Self-Directed Learning: Present and Future

Roger Hiemstra (Feel free to send me an electronic message with your comments, suggestions, etc.)

Professor Emeritus, Syracuse, NY

(Residing in Fayetteville, NY)

John Burns

Robert Burns, Inc., Liverpool, New York

A paper delivered at the First World Conference on Self-Directed Learning, September 14-17, 1997, Montreal, Canada


In recent years, many studies have been made of the way people approach learning. This current research looks further at learning by examining self-directed preferences in the workplace. This is important to obtain a greater understanding of self-directedness and its practical applications for improved workplace learning. One of the things we know is that learners fall somewhere along a linear scale of preferences toward self-direction and preferences toward learning through the direction of others. A related area of understanding is that learners also fall somewhere along another linear scale pertaining to problem solving orientation. One end represents preferences toward solving problems independently and the other represents those who prefer solving problems within a group setting. We believe the way people make changes is associated with the way they approach learning and the solution of problems. We are in the process of developing an instrument to assess how these approaches or preferences coalesce to create various individual change styles. Our presentation describes a growing understanding of these styles and what this means for future ways of helping individuals deal with learning and changes in the workplace.

Key words: Self-directed learning, problem solving, change styles


An aspect of our lives undergoing perhaps the most change today is the workplace. We may never again see the day when a person started working for an organization and then had an opportunity of working there for 30 or more years. Today, most change jobs and even careers several times in their lifetime. This means that we often are in transition and there are various learning implications.

This constancy of change is very real. Deems (1995) talks about it this way:

"Increasingly, instead of having a "career," a worker essentially contracts with a company to perform a set of tasks. Once those tasks--and the worker's assignment--are completed, the worker negotiates another contract with perhaps a different company for a new set of tasks. What will the eventual impact be? We can't know for sure, but what we do know is that the way work gets done is changing." (p. 23)

Much of this change has been fueled by the need for companies in the U.S. to remain competitive within a global economy. The results for such organizations as they go through their own transitions have included various kinds of change or problem solving needs. What is not yet clear is the impact this will have on morale and even further disempowerment of some workers (Filipczak, 1995).

There also is a continuing stress on obtaining higher quality product or service at the lowest possible cost. Total quality management remains the most active workplace trend, with transitions to team-based structures close behind (Workplace Trends, 1995). Total quality improvement, while on the surface benefitting consumers, often results in the need for considerable extra training, increased employee workloads, and a constant need for employees to be involved in frequent problem solving activities.

The notion of more for less has even impacted the way some managers think about which employees are trained for what areas: "To stay successful, you need value-added services, so everything needs to be evaluated. . . . Management wants to know what value training adds to the business equation" (Gyrus Systems, 1996, p. 1).

Education and training remains very big business for most organizations. Minoli (1996) notes that the U.S. corporate training market alone is estimated to be a $100-billion-a-year business, with upwards of 35 million individuals receiving formal, employer-sponsored education each year. Others put that estimate at more than 52 billion dollars a year (Training Budgets, 1995). Unfortunately, the "doing more with less" theme that seems prevalent today in the workplace has meant employing some training techniques that may be problematic in the long run, such as large numbers in training sessions, shorter training periods, and more technology-directed training packages (Hequet, 1995).

There are some positive benefits from the total quality movement and these other workplace initiatives. Self-directed work teams and efforts to give employees a greater say in the management or operation of companies have increased (Orsburn, Moran, Musselwhite, and Zenger, 1990). Companies like Xerox, Proctor & Gamble, Ben & Jerry Ice Cream, Motorola, L. L. Bean, and Domino's pizza have won awards or received numerous accolades for their efforts in excellence, quality, and learner empowerment. Richard Durr, a manager of training for Motorola, notes that the success of implementing self-directed learning at his company has been very valuable in moving each employee toward "becoming an empowered lifelong learner" (1995, p. 343).

The educational implications of such new views and learning attitudes are numerous. Some organizations will find new markets for existing programs aimed at educating adults. Many organizations can redesign existing efforts to meet emerging educational needs related to workplace transitions. These will range from creating new workplace programs on such topics as change or problem solving to redesigning existing programs. Opportunities also exist for new partnerships between various employers and education providers. There even will be increasing opportunities for adult education and training consultants to build programs for specialized needs, such as the relationship between self-directed learning preferences and problem solving orientations.

