The hippocampus—the part of our brain that handles learning and memory—is increasingly overloaded and distracted. Multiple notifications from our cell phones and browser tabs throw new information at us every second, leading to stress, brain fatigue, and information overload.
While we can’t control the avalanche of information around us, we can choose the pace at which we absorb it. Self-paced learning, or learning at your own time and speed, is the answer to modern-day training because learners can lean into new information when their mind or schedule is ready. Naturally, employees process and retain more knowledge with self-paced learning than when they’re forced to sit through courses on a fixed schedule. That’s even more important in today’s work environment.
With the switch to remote and hybrid work, employees are geographically distributed, working asynchronously, and want the autonomy to learn at their own speed. Self-paced learning can cater to this changing nature of work with the anytime, anywhere model. By extension, organizations find it easier to deliver training without the constraints of a fixed time, place, and instructor availability. Plus, self-paced learning boosts knowledge retention and productivity and leads to higher engagement and course completion rates—all of which add up and translate into company growth and profitability.
Self-paced learning is a method in which all training, documentation, and development content is available to learners at once, ideally through a Learning Management System (LMS). Learners set their own schedule to access learning materials at a time and place convenient to them, whether that means watching a course while eating breakfast or taking a quiz during a commute.
Self-paced learning activities can still have deadlines and a recommended structure. For instance, maybe you want a team to complete a cultural diversity training module by the end of the month. Learners still have a deadline, but they aren’t forced to complete training at an exact time. They can complete it when it’s convenient for them, say, once they’ve put their child down for a nap or when they’re in the headspace to focus.
Self-paced learning can be made available in a variety of formats, including eLearning courses, quizzes, webinars, gamified training, and asynchronous discussions. And it goes hand in hand with microlearning and mobile learning solutions—the ideal solutions for learners who want to access relevant information in bite-sized chunks on their mobile devices. Self-paced learning helps them immediately apply information to the task at hand and makes them feel confident about the training they receive. This motivates employees to look up more training sessions when they want to learn a new skill or need information and keeps the self-paced learning cycle rolling, setting you up to create a learning culture at your company.
Learners set their own schedule to access learning materials at a time and place convenient to them, whether that means watching a course while eating breakfast or taking a quiz during a commute.
When you learn because you want to learn, you tend to be focused and driven and will naturally remember more of the information you are seeking out. According to the Forgetting Curve, employees forget 90% of training in just a week’s time. This means employees are already scrambling to retain information that will help them do their jobs well.
Imagine watching a presentation for a project at work when you really need to be wrapping up another task on a tight deadline. It’s likely you won’t remember much when you actually get to the new project and would benefit from the information. But if you can finish the task at hand and schedule the presentation for when you’re feeling ready to tackle the next project, you’re more likely to be plugged in and open to learning.
Self-paced learning reduces stress in situations like this and gives employees a sense of ownership over their learning overall. In a relaxed environment, employees are more likely to retain information than when L&D leaders decide they should learn.
Self-paced learners are more productive because they can choose to learn at a time that’s right for them. This could mean accessing an online course right before a meeting or when they need a piece of information while on fieldwork.
For instance, a quick checklist of the latest features in a product may be more useful to a sales professional right before a client meeting instead of a time that they may have allotted for cold calling. Depending on how they prefer to work, self-paced learning gives them the freedom of choice to access relevant training at an opportune time, making them more productive.
Research shows that self-paced learners outperform those who don’t have control over when they learn, even when they devote the same amount of time to the material. This is because self-paced learners can prioritize training according to their skill level and preference. A team member who feels confident about their technical expertise may choose to take a course on soft skills before a technical course. Self-paced learning gives learners the freedom to make themselves more productive without sticking to training in a strictly linear fashion.
Research shows that self-paced learners outperform those who don’t have control over when they learn.
Employees are more likely to engage in and complete training that they started willingly and at their convenience. However, if you try to fit the same course into their busiest day or week, they may lose the motivation to complete it or get distracted by other tasks.
Self-paced learners will also be motivated to ask questions, leave feedback, and engage in discussions about the course because they have ownership over their own training.
Employees all learn in different ways, and based on their chronotype, may experience different levels of energy throughout the workday. Some people have short energy bursts all through the day, while others can focus better in the morning.
Self-paced learning allows each employee to identify their own learning patterns and chronotypes and schedule learning at a time of day that suits them best. Plus, some employees can go through an entire training module in one go, while others, especially those with neurodiverse brains, need to take breaks at regular intervals or extra time to dig deep into a topic. Self-paced learning leaves that decision-making in the hands of learners.
Learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum—even when it’s at your own pace. An asynchronous course, one where each team member takes training courses at their own time and speed, can still be an interactive experience.
For example, a collaborative LMS encourages employees to leave feedback, ask for updates, react to courses, and engage in discussions. Course authors respond to their comments and make updates and revisions to the material at their own time, which results in a continuous feedback loop and keeps your training content fresh.
An asynchronous course, one where each team member takes training courses at their own time and speed, can still be an interactive experience.
When employees have more time to think about the training they are consuming, they are more likely to contribute their own knowledge on the subject. Employees that are engaged in their own L&D journey are likely to volunteer to create a course on a new skill or resource. Employees learn from each other and help grow your institutional knowledge.
Without self-paced learning, your institutional knowledge could remain stagnant. If you’re forcing employees to learn at a standardized (or arbitrary) pace, they’re likely to treat professional development and training like chores rather than opportunities to grow.
Self-paced learning may not work for everyone, especially if they are used to learning within a set structure and schedule. You can start with the guided learning method, where assignments are released periodically with clear milestones. This gives learners the freedom and flexibility of self-paced learning but also a framework to operate within.