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Renewing Self-Directed Learning in E-Learning Experiences

By Francesco Giuseffi / January 2021

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E-learning in higher education has become a ubiquitous teaching and learning modality. The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) reported e-learning enrollments increased for the 14th straight year since 2016. Furthermore, there was a 30 percent noticeable increase in college students taking at least one online course [1]. As colleges and universities embrace e-learning at an impressive rate, the many challenges that originally arose during the advent of e-learning have been revived around issues concerning pedagogy, technology, and student engagement. A great deal of the initial issues were based on the premise that technology would drive pedagogy, however, that premise became problematic when educators looked solely at the form of technology and not its function or capacity to enhance learning [2]. Along with this phenomenon, higher education presented e-learning to educators as a fait accompli, and teachers were asked to teach online to an oftentimes resistant or passive audience.

However, operationalizing self-directed learning (SDL) in e-learning modalities can be the counter poison to low student-engagement. College and university instructors must seize this moment and explore SDL as a critical learning model for learner engagement in e-learning modalities. 

SDL has been defined as “any study from which individuals have primary responsibility for planning, implementing, and even evaluating the effort” [3]. In other words, learners who are self-directed create their educational experiences by developing their own curricula, instructional strategies, assessments, and evaluations in collaboration with the instructor. An important presupposition of SDL is for instructors to gauge learner readiness and the stage where students are in their learning ability before, during, and after the educational experience [4]. Ultimately, the goal is for learners to be self-directed in possessing effective time-management skills, setting attainable goals, gathering resources, and implementing self-evaluation [4].

SDL not only spurs online engagement but produces other education outcomes as well. Research has indicated SDL has produced several positive results. Self-directed learners effectively acquire and retain content and are more likely to seek information beyond what is offered in their formal learning settings [5]. SDL is considered a key predictor in student achievement [6] and helps develop the skill of pacing one’s learning [7]. SDL has been shown to develop effective learning strategies [8], and further learner autonomy, self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, and life-long learning [9].

I had the opportunity to explore SDL when editing a book entitled Emerging Self- Directed Learning Strategies in the Digital Age. My intention was to bring scholar-practitioners from around the world to offer commentaries, theories, and current research about the synergistic relationship between SDL and e-learning. Supported by the current literature, the following recommendations were highlighted in the book: First, college and university instructors should incrementally hand over responsibility to learners and create an e-learning culture that is learner driven. One such way to do this would be to align the resources in learning management system (LMS) modules with the needs of learners [10], even giving them opportunities to research the resources they would use in the lessons. Learners would feel more accountable, autonomous, and in control of their learning because the material would be relevant to their own learning objectives.

Second, closely connected to SDL, is the ability for learners to analyze their own thinking, known as metacognition. Learners can share ideas and reflect on lessons, instructional strategies, and learning outcomes, thereby having them reflect on how they learn. One strategy that helps learners think about their thought processes and again emphasizes a learner-driven educational experience is a learning contract. Learning contracts are negotiated between learners and instructors and consist of the goals, instructional methods, resources, products, and time-allotments of a learning experience [11]. For example, college and university instructors can incorporate a learning contract for a particular assignment or even the entire course. Based on the content being covered, learners determine the learning objectives, collect the essential resources, create the timeline and scheduled learning, set the criteria for evaluation, and present the evidence of mastery. When learners work through learning contracts, they invariably think about their learning and are involved in a metacognitive process. It should also be noted learner engagement in e-learning not only requires the practice of metacognition but the right motivation and behavior as well. Incorporating Zimmerman’s self-regulated learning model, which consists of e-learning experiences, can assist students in self-regulation and increase SDL. During the forethought phase, learners construct attainable learning goals that consist of an appropriate amount of time for completion and opportunities for self-pacing. In the performance phase, learners apply different strategies to achieve the learning goals. Learners continually refer back to the learning goals for guidance and direction when assessing the efficacy of the strategies. Lastly, in the self-reflection phase, learners reflect on their learning experiences, evaluating their performance and mastery to help with plans for needed improvement and future learning experiences [12].

