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Creating Self-Directed Learners: Beyond Study Skills

Self-directed learning might feel like just another buzzword in today’s curriculum, but in fact it’s a way of thinking and interacting with the world that can help a student far beyond their high school education. Some school districts have begun to implement self-directed courses inside their curriculum because they recognize the value of this skill set. So how can we help every student achieve this mindset?

Self-direction is a group of qualities we all have access to.

  • Self-directed learners are:
    • Focused
    • Goal-driven
    • Enthusiastic
    • Aware of resources and limitations
  • Self-directed learners are not:
    • Inherently better at the content of the lesson than other learners
    • Naturally gifted with self-direction
    • Unable to work with teams

Simply put, self-directed learning allows students to take ownership of their education and is a skill that we can teach ourselves and our students. It’s a skill that we learn over time, and get better at with more practice. Self-directed learning also helps us in group settings, as it helps students to identify team goals and figure out ways to get there.

Chances are, your student is already self-directing their learning in some other part of their life. Whether they’re an expert at mountain biking or know every fact about the protagonist of their favorite novel, your student likely already understands how to invest themselves in new knowledge.

Know what you’re working with.

I mean this in two ways: first, your student needs to have an understanding of the scope of the content they’ll be working with; and second, your student needs to know what traits and qualities they already have that will enable them to become a self-directed learner.

You can also help your student think through the qualities they have that will keep them inspired in their learning. Is your student independently learning about other subjects (or even hobbies)? Are they interested in this subject because they know it will reappear in their college coursework? Do they take on other projects on their own, even in the community or around the house, and take pride in completing them? These traits lay the groundwork for a student to understand their own ability to self-direct their learning.

Understand your resources.

One pitfall that students who are new to self-directed learning frequently face is feeling like they don’t know how to start—or, once they’ve started, they hit a wall and don’t know how to keep going. Your student can make a list of all the resources they have: teachers, mentors, fellow students, their textbook, prior completed lessons, and maybe a trusted blog with good advice from a math teacher are all in their arsenal. Students who are new to self-directed learning might lean heavily on these resources as they get started, and that’s just fine! They are learning that they can find answers and assistance, and they are learning where to get good answers and assistance; these are valuable lessons in and of themselves.

Set goals.

If your student is new to self-directed learning, you might start with a single lesson plan or learning objective for them to go through. As your student develops self-directed learning skills, you might give them larger chunks of work, like a section of text in a textbook or a chunk of time (a week or two) for them to keep working through. Whatever goals you set, make them clear in both timeline and learning objectives. Learn more about effective goal-setting here.

Maintain momentum!

As students become more familiar with a self-directed process, they can find it easier to keep going through additional curriculum. Bear in mind that as you provide your student with opportunities for self- directed learning across multiple content areas, you’ll want to renew your resource list and your goals. And don’t forget to provide feedback for your student’s progress: if you see them focused on achieving their goals, asking for help when they need it, and adapting their study skills to their own pace and timing, they should know they’re doing a great job!

Self-directed learning is an opportunity for every student to get to know themselves better. We can all learn more about how we like to learn new things, how we like to study, and how we like to access resources to learn more when we use self-direction. Don’t forget that self-directed learning is a skill, and like all new skills, it might not come easily at first. But with practice and praise, self-directed learning can become more comfortable for every student!

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