October 2021
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TD Magazine

Create Ideal Conditions for Self-Directed Learning

Friday, October 1, 2021

As they embark on their learning journeys, employees will need a support crew to prevent them from running adrift.

One of the great feats of athleticism and tenacity is solo sailing on the open ocean. This is not a journey to be taken lightly; a sailor needs sharply honed skills, a state-of-the-art boat, reliable equipment, and a will to harness the elements. Success depends on a well-considered float plan, practiced execution of sailing maneuvers, strategic course corrections, and no small amount of drive.


But as much as we celebrate such solo achievements, each sailor is not really alone. They are each backed by people who help them to design and outfit their sailboats; strategize their course; provide them information on weather, tide, and current; advise them on repairs; and cheer them on the journey—not to mention the individuals who taught and coached them sailing techniques in the first place.

Such it is with self-directed learning. Self-directed learners are a hardy and persistent breed. But they receive aid from people who help to shape goals, locate resources, plan their efforts, and free up time. That support crew makes it possible for self-directed learners to succeed, and crew members actively engage in conversation, act as role models, teach, and coach. Organizations that rely on employees to keep their skills up to date and to reskill for future roles should actively buoy employees in their self-directed learning quests.

Help learners on their journey

Malcolm Knowles defined self-directed learning as a process "in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating those learning outcomes."

Decades of research on self-directed learning reveals what employers can do to bolster employee self-development. Just as a solo sailor's land-bound crew must understand the details of sailing in the open ocean, those who want to strengthen self-directed learners should grasp the nuances of self-directed learning and the qualities and skills it takes for individuals to be effective.

The process and skills go well beyond simple search and learn. Although there are times when a learner only needs a quick article or video that gives just enough guidance to continue their work, complex learning needs require a more robust effort and a longer-term development plan.

For those complex, deeper development plans, successful self-directed learners need to define goals, research and curate resources, and consciously execute a learning strategy—a process that can be described as orientating, wayfinding, and journeying. At each stage, learners benefit from being shored up by managers and organizational systems that scaffold their development.


The first step of any journey, whether circumnavigating or learning, is to choose a destination. In self-directed learning projects, learners define their goals, guided by questions and curiosity about a topic or a deep desire to strengthen a skill. At the orientating phase, learners identify a specific knowledge base or capability, assess where they are and where they want to be on the continuum of novice to expert, clarify the questions for which they seek answers, and visualize the contexts in which they want to apply what they develop on the journey.

To support orientating, managers and L&D leaders can be clear about the knowledge and skills needed for specific roles and provide self-assessment tools so employees can check themselves. Workers often don't know what they need to know to be successful in a role and are unaware of the scope and nuance of necessary skill sets. Managers, mentors, and peers can help learners to get a better sense of the subtleties of the skill set they are developing. And because humans are notoriously bad at accurate self-assessment, candid, clear feedback is also critical.

Beyond defining a destination, learners need to have a clear sense of their motivation and purpose for engaging in those efforts. They must see how development will benefit them both in terms of performance and recognition for skill advancement. Organization leaders can make those connections clear. By providing overt advocacy for self-directed learning, leaders communicate their approval and encouragement.


Mapping out the best path to the destination is the task of wayfinding. In a learning journey, wayfinding comprises numerous tasks: finding an array of possible learning resources and activities, identifying people who may be of assistance, vetting and curating the best of the options, devising learning activities and application projects, and compiling a comprehensive study plan.

Managers and L&D professionals can encourage and aid in wayfinding in many ways. Finding the right resources can be daunting and frustrating because of the abundance of choice and the uneven quality in what learners can uncover. Therefore, managers and L&D staff can relieve the burden by curating specific resources that are right, relevant, and rich as well as varied in format (for example, courses, podcasts, videos, books, articles, and topical websites). Supporters likewise can introduce learners to individuals inside and outside the organization who may be subject matter experts, co-learners, coaches, or mentors.

Because most learners have little experience in designing learning and application activities, L&D can provide advice on the kinds of activities that solidify learning. The suggestions can be quite varied—such as keeping a notebook or reflective journal, holding regular conversations with a mentor or co-learner, engaging in practice activities, conducting informational interviews with SMEs, collaborating on a project, or taking on responsibility for a small deliverable. Offering learning plan templates also can be beneficial for learners.

In all this, managers and L&D professionals should act more like a support crew than captains, providing light advice without taking control of defining the plan.


Journeying is what all the preparation has been about, whether sailing out on the open seas or getting down to the business of learning. A successful learning journey is action-filled, steadily advancing, and generally on course. And the support crew remains critical to guide, provide in-process feedback, and encourage persistence.

Learning leaders assist journeying by providing resources to scaffold and strengthen learning skills, and it's advantageous to develop those skills in the context of using them to achieve learning goals. Managers can ensure that learners have a positive environment for learning by valuing learning, ensuring psychological safety, providing feedback and coaching as needed, and encouraging and supporting self-direction. L&D can fortify learners by ensuring they understand the most effective strategies for learning.

Most importantly, organizational leaders must allocate time to engage in the journey. An underappreciated truth about journeying is that it must be savored. Taking shortcuts may seem to get journeyers to a destination more quickly, but they likely miss out on a lot of rich exploration along the way. The fact is that learning takes time. Learners and their managers should figure out how to dedicate time and how to protect learning from getting thrown off course by delays and detours.

Completing the journey

Remaining true to a determined path requires regular check-ins on progress. Learners need to have designated waypoints at which they step back to assess activities and results. Managers can be sounding boards for those evaluations and coaches in deciding next steps. If a learner is making insufficient progress on learning goals, that individual and their manager can analyze the barriers and issues driving the lack of results so the learner can craft a better plan for the journey forward.

