Helping Learners Take Responsibility for Self-Directed Activities

(Roger Hiemstra)

Chapter Ten in

Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra and Ralph G. Brockett (Editors)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 64, Winter 1994

Jossey-Bass Publishers

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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Dividing the teaching and learning process into a series of micro-components makes it possible to ease the transition to self-directed learning by providing many small and nonthreatening opportunities for learners to make their own decisions.

Helping Learners Take Responsibility for Self-Directed Activities

Roger Hiemstra

Self-direction in learning has been practiced by many adult learners throughout history. One important finding emanating from self-directed learning research during the past twenty-five years has been that most learners prefer to take considerable responsibility for their own learning when given the opportunity. As Tough (1979) found, two-thirds of all adult learning activities are planned by learners themselves. He notes, ''as an individual moves from the age of 10 to adulthood, the proportion of self-planned projects increases, and reliance on a group decreases" (p. 85).

Assuming Personal Control over Learning Efforts

This knowledge that most adult learners desire to assume considerable responsibility has resulted in notions about empowering learners to take personal ownership for their own learning: "Adult learners are capable of taking personal responsibility for their own learning and assuming an increasingly larger role in the instructional process" (Hiemstra, 1992, p. 327). The assumption of more control over the teaching and learning process has had a profound impact on the way some people think about instruction. For example, Knowles (1984) identified several strategies for enhancing an individual's control over the whole learning process. My colleague, Burt Sisco, and I (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990) developed a six-step model for individualizing instruction that involves learners throughout the process.

Many traditional teaching and training situations limit opportunities for such personal involvement. Control over content or process remains in the hands of experts, designers, or teachers who depend primarily on didactic

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or teacher-directed approaches. In essence, they create barriers to learners assuming personal ownership and thereby foster resistance to self-direction in learning.

Many of these educators may not be familiar with the self-directed learning research and knowledge described above. Some have never taken the opportunity to create a personal statement of philosophy that might help them reevaluate or even reconcile the way they teach or train in relation to what they do know about adults as learners (Hiemstra, 1988). Others follow the instructional patterns to which they were exposed as learners. Still others believe they must adhere to the dictates of an organization's policies regarding instructional procedures and approaches.

In my efforts to help teachers or trainers become more aware of the value of learners taking more responsibility and of ways to empower learners to do so, I often hear comments like the following as reasons why they cannot move to self-directed or individualized instruction: "My content requires that I teach in a very structured, linear approach." "There are state licensure requirements for my students and I must ensure that they obtain a certain level of competency over the content areas." "Your approach might work for some learners, but my trainees do not have the skills to make decisions about their learning activities." Brockett and I (1991) refer to this as the all-or-nothing myth.

At face value, such comments appear to have validity for certain instructors, organizations, or circumstances. However, I contend that what is in force here is the inertia that comes from hours and hours of teaching or learning in a fairly teacher-directed approach. To make changes and overcome such inertia takes hard work at times. In addition, such changes usually will not happen overnight. One of my responses to this apparent disparity between what self-direction in learning research has demonstrated and much of current teaching or training practice, and to comments like those described above, has been development of the individualized instructional process described above (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990) .In this process we suggest that there are various ways learners can take responsibility for their own learning without leading to anarchy in the learning setting.

For example, learners are involved in assessing their own learning needs early in the process. This provides them with some initial direction for subsequent planning, securing of resources, and focusing their learning efforts. Learners also take considerable responsibility for determining how their learning efforts will be assessed and they are often personally involved in that assessment effort.

In essence, I believe the process of providing opportunities for learners to assume some control is as important as the actual content being covered in a learning effort. In many cases, it may be more important than the content, because the ever-declining half-life of most knowledge greatly enhances the value of helping learners learn how to learn. Understanding how to learn, secure needed resources, and assess learning progress are skills that will successfully carry most learners through a variety of training or instructional situations.

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Overcoming Resistance to Promoting Self-Direction

Recently I have begun working on new approaches to helping teachers and trainers of adults think about how their students can assume more personal control over learning efforts. If certain instructors have difficulty accepting all aspects of something like the individualized instructional process described above or other teaching approaches that promote self-direction in learning, they may still find aspects of such processes suitable for incorporation in their instructional approach.

Thus, I have started delineating various ways that learners can assume some control of the learning process. The goal is to provide opportunities for adults to become empowered as self-directed learners even if complete control over the content or the learning process is not possible. I hope that presenting my current ideas in this volume will prompt future research, thinking, dialogue, and refinement.