Unfortunately, there are many potential problems associated with changes in the workplace:

* Reduced feelings of self-worth - Many adults tie much of their identity to a career or job. An unexpected workplace change may cause for some people a loss of morale, lowered confidence, and diminished employer-employee relationships.

* Less organizational cohesiveness - Some people remaining in a workplace during times of reorganization or change may experience confusion, loss of friendships, and reduced confidence in central management.

* Loss of service to clients or customers - Frequently, in any organizational change, clients can experience disruptions in service or other types of inconveniences. This, in turn, can create feelings of helplessness among employees and even experience with customer anger or hostility.

* Less trust of management - It is not unusual for employees to develop cynical views of administration or even managers, themselves, during the stress associated with workplace changes. This can feed on itself to the point that even supportive managers are suspected of ulterior motives in any decision they make.

* Increased incidence of dysfunctional employees - There have been horror stories in the popular press of disgruntled former employees coming back to the workplace and creating violent acts after some action that affected them. Other employees during times of change may require special counseling or medical support.

* Increased estrangement between employer and employee - There have been incidences where employees are laid off without advance warning and literally escorted from a building by security out of management's fear that they could do damage to computer systems, assembly lines, or paper files. Remaining employees experience declining morale, distrust in management, and fear of losing a job with no advance warning.

Such issues usually do not lead to positive results for those in the middle of workplace transitions, at least not initially. The human spirit and those inner resources most people carry around with them usually help in their rebounding and even eventually counting their blessings when they look back later on the stressful situation that had existed in their workplace. But there are educational implications in terms of helping make such change easier both on the individual and on those organizations involved.

Thus, those of us interested in adult education, training, and human resource development need whatever tools we can find to help employees deal with change and the constant need for problem solving activities. This paper looks at learning and its relationship to change or problem solving by examining self-directed preferences in the workplace. We explore some previous research and reexamine these findings to better understand self-directedness and its practical applications for improved workplace learning. We also describe our current effort to develop a new instrument for better measuring both self-directedness and problem solving orientation.


To gain a better understanding of self-directed learning in workplace settings, nation-wide research was conducted in 1991 with members of the Professional Society for Sales and Marketing Training (Burns, 1995). Over 200 training professionals in 150 U.S. and Canadian companies contributed their opinions. The intent was to identify, from their perspective, the most useful and differentiating characteristics which enable salespeople to assume responsibility for their own learning.

In the study, training and management professionals were asked to rate 43 items on a questionnaire and thus identify those characteristics they believed to be most useful in acquiring and applying knowledge in both job and training situations. Data were factor analyzed to identify the underlying dimensions. A six factor orthogonal rotation offered the most conceptually meaningful solution. The individual survey items were grouped in six factor structures representing the dynamics of self-directed learning in a work setting situation.

Factor One, "Charismatic Organizational Player," focuses on positive personality traits, self-motivation, and drive as well as cooperation with peers and others and positive orientation to the working environment.

Factor Two, "Responsible Consumption," relates to (a) systematic and applied learning, and (b) appreciation and enjoyment of the learning process.

Factor Three, "Feedback and Reflection," related to learning from failures and successes, evaluating personal performance and understanding personal strengths.

Factor Four, "Seeking and Applying," involves taking initiative in finding answers, applying information learned to a personal situation, looking for opportunities to improve, and searching for information to solve problems.

Factor Five, "Assertive Learning Behavior," involves directing classroom discussion, expressing personal opinions, and challenging instructor's opinions.

Factor Six, "Information Gathering," relates to information gathering through interaction with others, but with a specific utilization or application of the information.

In this research self-directed learning was closely linked to two inter-dependent dimensions of individual preferences, learning attitude and problem solving orientation. Three factors, Charismatic Organizational Player, Responsible Consumption, and Assertive Learning Behavior, provide characteristics related to an individual's learning attitude or inclination toward self-directed learning. Three factors, Responsible Consumption, Seeking and Applying, and Information Gathering, relate to an individual's problem solving orientation.