Third, e-learning instructors must be trained to ask “essential questions,” which enhances SDL. Essential questions consist of open-ended questions that “are a pathway back to the heart of why we investigate and learn” [13]. Essential questions go beyond closed-ended questions and the mere desire to simply master content. These questions not only address the specific subject matter, but the broad ideas and challenges about life and connections to lived experiences [14]. Indeed, whether in synchronous or asynchronous courses, instructors and learners should ask questions that deal with real-world issues. In my field of education, I will often ask, what might be considered naïve or elementary questions: What makes for a good teacher? What is teaching? What is learning? However, those basic questions generate rich online discussions and draw learners into asking their own essential questions. From there I narrow down the questions and connect them to learners’ experiences: Based on your past experiences as a student, what qualities did your most effective teachers possess? Did any of the good teachers you learned from exhibit the elements of high-quality instruction we covered in class? Asking these types of questions draws students in and invites them to be more self aware and self-directed in their future preparation as teachers.

Learners will take control of their learning, reflect on their own thinking, and grapple with essential questions when e-learning experiences are learner-driven and instructors guide learners in enhancing SDL skills. The trajectory of e-learning and SDL will likely advance expeditiously in higher education. Educators and all others involved in e-learning must be ready to meet that challenge and continue to offer meaningful e-learning experiences for today’s learners.


[1] Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., and Seaman, J. Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States. Report. Babson Survey Research Group. 2018.

[2] Fisher. D. and Frey, N. Preparing students for mastery of 21st century skills. In J. Bellanca and R. Brandt (Eds.), 21st Century skills Rethinking How Students Learn. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, IN, 2010, 221–240

[3] Hiemstra, R. Self-directed learning. In T. Husen and T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (Second Edition). Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1994. 

[4] Grow, G. Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly 41, 3 (1991), 125-149. Expanded version available online at: <>. (1991/1996) 

[5] Mariano, G. and Batchelor, K. In F. Giuseffi (Ed.), The role of metacognition and knowledge transfer in self-directed learning. Emerging Self- Directed Learning Strategies in the Digital Age IGI Global, Hershey, PA, 2018, 141–159.

[6] Cazan, A. and Schiopca, B.A-. Self-directed learning, personality traits, and academic achievement. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 127 (2014), 640-644.

[7] Tough, A. The Adult’s Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning. (second ed.). Learning Concepts, 1971.

[8] Tekkol, I. A., and Demirel, M. An investigation of self-directed learning skills of undergraduate students. Frontiers in Psychology 9 (2018).

[9] O’Shea, E. Self-directed learning in nurse education: A review of the Literature. Journal of Advanced Nursing 43, 1 (2003), 62-70.

[10] Darby, F. How can I help online students develop autonomy and take more responsibility for their learning? Video. Magna Publications, Madison, WI, 2019.

[11] Maehl, W. Lifelong Learning at its Best: Innovative Practices in Adult Credit Programs. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 2000.

[12] Ebner, R. Tips for fostering students’ self-regulated learning in asynchronous online learning environments. Faculty Focus (September 2, 2020). 

[13] Cypret-Mahach, R. In F. Giuseffi (Ed.), Transformational shifts of pedagogy through professional development, essential questions, and self-directed learning. Emerging Self- Directed Learning Strategies in the Digital Age. IGI Global, Hershey, PA, 2018, 141–159.

[14] Wiggins, G. What is an essential question? Authentic Education (November 15, 2007).

About the Author

Dr. Frank Giuseffi is an assistant professor of Education and Online Program Manager in the Doctor of Education Program at William Woods University in Columbia, Missouri. He has written and presented on the Socratic method, adult learning, educational technology, and the philosophy of education. He has edited two books: Emerging Self-Directed Learning Strategies in the Digital Age (2018) and Self-Directed Learning Strategies in Adult Educational Contexts (2019). He is currently writing a book on the Socratic method, which includes a chapter on its application in e-learning experiences.

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