What Is Self-Directed Learning Theory, and How Can You Apply It?
At any given moment, we have access to an unlimited source of information. Between smartphones, YouTube—and even TikTok—the answer to any question is just one search away. We’ve all become experts at finding answers to questions in a way that suits our desire to learn new information.
Self-Directed Learning Theory (SDL) feeds into adult learners’ intrinsic drive to access information on their own time, and it’s becoming increasingly popular in the workplace.
Not only are self-directed learning experiences a top priority among L&D teams, but most employees also seek out training on demand. In any given week, they watch videos and read articles that help them do their jobs more effectively. In other words, your employees want control over when and how they learn.
“Self-directed” doesn’t have to mean totally independent, though. L&D can harness the power of self-directed learning to guide their employees toward better learning outcomes using tactics like learning libraries, informal coaching, and implementing a learning platform. The end result is a positive workplace culture based on continuous collaborative learning.
What is Self-Directed Learning Theory?
Self-directed learning empowers individual employees to be the captain of their own learning journey.
This style of learning is sometimes called self-led learning or self-regulated learning and takes the onus off of L&D to build centralized training and learning paths for employees. Instead, the strategy shifts to guide learners as they build their own pathways toward success.
L&D can provide support—like paying for resources, recommending tools, or supplying a library of content to choose from—so learners can declare their own learning needs, source materials, track progress, and monitor outcomes.
If Self-Directed Learning Theory sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve likely already encountered it. In practice, self-directed learning has been around for decades, but it was formalized in 1975 as one component of another popular learning theory in L&D: Adult Learning Theory, a.k.a. andragogy.
While he was formalizing andragogy, adult educator and theorist Malcolm Knowles emphasized the importance of self-directed learning. In fact, the first principle of andragogy states:
“Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.”
To put it another way: Adults have the capacity to self-identify their own needs. It’s up to L&D to provide a learning environment equipped to meet those needs by housing high-quality content (whether that’s created in-house or sourced externally) that’s easily accessible and cost-effective for learners.
“Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.”
3 tactics for L&D to encourage self-directed learning
If an individual employee is the driver, L&D is like GPS: they provide the structure and support for the driver to get where they need to be. In other words, most employees want control over their learning and development, but they also prefer when someone they trust guides them in the right direction.
We’ve done the research to back this up: 70% of learners feel equipped to declare their own learning needs—yet they still want some oversight from L&D teams.
The level of support will differ for every workplace, but generally, workers want to know that there are L&D-sanctioned spaces to source information and, if needed, a budget to cover tools, training, and resources.
Getting a self-directed learning culture off the ground is simple, but it takes a little more effort than just curating a YouTube playlist. Here are three effective tactics to get you started.
Build learning libraries
Learning libraries let your employees search for answers to their questions on their own time.
Much like a public library, a learning library is a space (usually online, perhaps integrated with your LMS) for hosting myriad educational content, like e-books, articles, and webinars that employees can access anytime.
Most companies—75%, to be exact—agree that having a space to create and preserve internal knowledge is important, yet only 9% are prepared to have such a space. That’s why the best learning libraries are decentralized, so anyone can contribute.
This type of knowledge management not only boosts your employees’ decision-making skills but also encourages your in-house subject matter experts to share their hard-earned knowledge with the rest of the team. Best of all? No major lift from your L&D team is necessary.
For example, if an employee hosts a skill share session on the best practices for running sales reports, that session can be recorded and uploaded to a learning library. Now, any new employee on the sales team can access the recording and have an on-demand, step-by-step guide to help them through a challenge.
Most companies—75%, to be exact—agree that having a space to create and preserve internal knowledge is important, yet only 9% are prepared to have such a space.
Invest in a learning platform
A learning management platform is the best investment any organization can make to store content, monitor learning paths, and keep an eye on employee progress. These systems are designed to keep employees engaged with relevant learning activities and give them access to any and all of the learning content available at your organization.
Keep an eye out for platforms that have collaborative elements that foster a little healthy competition and keep motivation high. Elements like leaderboards and badges tap into the need for reward and help self-directed learners stick to their learning goals without the need for external intervention from a manager or L&D team.
Some platforms even have a decentralized, bottom-up approach to course authoring, so anyone can create learning content. This is useful to take the weight of course creation off of L&D and lets individual employees build materials based on their own expertise.
For small L&D teams or teams with a limited budget, consider low-cost resources like LinkedIn Learning subscriptions. That way, in addition to sourcing content from internal subject-matter experts, you can supplement with existing, and effective, off-the-shelf materials.
Keep an eye out for platforms that have collaborative elements that foster a little healthy competition and keep motivation high.
Implement an informal coaching system
Traditionally, coaching in the workplace looks like a hands-on relationship, where a coach meets with employees regularly to build skills and advance their careers.
In this sense, coaching sounds like it would contradict the purpose of self-directed learning. But a more relaxed style of coaching, sometimes called “in-the-moment” coaching, can happen in the flow of work, offering support only when an employee needs it.
“In-the-moment” coaching takes the pressure off the coach to schedule regular meetings, prepare training materials, and keep their learner on track. Rather, the learner is solely responsible for meeting their own learning needs and comes to the coach only when they need some kind of support.
Say, for example, an employee wants to gain soft skills—like a growth mindset or conflict management—in order to ask for a promotion to management. Instead of randomly searching the internet for relevant content, they’re better served by asking a manager they trust to guide them in real time.
Unlike a traditional coaching relationship, there’s no commitment to regularly meet or formalize goal setting. The coach simply points the employee in the right direction.
If you have an existing coaching program in place, you may already have a pool of employees who have volunteered their time to help their colleagues. If not, ask your managers or senior team members to take on the low-lift role of an “in-the-moment” coach with their team.
“In-the-moment” coaching takes the pressure off the coach to schedule regular meetings, prepare training materials, and keep their learner on track.
Applying Self-Directed Learning Theory to collaborative learning
Despite the name, self-directed learning works better when experiences are collaborative. In fact, 91% of L&D professionals agree that people who learn together in the workplace are more successful at achieving their career goals.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone in marketing needs the same learning path as their peer in sales. Rather, peers can connect over challenges that arise in the moment it’s needed through areas like discussion forums, Slack channels, company wikis, Q&A sessions—or any other way that allows for asynchronous communication.
These opportunities allow learners to ask questions, deepen their understanding of the learning materials, and reinforce knowledge in a way that supports a learning culture for the entire organization.