These characteristics, as well as others found in the literature, provide insight about self-directed learning and problem solving characteristics. While it can be assumed there are various degrees of self-directedness and interdependence, limited information is available regarding those who are other-directed or dependent problem solvers. For this reason, it was necessary to construct corresponding characteristics. The result was development of two scales.

Learning Attitude

Learners, to varying degrees, either prefer to learn independently or to learn with the help and cooperation of others. An Independent or Self Oriented Learner frequently (a) shows self-reliance in finding information, (b) takes a leadership role in group learning activities, (c) keeps up with changes, (d) sets personal learning goals, (e) enjoys learning by self, (f) prefers structuring personal learning, (g) finds time for learning, (h) accepts feedback and criticism, (i) takes control of personal learning, (j) sets personal learning approaches, (k) seeks out learning opportunities, and (l) enjoys solving learning problems by self.

Conversely, an Other Oriented Learner frequently (a) asks others for direction, (b) participates comfortably in group learning activities when asked or required, (c) prefers learning with peers, (d) prefers a facilitator to provide structure for learning, (e) frequently is too busy to learn new things, (f) is sensitive to feedback and criticism, (h) enjoys interacting with a facilitator in learning, (i) prefers others to set learning goals, (j) seeks direction in determining learning possibilities, and (k) looks for help in solving learning problems.

Problem Solving Orientation

Learners frequently either enjoy solving problems to their own satisfaction or are motivated by their success within a group. An Independently Oriented Problem Solver tends to (a) evaluate personal performance, (b) take initiative in finding answers, (c) apply information learned to solve personal problems, (d) sets personal direction in solving problems, (e) look for opportunities to find answers, (f) ask questions frequently, (g) be receptive to new information and ideas, (h) use personal knowledge to solve problems, (i) take initiative in soliciting feedback, (j) prefer setting personal goals, (k) prefer creating an orderly system, and (l) prefer setting personal deadlines.

Conversely, an Interdependently Oriented Problem Solver tends to (a) like having personal performance evaluated by others, (b) like help finding answers, (c) like managers to solve problems that emerge, (d) prefer following directions in solving problems, (e) like management to provide answers, (f) ask questions only when necessary, (g) learn about new information as directed, (h) use product or technical knowledge to solve problems, (i) prefer feedback to come from a manager, (j) prefer working with others in setting goals, (k) prefer working within a system, and (l) prefer working with others in setting deadlines.

Four Patterns

Four patterns or combinations of the two dimensions could be observed in the behavior of employees within a business organization (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Change Styles

Seekers Performers Participators Supporters

Independently Oriented <------------------------------------------------><---------------------------------> Interdependently Oriented

Self-Directed <------------------------------------------------><---------------------------------> Other-Directed


This includes those who are "Self-Directed and Independent." They have high inclinations toward self-directed learning and a high problem solving orientation. These individuals possess a strong preference for solving problems on their own and also are inclined to assume primary responsibility for their personal learning.


This includes those who are also "Self-Directed and Independent. They have somewhat high inclinations toward self-directed learning and a somewhat high problem solving orientation. Like the Seekers, these individuals have a good problem solving orientation and are predisposed to assuming some responsibility for their own learning. However, their independence and self-directedness is not as strong as it is for the seekers.


This includes people who are "Other-Directed and Interdependent." They have a somewhat high inclination toward other-directed learning and a somewhat low problem solving orientation. They possess some preferences toward learning and solving problems with the help and involvement of others.


This includes those who are "Other-Directed and Interdependent. They have a high inclination toward other-directed learning but often a low problem solving orientation. Individuals in this category have a strong preference toward participation in learning activities established by managers, trainers, and others, and prefer others to provide leadership in solving on-the-job problems.

Change Styles in a Team Situation and Interaction Among the Styles

In today's changing work climate, individuals seldom work alone. In teams, groups, and organizations, almost everyone works for someone, works with others, and may supervise and lead others. As teams, groups, and individuals learn their way through change, those who are highly self-directed may learn under their personal direction, but the results of their learning and problems solving will be utilized in the context of a group. Conversely, those who are other-directed have to take increased responsibility for their personal learning and problem solving if the group is to respond effectively to the increased rate of change.

