Self-Directed Learning: Benefits and Practical Tips for Companies

Manfred Rump

VIDEO With english subtitles

Cooking, playing the guitar, or making pottery – we already successfully practice self-directed learning in many places in our everyday lives! Now this form of learning is also becoming more and more important in the professional context. Why is this so and what does self-directed learning actually look like in the company? In this article, we will show you examples and benefits for your employees.

Self-directed learning: A definition

Self-directed learning is based on the assumption that learning content can be developed independently. This means that in this form of learning, learners can independently design and direct their own learning process.

Self-directed learning can take various forms, such as informal learning, but also structured learning programs, for example on a digital learning platform. It can also be used as part of a Blended Learning method.

Learners can usually determine their own learning strategy and decide on the place and time of learning. Depending on the degree of self-direction, they also independently select the learning objective, learning sources and partners, and methods and tools to organize the learning process and reflect on its success.

Companies can determine the degree of self-direction individually. The decisive factor is that learners take on more responsibility and co-determination in their learning. In this form of learning, teachers play less of a role as facilitators and controllers, and instead become supporters and motivators.

Thus, self-directed learning can be clearly distinguished from the concept of externally controlled learning:


Self-directed learning vs. self-organized learning

Self-directed learning is therefore the opposite of externally-directed learning. However, the term is not exactly defined in the relevant literature and is often mentioned in the same breath as self-organized learning.

We should therefore delimit it for the better understanding also here again:

Self-directed learning refers to learning processes in which parameters such as learning goal or learning time are predetermined. In order to create a framework for learning activities that is in line with the company's objectives and keeps working time in mind, it can be useful to define learning objectives, learning times or learning periods together with the employees.

  • Example: Learners are to learn about a specific topic through materials on a digital learning platform by time X.

Self-organization includes self-directed learning, but goes far beyond it! Self-organized learning is a very open learning process. The learning goal, learning methods and learning control are up to the employees themselves. For companies, this learning strategy makes sense so that employees can develop new solutions to problems that will only become relevant in the future.

  • Example: Employees share research from their daily work (e.g., new study results from the industry) in a joint chat.

5 Advantages of self-directed learning

In today's fast-paced world, it is crucial for companies to adapt to new developments just as quickly. Self-directed learning generally helps to provide more freedom of movement when it comes to acquiring new knowledge and skills.

Here are five reasons why L&D managers and HR executives believe this is the case:

  1. Flexibility and individual learning: Each employee has different learning needs and goals. Self-directed learning offers the opportunity to learn at one's own pace and according to one's own needs. In this way, learners can really focus on the content that is most relevant to them and go through it faster or slower - depending on their individual learning style.
  2. Independence: Self-directed learning turns employees into active learners who explore new topics on their own. In other words, they take their learning processes into their own hands and thus become less dependent on external resources. According to a study, this also has a positive effect on job satisfaction.
  3. Motivation: If employees can control their own learning, this gives them the freedom to focus on topics that really interest them. This intrinsic motivation enables employees to achieve more in less time and thus contribute to increasing the company's performance.
  4. Job-Performance: Several studies conclude that self-directed learning has a positive impact on job performance. According to one study that examined self-directed learning and its impact on lawyer performance, determination, initiative, confidence, and reflection in learning have a statistically significant impact on lawyers' individual job performance.
  5. Cost savings: Depending on the setup, self-directed learning can save costs for external training or trainers. If a digital learning platform is in use, for example, employees can complete courses on their own responsibility and with flexibility in terms of time and location. The company can thus work more efficiently and reduce costs at the same time.

3 Examples of self-directed learning

So what does it all look like in practice? Self-directed learning can take many different forms and make use of a variety of formats. Digital formats are particularly suitable because they are independent of time and place.

For inspiration, we will use three examples to show how self-directed learning can take place in companies.

1. Video courses

According to a study, 90 percent of employees see video streaming as an effective tool for work-related information transfer. Video courses are accordingly among the most popular type of self-directed learning.

