The power of self-directed learning in the workplace

The power of self-directed learning in the workplace

Working in an office, you may have some idea of what self-directed training is. Self-directed learning (SDL) has been around for decades, allowing for customized and flexible learning paths that suit the preferences and schedule of the learner. When used properly in the workplace, it can transform the culture and productivity.

Here’s everything you need to know about self-directed learning benefits, challenges, and best strategies.

What is self-directed training?

Self-directed training is transferring the responsibility of learning from the instructor to the learner—in this case, the employee. This gives the learner the opportunity to make every decision when it comes to learning.

Imagine that your boss asks you to plan a company party. Some might say that simply choosing the venue of your party is a self-directed learning example. In reality, self-directed training is not just about choosing the venue. It’s about planning how employees will get to the venue, what time they should get there, and what they will eat and drink. Weirdly enough, it’s also about questioning why you’re even planning a party in the first place.

Self-directed learning differs from other methods because it allows individuals to direct their learning as they see fit. Instead of being ordered to do this and that like a mindless drone, you are taught to understand the mechanics of a task by choosing if and what you want to learn, and how you want to learn it. When it comes to self-directed learning, the most important factor is one: the choice must be yours.

The benefits and challenges of self-directed training

Is self-directed learning the best way to help employees evolve and develop new skill sets? Like all theories and learning strategies, self-directed training also has its benefits and challenges.

Self-directed learning benefits:

  • Employees develop specialized skills: When employees are allowed to choose their own learning paths, they have the chance to learn skills they are genuinely interested in or need the most. The more interested they are in what they learn, the higher the chance they will master the skill in question.
  • The learning path adjusts to a learner’s specific needs: We don’t all learn the same way. Not everyone understands or absorbs information at the same pace or with the same methods; some of us prefer to read, whereas others prefer to do. The self-directed learning model breaks the mold and allows learners to do as they wish, and learn in the ways they learn best.
  • Self-learners experiences “deep” learning rather than “surface” learning: When an instructor teaches a task in a plain and direct manner, the learner may learn the task, but nothing more. A learner following a self-guided learning path understands the concept of the task and applies this concept. This is the main difference between deep learning and surface learning; in the self-directed learning example, learners think about the task critically and truly wrap their minds around it. With surface learning, there is little more than memorization, as a result of the instructor’s “spoon-feeding” knowledge.

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Self-directed learning challenges:

  • Some learners have difficulty learning on their own: This is perhaps the main challenge of self-directed training. This method assumes that learners simply need the freedom to work at their own pace and with their preferred strategies to achieve their learning potential. The truth, however, is that this is not always the case. Some learners need help to understand certain concepts, especially when they are diving into new or challenging topics. Of course, SDL doesn’t mean the learner has to do all the learning on their own. A live, instructor-led course could complement self-paced courses.
  • Biases may influence learners the wrong way: When learners are allowed to learn without guidance or even supervision, there is no guarantee that they will extract the intended lessons or concepts from the program. This is especially true when you have a workplace with individuals from different demographics, like culture, beliefs, values, age group, and gender.
  • It may offer too much freedom: Can there be too much freedom? Some people believe there can be. By letting learners have the entire breadth of possibilities when it comes to dealing with tasks and solving challenges, some people can be stifled by these options. Apart from that, there is also the matter of self-discipline. Self-directed training means employees must make a commitment to come back to training regularly. Since many people struggle to stick to a habit without some kind of accountability, freedom is undoubtedly an issue for aspiring self-learners.

Despite a few limitations, self-directed learning has been touted by many as one of the most effective learning strategies developed. If it requires some tweaks here and there for certain learners, then tweak away. After all, the goal is to get everyone on the same page, even if it takes a while to do so.

If you decide to apply this approach in your workplace, here are some self-directed learning strategies to consider.


Self-directed training in the workplace: Strategies and examples

How to apply and support self-directed learning in the workplace

Implementing self-directed learning in your workplace isn’t simply a matter of buying the right guides for your HR department. It’s so much more than just a program, but rather a change of general culture in your workplace.

Getting everyone on board and believing in self-directed training may be the greatest challenge you could face in workplace HR, but if done successfully over several years, it would be one of the most rewarding.

Here are five self-directed learning strategies you can employ to help your employees become stellar self-learners:

1. Prepare employees

Let’s do a quick quiz: How do you begin to promote a culture of self-directed learning in your organization?

a. you drop a hint about how cool SDL is and let employees figure it all out by themselves
b. you discuss the benefits of self-directed learning and inform employees about available SDL options and tools

Our advice is to go with b, which means to follow a structured approach. Start by convincing (especially reluctant) employees about the benefits of expanding their workplace skills. Make them feel excited about creating their learning roadmap themselves. If some employees are unsure about where to start, encourage them to consult your HR department or their manager.

It’s also essential that employees know their options. “Show them around” your online resource library so that they see all the learning resources available and skills they can learn. If you’re using specialized tools, like an online training platform, make sure even non-tech-savvy employees know how to navigate them.

2. Choose tools and content that facilitate self-directed training

If learning is going to be an independent activity, then you should make sure employees don’t bump into obstacles. For starters, invest in a Learning Management System to keep all your learning resources organized and readily available. Opt for a user-friendly LMS that supports different types of content, from your standard videos and text to simulations.

Bear in mind that learning requires a certain amount of mental effort. So try to offer employees bite-sized resources that won’t put an additional mental strain on them. Infographics, learning cards, 3-minute videos, and quick quizzes are easily digestible types of content that make learning fun and effortless.

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3. Offer diverse learning resources

Offering a variety of learning resources will not only cover different learning preferences but also keep things interesting. Here are a few ideas:

  • Online training courses: Some people like to learn the traditional way—through lessons. Create your own training courses, buy ready-made, or discover free online courses. Let employees browse and choose what they would like best to learn next.
  • Articles and reports: For those who are not yet ready to commit to a course, share news, surveys, reports, and articles to keep them up to date about developments in your industry.
  • Webinars: Keep your eyes open for webinars and learning events that could interest employees. One-off events still offer a decent dose of knowledge and, most importantly, keep the motivation to learn alive.

4. Create a dedicated learning group

Create an online learning group for those who are actively pursuing self-directed training, so employees can exchange knowledge and share their experiences. Seasoned employees can contribute with suggestions about learning resources and answers to learner questions.

Peer-based learning can and should be part of self-directed learning. It’s one of the best ways to beat online learning fatigue, as it helps employees stay motivated and encourages others to follow suit. As an added benefit, employees get to know colleagues from different departments better, and this can only make your team stronger.

5. Fit self-directed training into the work schedule

They say that if you really want to do something, you will find a way to fit it into your schedule. But perhaps this is the finest example of something that is easier said than done. With employees often having tons of things to do outside work, how can they find time and energy to learn?

For this reason, allow all employees to allocate time every week on professional development. Let them clear their schedule consistently for a couple of hours every week to hone a new skill until it becomes a workplace habit. They will take a nice break from their tasks, learn something new and interesting, and eventually return to work more productive and refreshed.

Letting your workplace adapt

Remember that the shift to self-directed training won’t happen overnight. It’s a matter of rinsing out the air in your workplace and letting your employees see that you’re moving in a more rewarding and open direction.

Like any kind of habit or culture, it takes time to develop. Once this has been established, self-directed learning will begin to show itself; sometimes, without you even noticing!

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