In the team or group environment each style must move to a position of "cooperation." For true cooperation, individual preferences have to be addressed. At the same time, if the team or group is to be successful those who are other-directed and interdependent must be encouraged to take on increased responsibility and become more self-directed. Those who are highly self-directed must make a greater effort to understand those who are more dependent and/or other-directed.

In any team situation, Seekers and Performers bring good ideas and problem solving skills to the group. They need, however, to be able to understand the group's expectations in order to be most effective in group settings. Participators and Supporters, on the other hand, can be very supportive and committed to team activities, but may need to become more self-directed and independent in order to maximize their effectiveness and contribute to the group.

Self-Directed Learning Training and Motivational Strategies

While it can be assumed there are different types of learners in terms of their willingness and ability to assume responsibility for their personal learning and decision making, it can also be assumed that it would be appropriate to utilize different strategies to meet the needs of people with different styles and to help them work in a cooperative team environment. Following are some suggested strategy profiles.


These individuals prefer to solve their own problems and are inclined to search out learning on their own. Their independence, however, might be a challenge in group settings. As such the best strategy would be to clearly communicate expectations and then simply encourage and reinforce their efforts by introducing learning opportunities and providing resources.

Effective techniques for leading and training Seekers would involve encouraging written goals, delegating responsibilities to them, encouraging exploration, creating challenging situations, encouraging personal empowerment, providing access to experts, mentoring, and contracting. Developmental strategies to enhance their effectiveness in team and group situations would include periodic meetings to discuss expectations and progress, encouragement to involve others in their problem solving and decision making activities, and involvement in group brainstorming activities.

Strategies for Performers

These individuals have preferences similar to Seekers. However, they would be somewhat more open to help from others in learning activities and solving problems.

An effective coaching strategy would, therefore, have to be flexible to encourage the use of their learning and problem solving skills while supporting their involvement in teams and groups. Goals, challenging situations, stretch assignments, opportunities for independent study, and other techniques appropriate for Seekers could also be successfully used to motivate and coach Performers.

Strategies for Participators

These individuals have some preference for sharing responsibility with others in problem solving situations and prefer that others assist them at least to some extent in the structuring of their learning activities. A flexible motivational strategy is recommended. Efforts should be aimed at encouraging their group activities while encouraging them to become more self-directed and independent.

Leading, training, and developing approaches would include detailed instructions and expectations, readily available learning resources, structured stretch assignments, access to correct answers or best solutions, and activities to encourage individual empowerment over time.

Strategies for Supporters

Typically, these individuals have been very successful in an "other-directed environment." They are not use to independence and may even fear it. For this reason, an extensive amount of management, direction, and training would be necessary before these individuals could be effectively empowered to learn or solve problems on their own. Conversely, they are typically very adaptive to team settings and should be recognized for their commitment and involvement.

An effective coaching strategy would involve thorough and specific direction with trainer/manager follow-up. Emphasis on group or team problem solving in classroom or heavily structured distance learning settings would be helpful. For example, new employees and trainees could fall into this group since they frequently require more structured instruction than more experienced people. Leading, training, and developing strategies would include structured training, frequent reward for success, modeling, and continuous encouragement for independent activities.


We are in the process of developing an instrument to assess how the self-directed and problem solving approaches or preferences described above coalesce to create various individual change styles. We anticipate that increased knowledge about such styles will be useful in the future as teachers or trainers find ways of better helping individuals deal with learning and changes in the workplace and other settings.

The working name of this instrument is the "Change Styles Questionnaire (contact Dr. John Burns for more information about the instrument)." We initially pulled a pool of potential questions from research described earlier (Burns, 1995), from the literature, and from an informal panel of scholars knowledgeable about self-directed learning and problem solving. This resulted in more than 60 questions.

Together we culled that to 48 questions through a couple of brainstorming sessions where we examined wording, looked for duplication, and sought to balance a potential instrument in terms of equal numbers of items related to self-directed learning and to problem solving.