Digital learning platforms such as Masterplan, for example, enable learners to access specific courses and complete assignments based on their individual interests and at their own pace. L&D managers can also optionally specify learning paths, upload their own content, and define common learning times and time periods.

2. Video-Tutorials

We are already familiar with video tutorials from our private everyday lives, such as YouTube videos on DIY topics. They can also be used in a professional context as a format for self-directed learning. Unlike a video course, for example, special step-by-step instructions can be created via video as part of product training.

The advantage: employees can then call up the information several times, take notes, and repeat more complex passages as often as they like. Digital platforms that allow employees to upload their own company-specific content are also suitable for this purpose.

3. Learning-Apps

Here, too, there are countless examples from private everyday life: Apps like Duolingo, for example, are popular for learning new languages. They offer learners the opportunity to complete lessons at their own pace and ensure that learning motivation is kept high with different test formats and gamification approaches.

The community of learners in particular pays off in the latter respect: Learning progress is documented and compared with other learners within the community. This competitive approach can help keep learners motivated and focused on their learning goals.

Such a principle is also used in some digital learning platforms for companies, such as Masterplan.

Prerequisites for self-directed learning

We have shown the advantages and examples of self-directed learning. But what basic requirements must be met for this learning format to work at all in the company?

It is important that employees master this form of learning. This is because self-directed learning is always a combination of will, knowledge and ability. This means that learners must be able to learn independently and on their own responsibility. According to Friedrich and Mandl, there are three components of self-directed learning:

  1. Motivational components: Does a learning environment prevail that meets learners' needs for competence, autonomy, and social inclusion?
  2. Metacognitive components: Do employees have the necessary prior knowledge, time management skills, and a disruption-free learning environment?
  3. Cognitive components: Do employees master the learning strategies and initiative necessary to plan, monitor, and evaluate self-directed learning?

First steps for self-directed learning in the company

To create a learning environment in which self-directed learning works, L&D managers and HR professionals should consider the following points:

Motivational Components:

  • Personal development plan: Employees and supervisors can define goals and milestones to align self-directed learning. The creation of a competency profile can also help employees to identify development needs and learning requirements.
  • Learning diary: Reflecting on learning progress and learning experiences can support the learning process. A learning diary can be a suitable format for employees to additionally document self-directed learning.
  • Learning Enivronment: Competence and autonomy - learning environments that support the satisfaction of these needs promote self-regulated learning, according to Prenzel. Accordingly, HR managers must ensure that learning objectives are challenging and relevant to employees' development. In addition, employees must be able to learn on their own responsibility and, for example, select the place and time of learning according to their own preferences.

Metacognitive components:

  • Availability and access to resources: Employees must be provided with the necessary resources to enable self-directed learning. This means, for example, their own profile on a digital learning platform and/or access to learning groups in order to learn together with colleagues.

Cognitive components:

  • Learning support: Does an employee have problems planning self-directed learning units in terms of time and integrating them into everyday working life? Does he or she need additional help in choosing learning materials, methods, and tools? Learners should always be accompanied in their self-directed learning process, for example by coaches or supervisors who can identify such and other possible challenges and, if necessary, derive further learning needs.

Conclusion: Self-directed? Self-evident!

Self-directed learning is a contemporary approach in corporate training, first and foremost because it makes learning possible in an increasingly differentiated everyday work environment for employees. We have shown the numerous advantages, such as greater flexibility and increased employee motivation.

However, certain prerequisites are necessary to enable successful self-directed learning. These include an open corporate culture, the promotion of personal initiative and the availability of learning resources. In addition, employees should be supported by suitable feedback mechanisms in order to optimize their learning process.

Self-directed learning can then lead to greater satisfaction and improved performance in the long term. Companies should therefore regard self-directed learning as an important part of their human resources development and create the necessary framework conditions for it.



Manfred Rump

Manfred Rump is Senior Content Marketing Manager at Masterplan. In the blog, he shares insights from his conversations with learning experts and highlights current learning trends in companies.
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