Opinion Piece: Why You Should be Wary of Self-Directed Learning and How You Can Better Approach it


Our ability to connect with the rest of the world is greater than ever before. Because of advances in technology, access to learning and knowledge is at our fingertips, and so is the capability to learn new topics or skills whenever we want, should we have the desire to do so. 

It’s no surprise then that self-directed learning has become so popular in the workplace in recent years. Both employees and employers recognise the convenience of taking your upskilling into your own hands. But is self-directed learning really the best way to go about educating yourself? Let’s talk about what self-directed learning really entails.

What is self-directed learning? 

First, a definition. Self-directed learning is a learning process in which the responsibility to learn falls on the individual learner, rather than an external source such as a trainer. It’s also known as autodidacticism, in which the individual becomes responsible for planning, carrying out, and evaluating their learning practices.

Why has it gained popularity? 

It’s the 21st century, the internet is reaching farther than ever, and interactions that were previously only possible face-to-face are now moving online. On top of that, you’ve probably noticed the global pandemic and the way it’s forced people to shift many day-to-day activities to a virtual setting. 

With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why people have taken the leap towards self-directed learning. In a workplace setting, it takes the pressure off supervisors to be available to teach and guide at all hours of the working day and shifts the responsibility of learning to the individual employee, who can take the time to learn at their own pace. 

In the current climate, you also need to be constantly learning to keep up with the fast-paced changes taking place in the market. People need to learn new skills not only for their professional development, but also to be seen as a competitive standout when looking for work. Self-directed learning is simply a means to expand your knowledge base by choosing your own learning goals and the path to reaching them.

What are the disadvantages? 

With this popularity in mind, it’s no wonder that self-directed learning proposes to have a number of advantages. Unfortunately, as popular as self-directed learning is, it also has its setbacks. Let’s get into four of the most common drawbacks to self-directed learning.

Not enough time 

You know how it is. You decide to complete some learning, but you have no time to do it. Even worse, you might be told to do it, but you still have deadlines, meetings, and projects to see to, and without dedicated time set aside you just don’t know how you’re going to fit it in between everything else. 

Learning guided by a trainer or teacher would come with dedicated time towards educating yourself. On the other hand, when the onus is on you to train yourself, it’s also on you to find a moment to fit it into your schedule (and that’s not always easy—or possible). That comes with the extra burden of unnecessary stress.

Not knowing where to start 

The thing about learning a new topic is that you start at square one and grow from there. But that comes with one distinct problem: You’re at square one. You need to get started, but you have no idea where to start. What’s more, getting started is even harder when there are so many options out there from which you can start from. 

For someone new to a topic, these early stages are understandably overwhelming. The issue is that that feeling of being overwhelmed tends to put a dampener on any motivation you might have had to begin with. And if you’re not motivated, you’re not likely to try too hard to keep at it. 

Lack of feedback 

In formal schooling, you would’ve sat through numerous exams. You’d have received a grade at the end and possibly even some feedback on what areas you should study more next time. In self-directed learning, you make the decisions on what your goals are for your learning. There are no teachers to grade your learning or let you know if you’re on the right track or not. While choosing your own means and method of learning gives you flexibility in your study plan, you really have no way of gauging how effective your learning process is.

Lack of motivation 

The biggest factor behind whether you complete your self-directed learning: Motivation. If someone has an interest in something, they’re more likely to seek out new learning in that area. They have the motivation and curiosity to drive that learning. But let’s face it: Not everyone is so excited to further their learning in a workplace environment. Even if areas of learning have been suggested to them, if an individual lacks motivation, they lack the ability to learn effectively. Education undertaken begrudgingly just doesn’t have the same effect.

The alternative approach: Guided learning 

We know what you’re thinking. “But guided learning is so old-school!” It really doesn’t have to be. In fact, guided learning has some advantages over self-directed learning, alleviating some of the drawbacks we noted earlier. 

What is guided learning? 

Guided learning is exactly the opposite of self-directed. This means an external source is tasked with directing the individual’s learning process. It could be suggesting areas of study, providing resources and learning materials, or giving feedback on goals met. The important part is for the individual to receive some form of guidance to keep them on track in their own education. 

Why Acorn feels this is important 

Here at Acorn, we support customers who use self-directed learning. But there are many ways to be successful in the L&D space. We actively advocate for guided learning, as a leading driver of causation in L&D ROI. We want users to be self-directed when it comes to how and when they learn, but we also want users to be directed towards relevant capabilities based on business outcomes. We can clearly demonstrate strategic impact with the guided learning approach—but it’s not easily done, if at all, with purely self-directed efforts, especially because there is such an overload of content out there.

This is where Acorn’s products come into play. It’s common practice for HR and L&D teams to go to people leaders within the business to collaborate on necessary training. But there usually isn’t data behind this or linkage to company strategy or performance. 

At our core, we want to uncover and diagnose capability gaps and proficiencies in your organisation’s current workforce. This means L&D teams can go to people leaders informed, telling them what they need capability-wise to deliver their strategy. Based on these gaps you can use the Acorn Performance Learning Management System (PLMS) to select or create a capability framework that ensures training is mapped to defined organisational capability gaps.

And this is where the proactive strategic impact is done uniquely within our platform. We focus on learner experience and learning analytics like many LMSs out there, but what sets us apart as a PLMS is that we advocate for getting it right up-front by synchronising learning with business performance. In other words, a proactive approach of guiding learners in the right direction based on your company strategy, versus a reactive approach of just relying on learning analytics.

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