Self-Directed Learning: Empowerment In The Workplace

self-directed learning for the workplace

Have you picked up a new skill in the past year? Or studied a subject on your own to become more competent? In his characterization of the adult learner, Malcolm Knowles noted that as people mature, they become increasingly self-directed in how they acquire skills and knowledge.

You can leverage this distinctive feature of adult learning by supporting employees in their self-directed efforts. Self-directed learning may be a way to reduce the effort and cost of building unnecessary training. In addition, helping people gain self-directed learning skills—if they don’t already have them—can have a long-term value to the individual and the organization.

Formal and Informal Self-directed Learning

According to many academics, self-directed learning can be thought of as a more formal process that involves foresight and planning. During this time, learners:

  • Assess their skills and knowledge
  • Identify what they need to learn
  • Identify relevant resources and activities (collaboration, mentorships, study groups, etc.) to close the gaps
  • Use the resources and engage in activities
  • Reflect on their progress and adjust if needed (See more on how to support metacognition.)

Others define self-directed learning as a more informal event. It occurs anytime adults engage in their own learning. This might be the result of an opportunity presenting itself or a spur-of-the-moment inspiration. Sometimes self-directed learning is spontaneous and involves little planning.


It’s easy to have misconceptions about how adults engage in self-directed learning (SDL). The idea might generate images of someone locked in a room with a stack of textbooks. But it’s much more diverse and fluid than that. Here’s how researchers conceptualize self-directed adult learning.

  • Not always done in isolation. SDL does not need to be an isolated activity. It can occur in groups of people learning and sharing with each other. Even if there are periods of individualized learning, people often benefit from sharing with a group that has similar interests and goals.
  • May involve instructors or mentors. SDL can take place in formal settings in which an instructor, mentor or expert serves as a guide.
  • Not for everyone. Not all adults prefer or are effective at SDL. Some have no interest in this approach to learning or are not prepared to engage in this way.
  • Learning preferences vary by activity. Learning can be imagined as a continuum of dependence on an instructor at one end and completely independent on the other. Adults are going to vary where they are on the continuum, depending on the activity.
  • Attracts diverse groups of people. People from all social and economic groups engage in self-directed learning.
  • Experiential. Many self-directed learning efforts are experientially based and many occur informally.
  • Effective for work and personal learning. SDL is an effective strategy for professional, educational and personal learning.
  • Has limitations. SDL has limitations and is not appropriate in every situation. In the workplace, the risk is that it may take too much time or cost too much to learn a critical skill independently.
  • Has many benefits. Planning and assessing a self-directed learning effort can make learning more meaningful than instructor-directed learning. It can result in individualized instruction, which is effective for meeting a learner’s specific needs.

Support Self-directed Learning in the Workplace

You can encourage self-directed learning by exploring professional goals with small groups of people or individuals. Then encourage them to assess their SDL skills using a list like the one below. Doyle (2008) identified personal skills that students in higher education need to master to become adept at SDL. I’ve modified and added to his list to accommodate adult learners in the workplace.

Self-directed learning involves the ability to:

  • Evaluate one’s own knowledge and skills.
  • Formulate learning goals and enact a plan.
  • Find and evaluate quality sources of information. This skill can be developed with Personal Knowledge Management skills and developing an effective Personal Learning Environment.
  • Identify important information in these quality sources or identify opportunities that appear in the environment.
  • Organize information in meaningful ways.
  • Communicate new knowledge through writing, sharing and speaking.
  • Manage time.
  • Remember what has been learned and apply new knowledge and skills.
  • Monitor and evaluate one’s own learning (metacognition).


Organizations would be smart to invest in preparing and encouraging their workforce for self-directed learning. It’s one of many strategies that can meet the contemporary needs of the changing and unpredictable workplace. It can provide lifelong learning skills and contribute to building a learning culture


  1. Doyle, T. Helping Students Learn in a Learner-Centered Environment. A Guide to Facilitating Learning in Higher Education, Stylus, Sterling, VA, 2008.
  2. Khiat, H. Measuring Self-Directed Learning: A Diagnostic Tool for Adult Learners. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, v12 n2 Article 2, 2015.
  3. Merriam, S. B. & Bierema, L.L. Adult learning: linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass, 2014
  4. Spear, G. E., & Mocker, D. W. The organizing circumstance: Environmental determinants in self-directed learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 35, 1–10, 1984.