LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

2.6 Self-directed Learning

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Educators say that helping adults become independent, self-directed, lifelong learners is every bit as important to their ultimate success in life as helping learners develop skills for reading, writing and math. But what does it mean to become a self-directed learner? What does “self-directed” look like, and how does a person achieve that?

In this unit, we will:

  • explore what it means to be a self-directed learner,
  • identify the characteristics of four stages of self-direction and the needs of learners at each stage
  • identify effective teaching strategies for each stage of self-direction,
  • determine how instructors can help learners move forward into increased self-direction

What is a self-directed learner?

Being a self-directed learner means that a person is able to do three things:

  • understand for himself what he needs in order to learn,
  • go about obtaining what he needs,
  • do what it takes to learn new things in any environment.

These are not simple things! LBS instructors would probably agree that many of their learners, if not most, are a long way away from being self-directed learners. Experience has shown us that LBS learners need a considerable amount of support in developing the skills of self-management and self-direction.

On self-management and self-direction...

Information about the skills of Self-Management and Self-Direction can be found in the two LBS primary source materials: Working with Learning Outcomes and The Level Descriptions Manual. According to these documents, the domain of self-management and self-direction includes those particular skills, attitudes and behaviours that accompany the process of learning. They are the things that support and enable the learner to learn successfully wherever the learning takes place, in school, in a training program, in the workplace, or in the community.

Explore Self Management & Self Direction if you are not familiar with or would like to review The Level Descriptions Manual material on Self-management and Self-direction.

Explore How to use the Self-Oriented resources for information from The Level Descriptions Manual that tells how you can use the features of Self-Management and Self-Direction.

Click on What We Do... to see comments from three instructors on how they address self-management and self-direction with learners.

SIDETRIP for experienced instructors

Self-Management and Self-Direction is still a developing domain in terms of what things should be included in self-management and self-direction training, and how LBS instructors should go about addressing SMSD issues within their programs. We are still at that exciting (though unnerving for some) stage of figuring it all out. If you are an experienced instructor and would like to hear what other instructors in the province have been saying about SMSD, click on:  SMSD Side Trip


JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?


Please use some journaling time to reflect and respond to ideas that come from what Christine and Katrina wrote on the AlphaCom discussion.

Back to self-directed learning...

Here are a number of statements about learning and self-direction. Would you agree with these ideas?

  • We are all learners. We learn in order to acquire different skills to that we can respond to the changes life brings, or to changes in our priorities and personal goals.
  • Being good at learning involves a whole range of skills and abilities that are separate from, but connected to, the thing that is to be learned. Some of these skills and abilities would include being able to:
    • develop a plan
    • stay motivated
    • feel OK about yourself
    • work well with others
    • finish tasks
    • get started
    • manage time
    • find information
    • solve problems
    • prioritize tasks
    • remember things
    • do things for yourself
    • find and correct mistakes
    • think things out
  • Being a successful, self-directed learner is related to how well you are able to manage these different tasks on your own.
  • There are different stages or levels of ability in being able to learn new things on your own.
  • People operate differently at each different stage of self-direction.
  • Different stages require different supports to ensure success.


Abilities in self-directedness seem to be situational. In other words, people can be at different stages of self-direction in different areas of their life at one time. For example, you could be at the beginner stage,
as a dependent learner, when you are starting something brand new and have no previous experience or knowledge to bring to the situation (e.g. learning how to scuba dive while on a holiday, or joining a dance
class when you know you’re a klutz!). At the same time, you could be at a higher level of self-direction in some other field (e.g. gourmet cooking, having taken three courses and belonging to a gourmet cooking group, or managing your finances, being a C.A.) This view suggests that “becoming a self-directed learner” is not necessarily a state that one hopes finally to achieve in life, but it is more like a process one follows in moving from dependence to autonomy in the activity of learning.

Stages of self-direction:

How does a person become a self-directed learner? Maybe we should begin by imagining a continuum of stages that stretches from having limited skill in self-directed learning (being very instructor-dependent), to being completely independent and self-reliant (able to successfully take full responsibility for one’s own learning). The key in helping learners become more self-directed in their learning, is to know what will help the learners move steadily forward, from wherever they are along this pathway, out of one stage and on into the next.

Read more about this continuum of self-direction in learning at Stages of Development in Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

Level Descriptions illustrates the features in the Self-Management and Self-Direction section of the Level Descriptions Manual.


The materials on four stages of self-direction have been adapted for LBS purposes, by generous permission, from the work of Gerald Grow on Stages of Self-Directed Learning.

Learners at different stages of self-direction respond to new learning in ways that are characteristic of each particular stage. This is something all LBS instructors know already because, as they will tell you, learners who are working at LBS Level 1 need more and different kinds of support and direction than do learners working away at Levels 2 and 3 or at 4 and 5.

Effective instructors work with learners in ways that will best meet the needs of each stage in self-direction. At the same time, they slowly introduce new approaches and expectations to help the learners move on to the next level of independence.

Read Teaching Different Styles for Different Stages to see:

  • four different teaching styles for four stages of self-direction,
  • strategies to help learners move on the next stage.

Is being a self-directed learner in the classroom different from being a self-directed learner somewhere else?

Ah, there’s the rub!
The whole point of LBS is to equip learners with the skills they need in order to be successful in the real world beyond the program, whether that is as a student in adult credit or college, a trainee in an apprenticeship program, a responsible citizen, a contributing member of a community, or an employee on the job. Since learning is an ongoing, integral part of all these other contexts, we want to be sure that by the time our learners leave the program, they are self-directed enough as learners to be successful participants in whatever comes next. How do we do that?

Click on Becoming Self-Directed in Day-to-Day Life to look at what assists with the transference of self-directed learning skills into real life.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?
What different stages of self-directed learning are evident in your particular group of learners? How well are you able to match your teaching style with the different learning needs?  What specific things can you put in place to help the learners move on towards more independence in learning?


About Learning Styles

Motivation and Retention

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