Self-directed learning is becoming the forgotten ingredient in HE

In the heady rush to extol the virtues of asynchronous learning, we are watering down the main element of students’ learning experience, says Linda Kaye

Linda Kaye's avatar
Edge Hill University
19 Aug 2021
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Self-directed learning is becoming overlooked by a sector to keen to talk about asynchronous learning and other buzz terms

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Much of the HE conversation lately has felt like a never-ending spin cycle of the sector’s new favourite words: “blended”, “hybrid”, “synchronous”, “asynchronous”. These are usually discussed in relation to the tutor’s role in the teaching set-up, and it’s been striking to see so little explicit discussion of self-directed learning – which arguably makes up the largest proportion of a student’s learning experience.

So why has the sector largely failed to account for what is usually about 80 per cent of students’ study time?

Some will argue that discussions about asynchronous teaching do cover this. After all, that format does mean students access materials on demand in a self-directed way. However, this does not sufficiently cover all elements of what self-directed learning really is.

Self-directed learning requires students to take ownership of their own learning process − identifying learning needs and learning goals, selecting strategies and evaluating learning outcomes. By contrast, discussions of asynchronous learning focus primarily on how teaching content can be accessed any time, anywhere. This misses the true notion of self-directed learning.

Debates around asynchronicity tend to place the spotlight on the tutor in terms of how and where they’re providing content to be accessed. Conversely, self-directed learning or study is less focused on the role of the tutor and instead has the student at the heart of the learning process. 

The following five steps can be considered the cornerstones of self-directed learning:

  1. Establish learning goals
  2. Locate and access resources
  3. Adopt and execute learning activities
  4. Monitor and evaluate learning performance
  5. Reassess learning strategies

As you can see, focusing on the delivery format (in terms of asynchronous or synchronous) does not cover all aspects of the self-directed learning process – it’s at best a small part of it. In addition to accessing learning activities provided by the tutor – which is where most discussions of synchronous versus asynchronous begin and end – students undertaking true self-directed learning would be expected to participate in a range of other activities such as collaborative work with peers, wider reading, attending extracurricular events and writing assignments, to name just a few.

Also, locating and accessing resources as part of asynchronous delivery would usually only include watching pre-recorded instructional content as provided by the tutor – again stopping well short of the wealth of other self-initiated resourcing that students would be expected to carry out as part of true self-directed learning.

It appears clear to me that we need to move beyond our focus on the delivery of teaching and instead look at the holistic learning process from a student’s perspective.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that the onus on tutor delivery will remain central to sector concerns, especially when governmental agendas place so much focus on the importance of contact hours and how tutors and universities are “providers” of a quality higher education experience.

In this context, where students are out of the spotlight as the primary drivers of their own educational success, it’s unclear how the sector can move beyond its focus on tutor-initiated strategies. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate some of the central tenets of self-directed learning into your own teaching. Using the five key steps mentioned earlier as a guide, here are some practical tips on how to do so:

Establish learning goals
Alongside programme/module learning outcomes, ask students to articulate what they want to know, how they intend to get the most out of their learning and how they will use their learning.

Locate and access resources
Early in courses, ensure appropriate induction on accessing learning resources (databases, keyword searches, identifying relevant resources, wider resources from other platforms such as Google Scholar, preprint servers, educational websites and so on). Further, in any tutor-led content, hyperlink to key resources that students can choose to access independently. Encourage students to collaboratively develop and annotate their own reading lists to signal to peers what may be especially useful.

Adopt and execute learning activities
Alongside any timetabled sessions, encourage students to schedule specific self-directed learning activities for themselves (such as “reading time”). To support this, you could create template timetables that students can populate to have an overview of how their tutor-led sessions correspond with their self-directed learning activities.

Monitor and evaluate learning performance
Alongside programme/module learning outcomes, ask students to articulate what they now know, to consider how they will apply their learning and to undertake goal-monitoring processes to attribute reasons for why learning goals have or have not been met.

Reassess learning strategies
Encourage students to review their own timetable and breakdown of learning activities to identify whether time allocation is/was sufficient for designated tasks. Also encourage students to identify whether resources are sufficient, relevant and useful (“rate this resource” and peer annotations can be useful prompts here).

The ideas here are by no means exhaustive, but they should signal where ownership of learning can be established from a student-centric perspective. Basic maths suggests to me that if we better focus on the 80 per cent of students’ learning time that is self-directed, we will see significantly improved outcomes for all. And that other 20 per cent that has placed us all under such enormous pressure will probably become much less of a strain.

Linda Kaye is a reader in psychology in the department of psychology at Edge Hill University. She specialises in cyberpsychology, which is the psychology of how we experience and are impacted by new and emerging technologies and the internet.


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