees can succeed with self-directed learning. But if training is an organizational afterthought, don’t be surprised if it becomes an employee afterthought, too.

Related: How to Create an Agile Learning Culture That Maximizes L&D Impact

2. Choose the right Learning Platform

To make self-directed learning successful, you need to choose a learning platform that allows learners to access, request, and create content that fulfills their learning needs.

Traditional learning management systems allow employees to access courses, but Collaborative Learning platforms take it to the next level: they empower employees to create and update courses themselves. That way, in-house subject-matter experts (like managers and senior/specialized employees) can easily create and update courses in real-time instead of routing every training request through L&D.

Related: Why Collaborative Learning is the Next Phase of LMS eLearning

3. Measure learning against business outcomes

Remember, you’re not training for training’s sake; time and dollars spent on learning, even self-directed learning, should have a measurable ROI. Seventy-nine percent of CEOs fear skill gaps will negatively impact their company’s growth, and it’s L&D’s responsibility to mitigate those fears with specific, data-backed learning results.

Measuring learning with learning minutes per month might be the path of least resistance, but it doesn’t give you much insight into actual learning outcomes or business impact. Instead, establish qualitative and quantitative measures to evaluate employee satisfaction, skill gain, and impact on performance.

Related: 3 Data-Based Ways To Prove Training ROI (+ Free Training ROI Calculator)

4. Make goals a joint effort

Self-directed learning gives employees the freedom to pursue learning goals however they see fit. That said, setting and measuring progress toward those goals should not be completely self-directed.

Managers play a key role in employee upskilling, which includes helping employees identify specific opportunities for growth. Managers have a great outside perspective about employee strengths, weaknesses, and progress; leverage that perspective to set learners up for success in self-directed learning.

According to instructional-design expert Debra J. Scott,"To ensure satisfactory progress, milestones and deadlines should be negotiated and agreed upon . . . the timeline doesn’t need to be engraved in stone, however learners left to their own devices will be distracted.”

So establish regular touchpoints where employees and their managers can discuss roadblocks and goals, set OKRs, and continually measure progress.

Related: "Because I said so": Why Top-Down Management Doesn’t Work

Believe it or not, the best self-directed learning is a team sport

Counterintuitive as it sounds, self-directed learning isn’t a solo sport. Like all kinds of decentralized learning initiatives, self-directed learning requires strategic alignments, strategic tools, and strategic L&D supervision to work.

But you get what you give. Self-directed learning doesn’t just give employees more control, it redistributes learning responsibilities across all levels in a more streamlined way:

  • Learners manage their own day-to-day learning.
  • Managers help learners set learning goals and offer strategies to meet them.
  • L&D ensures learning is organizationally aligned, and the flow of training content is operating without issue.
  • Executives build a culture of learning into the bones of the company.

Before you launch a self-directed learning initiative, ask yourself: Does the company culture celebrate and reward learning? Do we use Collaborative Learning to help employees learn from one other? Are managers acting as coaches to support learners through training?

If the answer is yes, go full-steam ahead and you’ll never want to look back. If the answer is no, consider how you can use the strategies above to create better infrastructure for self-directed learners.

Want to know more about making learning a team sport at your organization? Check out How We Use Peer Learning to Keep Our Company’s Competitive Edge, or request a demo with our learning experts:

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