What makes self-directed learning effective?

In recent years, educators have come to focus more and more on the importance of lab-based experimentation, hands-on participation, student-led inquiry, and the use of “manipulables” in the classroom. The underlying rationale seems to be that students are better able to learn when they can control the flow of their experience, or when their learning is “self-directed.”

While the benefits of self-directed learning are widely acknowledged, the reasons why a sense of control leads to better acquisition of material are poorly understood.

Some researchers have highlighted the motivational component of self-directed learning, arguing that this kind of learning is effective because it makes students more willing and more motivated to learn. But few researchers have examined how self-directed learning might influence cognitive processes, such as those involved in attention and memory.

In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers Todd Gureckis and Douglas Markant of New York University address this gap in understanding by examining the issue of self-directed learning from a cognitive and a computational perspective.

According to Gureckis and Markant, research from cognition offers several explanations that help to account for the advantages of self-directed learning. For example, self-directed learning helps us optimize our educational experience, allowing us to focus effort on useful information that we don’t already possess and exposing us to information that we don’t have access to through passive observation. The active nature of self-directed learning also helps us in encoding information and retaining it over time.

But we’re not always optimal self-directed learners. The many cognitive biases and heuristics that we rely on to help us make decisions can also influence what information we pay attention to and, ultimately, learn.

Gureckis and Markant note that computational models commonly used in machine learning research can provide a framework for studying how people evaluate different sources of information and decide about the information they seek out and attend to. Work in machine learning can also help identify the benefits — and weaknesses — of independent exploration and the situations in which such exploration will confer the greatest benefit for learners.

Drawing together research from cognitive and computational perspectives will provide researchers with a better understanding of the processes that underlie self-directed learning and can help bridge the gap between basic cognitive research and applied educational research. Gureckis and Markant hope that this integration will help researchers to develop assistive training methods that can be used to tailor learning experiences that account for the specific demands of the situation and characteristics of the individual learner.


What is Self Directed Learning?

Education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person being educated.

Let’s start with the term education. In everyday language people tend to equate education with schooling, which leads one to think of education as something that is done to students by teachers. Teachers educate and students become educated. Teachers give an education and students receive this gift. But any real discussion of education requires us to think of it as something much broader than schooling.Education is the sum of everything a person learns that enables that person to live a satisfying and meaningful life.

Education can be defined broadly in a number of ways. A useful definition for our purposes is this: Education is the sum of everything a person learns that enables that person to live a satisfying and meaningful life. This includes the kinds of things that people everywhere more or less need to learn, such as how to walk upright, how to speak their native language, how to get along with others, how to regulate their emotions, how to make plans and follow through on them, and how to think critically and make good decisions.

It also includes some culture-specific skills, such as, in our culture, how to read, how to calculate with numbers, how to use computers, maybe how to drive a car—the things that most people feel they need to know in order to live the kind of life they want to live in the culture in which they are growing up.

But much of education, for any individual, entails sets of skills and knowledge that may differ sharply from person to person, even within a given culture. As each person’s concept of “a satisfying and meaningful life” is unique, each person’s education is unique. Society benefits from such diversity.

Given this definition of education, self-directed education is education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person becoming educated, whether or not those activities were chosen deliberately for the purpose of education.

Self-directed education can include organized classes or lessons, if freely chosen by the learner; but most self-directed education does not occur that way. Most self-directed education comes from everyday life, as people pursue their own interests and learn along the way. The motivating forces include curiosity, playfulness, and sociability—which promote all sorts of endeavors from which people learn. Self-directed education necessarily leads different individuals along different paths, though the paths may often overlap, as each person’s interests and goals in life are in some ways unique and in some ways shared by others.

Self-directed education can be contrasted to imposed schooling, which is forced upon individuals, regardless of their desire for it, and is motivated by systems of rewards and punishments, as occurs in conventional schools. Imposed schooling is generally aimed at enhancing conformity rather than uniqueness, and it operates by suppressing, rather than nurturing, the natural drives of curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.

Finally, then, Self-Directed Education (capitalized) refers to the educational route of school-aged children whose families have chosen not to enroll them in imposed schooling, but, instead, allow the children to take charge of all of their education. More specifically, these are families that have enrolled their children in schools that support young people’s pursuits of their own interests and do not impose a curriculum or who homeschool their children by the method commonly called unschooling, where the children pursue their own interests rather than an imposed curriculum. This final distinction is between “SDE” as an alternative to conventional schooling, and “sde” that may happen outside of school, even for people in conventional schooling.