We decided on a style for the instrument and to use a seven-point Likert scale. We asked a colleague experienced in instrument design to examine a next draft of the instrument that incorporated the 48 items and the Likert scale. After examination he made a few wording changes and recommended we change the items to have opposite stems on either side of the Likert scale as a means of communicating the intent of each item more clearly.

We revised the instrument based on those recommendations and then distributed it to 10 colleagues around the country who had prior research experience with self-directed learning and 10 colleagues who had not had such experience. This latter group was selected as a pilot group. Eight of the first group responded and seven of the second group. We asked the first group to not only complete the instrument, but also to critique it in any way the deemed appropriate.

The results from the critique and from the actual responses were examined. We made some wording changes based on suggestions or from the nature of the data (incomplete items, comments in the margin, and items typically answered with the same response among most respondents). One common suggestion from those critquing it was that it was too long. Thus, we carried out a simple item analysis looking for items that were duplicative or items with difficult or awkward wording.

The result was a 24-item version plus a page we included with six demographic or background questions. We also added a statement requesting that people add any comments they cared to make. This version was completed by six additional people and those results prompted a couple of minor wording changes.

The current version (it will be distributed during the conference to session participants) now has been administered to approximately 50 people. We have fully completed returns from 44 people and are compiling the results in a data base. Sixteen of these were participants in a basic jobs training program and 28 were participants in two different manufacturing organizations' training programs. Results from the 28 instruments have been used as discussional material within the training programs.

Our long range intent is to build a data base that can be used to inform trainers in terms of helping participants understand how self-directed learning preferences and problem solving orientations impact on performance in a group setting. We also intend to modify the instrument as it is needed based on the results from these initial administrations. We anticipate being able to employ more sophisticated quantitative analysis techniques to the instrument and results as we build a larger data base. We will appreciate any comments or feedback that you care to provide during or after the conference.


We believe that acquiring a better understanding of each person's self-directed learning preference and their problem solving orientation will be helpful in the design of future educational programs. From our preliminary research it appears there are four change styles, although unique distinctions for each style are not yet as clear as we would like given the data we have collected thus far. More research with a variety of audiences is still needed.

Thus far from our intuitive assessments, our discussion with employees, themselves, and the data gathered we have been able to suggest several characteristics that appear associated with each style. However, we still need to carry out some statistical analyses before we can make definitive statements. We have been able already to design some preliminary training segments that help individuals deal with learning needs and many of the changes occurring in the workplace.

Your suggestions are welcome as we march down this path of creating a new instrument for measuring some aspect of self-directedness. Having a means to assess two different but apparently related dimensions with one instrument will be helpful for teachers, trainers, and researchers. We welcome dialogue with you! (send an electronic message with your comments, suggestions, etc..)


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Clark, R. L. (1994). The decision to retire: Economic factors and population trends. In Monk, A. (Ed.), The Columbia retirement handbook (pp. 31-43). New York: Columbia University Press.

DEEMS, R. S. (1995). Making change work for you! How to handle organizational change. West Des Moines, IA: American Media Publishing.

DURR, R. (1995). Integration of self-directed learning into the learning process at Motorola. In H. B. LONG AND ASSOCIATES, New dimensions in self-directed learning (pp. 335-343). Norman, OK: Public Managers Center, University of Oklahoma

FILIPCZAK, B. (1995). I have to what? Training: The Human Side of Business, 32(12), pp. 30-34.

GYRUS SYSTEMS, INC. (1996). Training in the fast lane. Nexus, Winter, 1 & 4.

HEQUET, M. (1995). Doing more with less. Training: The Human Side of Business, 32(10), 77-82.

MINOLI, D. (1996). Distance learning technologies and applications. Norwood, MA: Artech House, Inc.

ORSBURN, J. D., MORAN, L., MUSSELWHITE, E., AND ZENGER, J. H. (1990). Self-directed work teams: The new American challenge. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin.

TRAINING BUDGETS. (1995). Training: The Human Side of Business, 32(10), 41-48.

WORKPLACE TRENDS. (1995). Training: The Human Side of Business, 32(10), 69-74.


January 1, 2002

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