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Setting the Framework for Self-Directed Learning

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Is a self-directed learning program right for your organization? Are employees engaged; curious? Are they independent, deadline-driven, and computer savvy? Do they have good time- and project-management skills? If you’re ready to experiment with a development program in which learners take ownership of their learning, with the L&D professional setting the stage and serving as an adviser, read on.

Self-directed learning is strong today in large part due to the availability of technology that allows learners to access information at their fingertips. Podcasts, YouTube, and Google can be powerful learning tools. In today’s fast-paced business environment, learners need and expect immediate answers and information, but the environment also requires us to learn when and where we can due to competing demands.

In “Self-Directed Learning Made Simple,” Amanda Smith provides questions the L&D professional can ask to begin creating a self-directed learning strategy and program:

  • What technology is right for the learners?
  • Are learning sources available and reliable?
  • Will the C-suite buy in to a self-directed learning initiative?

In addition to creating the content and ensuring learners are ready for a self-directed learning program, L&D professionals need to create a good environment for the best chance of success.

Get employees on board. While participants of self-directed learning programs typically are motivated, they still need to understand organizational goals so they can create appropriate learning goals for themselves. The bigger organizational vision needs to be communicated to learners.


Create a culture of collaboration. Cross-team collaborative learning leads to innovation, which is critical today more than ever. The L&D professional can host or sponsor lunch & learns to incubate cross-departmental learning. Online platforms or cohorts can allow employees to share challenges with or support their colleagues.

Sustain employees. Getting employees on board is one thing. You also must ensure that they have the resources—including time—to do their job and make inroads into their learning goals. Work with managers and create accountability checklists that participants and managers can use to outline desired behavior change resulting from the self-directed learning program.


Develop a culture of continuous learning. “A culture of continuous learning requires business leaders’ and participants’ buy-in. Work to communicate that it is OK for employees to make errors and learn from them,” writes Smith. Learning materials such as job aids, checklists, and templates along with videos, podcasts, and infographics are helpful resources for employees.

Use technology to support the learning strategy. Avail yourself of technology that meets your learners where they are. What tools do they like to use? Interaction makes the experience a more compelling one; employ tools that facilitate interaction so participants can learn from one another.

Self-directed learning isn’t right for every organization or for every type of content (for example, do compliance requirements dictate that learners take a specific course by a specific deadline?). But for motivated, engaged employees, such a program can be beneficial for the individual, the L&D professional, and the organization.

Self-Directed Learning Made Simple” is the April 2019 issue of TD at Work.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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