Increasing student-directed learning – full article

Maurice Gibbons describes Self-Directed Learning (SDL) as an increase in knowledge skill or performance pursued by any individual for personal reasons employing any means, in any place at any time at any age. SDL is the opposite of Teacher-Directed Learning (TDL), where Teachers or other authorities choose what is learned, why it is to be learned, how it is to be learned, when, where and at what age.

To successfully process the information and experiences offered to them students have to acquire learning strategies. Since the complexity of the exercises and tasks the students have to complete increases all the time, these strategies have to empower the students to be able to handle the ever increasing storm of information they are exposed to (information literacy). In most teaching courses a certain amount of Student-Directed-Learning is already integrated, but is not addressed on a meta level. Which makes it difficult to transfer the strategies learned from one context to another. Students have to be able to plan, do and check their own actions for learning:

Still most of the education is focused on traditional Teacher-directed learning. Gibbons describes a spectrum of five stages of movement from entirely Teacher-Directed learning to Self- directed learning:

  • Incidental SelfDirected Learning.
    The introduction of SDL activities into courses or programs that are otherwise teacher-directed (e.g. individual projects, stations, or brief introduction of any other forms of SDL on the spectrum).
  • Teaching Students to Think Independently.
    Courses or programs that emphasize the personal pursuit of meaning through exploration, inquiry, problem solving and creative activity (e.g. debates, case studies, investigations, trials, dramatizations, fieldwork).
  • SelfManaged Learning.
    Courses or programs presented through learning guides that students complete independently.
  • SelfPlanned Learning.
    Courses or programs in which students pursue course outcomes through activities they design themselves.
  • SelfDirected Learning.
    Courses or programs in which students choose the outcomes, design their own activities and pursue them in their own way.

Shifted roles for students and teachers

To become successful self-directed learners, students need to understand their own needs for learning. They have to understand and accomplish a change from passive so active participant in learning. Some of the characteristics they have to acquire include but are not limited to being autonomous, organized, self-disciplined, able to communicate effectively, and being able to accept constructive feedback and engage in self-evaluation and self­-reflection.

Teachers can use the spectrum of approaches to Self-directed learning in various ways. They can select activities to give students more responsibility. This guides the students (and the course) gradually from teacher-directed to student-directed learning.

Students’ roles and responsibilities

Students have to understand their approach to studying and choose their strategies accordingly:

  • Surface approach involves reproducing – to cope with unit requirements; learn only what is required to complete unit in good standing; tend to regurgitate examples and explanations used in readings.
  • Deep approach involves transforming – to understand ideas for yourself; be able to apply knowledge to new situations and use novel examples to explain a concept; learn more than is required for unit completion – most ideal for self-directed learning.
  • Strategic approach involves organizing – to achieve the highest possible grades; learn what is required to pass exams; memorize facts as given in lecture; spend much time practicing from past exams; most concerned with whether material will appear on exam.

A brief list of responsibilities/tasks students have to manage to be successful learners:

  • Do self-assessment of readiness to learn
  • Define learning goals and develop learning contract
  • Do self-assessment and monitoring of learning process
  • Take initiative for all stages of learning process – need to motivate selves
  • Re-evaluate and alter goals as required during unit of study
  • How do I know I’ve learned?
  • Am I flexible in adapting and applying knowledge?
  • Do I have confidence in explaining material?
  • When do I know I’ve learned enough?
  • When is it time for self-reflection and when is it time for consultation with the advising faculty member?
  • Consult with advising faculty member as required

Changing Lecturers` Roles

Self-direction is best viewed as a continuum or characteristic that exists to some degree in every person and learning situation. Effective roles for teachers in self-directed learning are possible, such as dialogue with learners, securing resources, evaluating outcomes, and promoting critical thinking. But the transition from teacher centered learning to student directed learning has to happen gradually and has to be managed thoughtfully or else students might become disengaged or alienated. But there are many perks, if students manage to plan, execute and evaluate their own learning. Some of these perks are:

  • developing analytical skills
  • fostering independent thinking
  • understanding what constitutes good work (and why)
  • developing collaborative skills
  • increasing confidence and empathy
  • encouraging a more responsible and self – critical view of student’s achievements

It can also facilitate a ‘professionalization of learning’, in which students become more prepared for learning in their career. To build a learning environment that is attractive to students and fosters Student-Directed Learning teachers can try to incorporate these steps into their teaching:

  • Build a co-operative learning environment
  • Help to motivate (build relevance) and direct the students’ learning experience
  • Facilitate students’ initiatives for learning
  • Be available for consultations as appropriate during learning process
  • Serve as an advisor rather than formal instructor

Possible ways to integrate Student-Directed-Learning into your teaching might be (but are not limited to):

  • self-guided reading,
  • participation in study groups, internships,
  • electronic dialogues,
  • learning contracts,
  • note taking activities,
  • Reflexive journal writing/ reflective writing activities,
  • competence maps,
  • Learning (e-)portfolio,

At ETH Zürich there are several lectures and projects which implement or foster student-directed learning. The TIM Group (Chair of Technology and Innovation Management) offers the course  ‘Innovation leadership in the building industry’. In the course they combine different innovative teaching methodologies (self-reflective, real-world problem solving, coaching sessions) to enrich students’ critical thinking process, and promote more innovation in the building industry. The most innovative aspects of this project are threefold. First, the students will implement, in real time, notions and concepts learnt in this and other courses, to solve real problems identified by the partner company. The students fare the ‘project owners’ and will have to take responsibility for advancing the learning of the team and the class in order to eventually develop a solution that is presented to the top management of the partner company. Third, ETH faculty will facilitate the learning process and offer various formats to empower the students.

Daniel Köchli from Student Services (sts) at ETH offers consultations and coaching to students from D-BIOL, D-MATH, D-PHYS, D-BSSE. His project ‘Erfolgreich und effizient lernen im Biologie-Studium’ helps students organize their learning habits. Students are introduced to different learning strategies and are encouraged to try out new ways of learning. They are also encouraged to learn from each other and share their experiences and problem solving strategies. Reflection about the learning process is part of the seminar.


Centre for Teaching Excellence (?). Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process. University of Waterloo. (Zuletzt aufgerufen 31.10.2016)

Garrison, D.R. (1997). ‘Self-directed learning: Toward a comprehensive model’, Adult Education Quarterly, 48(1): 18-33.

Gibbons, Maurice (2002). The self-directed learning handbook: Challenging adolescent student to excel. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Pintrich, P. R. (Ed.). (1995). Understanding self-regulated learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 63. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Further Reading

  • Hammond, M. & Collins, R. (1991). Self-directed learning: Critical practice. London: Kogan Page Limited. (Waterloo Porter or Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Library, LC5225.L42 H36)
  • Simpson, O. (2000). Supporting students in open and distant learning.London: Kogan Page Limited. (Waterloo CTE Library, LC5800.S56x).