You can well imagine the celebration that ensues when around-the-world sailors pull into port as well as the intense strategy meetings that follow. Progress on learning goals and increased skill in self-directing learning should get the same kind of recognition and attention.

Smoothing the waters for self-directed learning

A sailor's support crew can do nothing to tame the weather and the tides, but those who want to bolster self-directed learning can actively create an environment conducive to development. Research shows that organizations should generate the following conditions to enable self-directed learning.


Allow employees to have control. As much as possible, leaders need to turn over to employees the determination of learning goals, selection of learning resources, development and execution of a learning plan, and assessment of progress on knowledge and skill development. That doesn't mean, however, that leaders have no influence on those decisions.

Managers can show interest, provide requested guidance, and gently encourage while still giving learners the final say in the plan. In the rapidly changing landscape in today's workplaces, developing people's capacity to manage their own learning is as important as developing role-specific skills, so employees need the opportunity to own their own development.

Demonstrate management engagement. Having a management team that is actively invested in individual development goes a long way to providing a strong learning environment. Engagement takes the form of giving encouragement, ensuring quality resources, initiating conversations, removing barriers, providing feedback, offering coaching (if appropriate), and supporting learning with a light touch.

Provide curated resources. Anyone who has ever sorted through search engine results understands that finding the right resources is not that easy. L&D has a role in curating resources to save employees time and effort in finding relevant and high-quality materials and activities, but that can be difficult to scale when employee needs are so varied. A more strategic approach is for L&D to identify high-priority knowledge bases and skill sets and to make a full set of curated resources available in each of those areas. They likewise should make it easy for staff to get recommendations from managers, peers, and L&D for whatever their unique learning goals may be.

Make interpersonal connections. Learning is highly relational, and self-directed learning does not happen in isolation. Employers can facilitate access to people by cultivating a culture of generous mutual support, providing directories of SMEs, and developing connector managers who are adept at introducing people to others who are in positions to help.

Offering mentoring and peer development programs in which employees can voluntarily engage can also be important for some learners. Further, employers can facilitate connections to external experts by pointing out thought leaders who are active on social media, encouraging membership in professional organizations, and funding attendance at conferences.

Offer learn-to-learn resources. Most employees are not experts in learning processes, which is partially why they depend on structured training rather than informal and self-directed learning. To bolster self-directed learning confidence, some companies have gone so far as to provide training or short-form pointers on how people learn. But it is also useful to have scaffolds available at the point of need, such as discussion or reflection questions for recommended books or videos, templates for creating practice exercises, and informational interview guides.

Allocate time for learning. Time is the most precious and necessary commodity in enabling self-directed learning, and finding ways to give workers needed time is the most important thing that employers can do. Organizations have found a variety of creative ways to accomplish that: scheduling blocks of time for teams to engage in learning activities (for example, a library day or half-day sabbatical), allocating a specific number of hours to be used as needed, or planning learning time into project schedules. Specific strategies are usually worked out at the team or role level, while recognizing the time needed for learning is part of organizational learning culture.

Ease the way

Self-directed learning has been in practice since the dawn of time. It comes naturally to every human being as we learn to navigate the world. But there are times when it is complicated and challenging and requires more thought and planning. Managers and L&D professionals can ease the way for effective and efficient learning without taking control of designing the approach. When managers and L&D teams partner with employees, they can accelerate the development of crucial capabilities and ensure that the organization is ready to sail into the future.

Individual Wherewithal for Self-Directing Learning

Research shows that successful self-directed learners demonstrate certain characteristics and skills. Organizations enable self-directed learning by scaffolding the development of these qualities and capabilities:

  • Motivation to learn—intrinsic motivation that drives engagement and persistence
  • Self-efficacy—the belief that one can learn and that learning will result in a desired outcome
  • Capability for self-assessment—the ability to accurately judge what to develop and to evaluate the degree to which that desired knowledge and skill is demonstrated
  • Resourcefulness—savviness in finding and vetting learning resources and networking skill to find people who can support a learning journey
  • Planning skills—the ability to make a plan for development that unfolds over time and to arrange a calendar to invest time in learning activities
  • Learning skills—facility with a range of learning skills, such as reflection, dialogue, inquiry, recall, and other metacognitive skills

Source: Self-Directed Learning: Essential Strategy for a Rapidly Changing World, The learning Guild, 2020

About the Author

Catherine Lombardozzi is a lifelong learning and development practitioner and founder of Learning 4 Learning Professionals. She collaborates with people to align their L&D strategy and skill sets with their organization’s driving goals and initiatives. Her work focuses on supporting the professional development of designers, facilitators, faculty, learning and performance consultants, and learning leaders. As an active workplace learning professional with nearly 40 years of experience in corporate and academic contexts, Catherine often contributes to professional conferences and journals, and she teaches graduate-level courses in adult learning, instructional design, emerging technologies, and consulting. She is author of Learning Environments by Design (2015). She maintains deep interest in modern workplace learning strategies, learning culture, social learning, self-directed learning, design of online learning experiences, and scholarly practice. Catherine holds a doctoral degree in human and organizational learning from George Washington University.

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Hello Catharine.
Congratulations on such sensible words.
Many surveys already indicate the employee's propensity to 'make their own journey', but we have a big challenge with the leaders.
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Many thanks for your time befitting suggestions for self-directed learning.
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Many thanks for your time befitting suggestions for self-directed learning.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.