Therefore, this chapter presents a list of microcomponents or aspects potentially existing in any teaching and learning situation. In essence, each microcomponent provides an opportunity where learners can be encouraged or helped to take increasing personal control. Based on my experience as an instructor for nearly thirty years and my understanding of the self-directed learning knowledge base, I believe most adult learners, if they think they have an opportunity to make some choices, will feel increasingly more empowered with subsequent learning endeavors.

I recognize that giving control to learners can lead to the opening of Pandora's box in terms of such issues as learning focus, quality, and instructors' roles. I have not yet wrestled sufficiently with such issues. Nor am I suggesting that every microcomponent can be dealt with in each learning situation.

In addition, what I am proposing will not necessarily make teaching or training any easier. It has been my experience that the process of giving control to learners or helping them take more control often is hard work for teachers, trainers, and instructional designers. But I am convinced the effort is worthwhile. It helps learners develop approaches and skills of much more value than they get by simply acquiring certain knowledge and then somehow demonstrating that such knowledge has been retained over a certain time period.


I used several techniques to extract or develop the microcomponents.

Self-analysis. I analyzed my own teaching, the processes I use, the types of behaviors learners seem to undergo, and the ways adults can be helped to take control of their own learning. This involved studying my teaching evaluations over a couple of semesters, talking with several students about my teaching, and reexamining what I have written about teaching adults in the past several years.

Content analysis of related literature. I carried out an informal content analysis of four books written about teaching adults and five written about self-directed learning to identify some potential microcomponents (Brookfield,

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1986; Cross, 1981; Knowles, 1980; Knox, 1986; Long and Associates, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991; Tough, 1979).

Student assistance. I asked several students in one of my courses to identify what they believed were aspects or parts of the teaching and learning process where learners could assume some control of what took place. Working first individually and then in small groups they identified several components, many of which are incorporated into this chapter.

Initial drafting of ideas. I synthesized the information gathered to this point and developed an initial list of microcomponents. In this process I sought discrete items, clarified the wording, and developed them into a sequential framework.

Collegial assistance. Once I had assembled the first draft of microcomponents I asked two colleagues knowledgeable about individualized instruction and self-directed learning to critique my initial work. They then offered various improvement suggestions, ideas about additional components, and notions about how to portray the set of microcomponents.

Public presentation and feedback. I presented the material at a public session of the Seventh International Symposium on Adult Self-Directed Learning at West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1993. I received various refinement suggestions and ideas from several participants.

Since then, I have continued to refine the list as I obtained new ideas and understandings about teaching and learning. The result thus far is a list of seventy-eight microcomponents pertaining to the teaching and learning process where learners can assume some control. They are grouped under the following headings: Assessing Needs; Setting Goals; Specifying Learning Content; Pacing the Learning; Choosing Instructional Methods, Techniques, and Devices; Controlling the Learning Environment; Promoting Introspection, Reflection, and Critical Thinking; Instructor's and Trainer's Roles; and Evaluating the Learning.

Exhibit 10.1 contains the microcomponents displayed as a checklist that interested teachers can use to determine how they could give learners more control.

I have begun the process of delineating ways learners can take increasing responsibility for various microcomponents. For example, it may be impossible for an interested trainer to allow trainees to specify the learning or instructional objectives (2.1) because such objectives are preset by the organization. However, the trainee could use a learning contract (2.4) to make individual choices on how to achieve the objectives, choices that would build on certain preferences for what to study, the kind of products to develop, or the way mastery will be evaluated.

As an another example, an adult education teacher might believe that the content to be covered must be sequenced in a particular manner (3.2) to ensure that subsequent learning is based on needed precursor knowledge. The learner, though, could make various choices related to the pace of the learning. For instance, choices could be made that teacher presentations were made

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Exhibit 10.1. Aspects of the Learning Process Over Which Learners Can Assume Some Control

1. Assessing Needs

_____ 1.1 Choosing among various individualized techniques

_____ 1.2 Deciding whether to use group techniques

_____ 1.3 Choosing how needs information is reported

_____ 1.4 Choosing how needs information is used

2. Setting Goals

_____ 2.1 Deciding on specific learning objectives

_____ 2.2 Choosing the nature of any learning experience

. . . . .  _____ 2.2.1 Deciding between competency or mastery learning and pleasure or interest learning

. . . . .  _____ 2.2.2 Deciding on the types of questions to be asked and answered during learning efforts

. . . . .  _____ 2.2.3 Choosing the emphases to be placed on use and application of the acquired knowledge or skill

_____ 2.3 Deciding whether to change objectives during the learning experience

_____ 2.4 Deciding whether to use learning contracts

. . . . .  _____ 2.4.1 Choosing among various learning options

. . . . .  _____ 2.4.2 Choosing how to achieve objectives

3. Specifying Learning Content

_____ 3.1 Choosing among varied levels of difficulty

_____ 3.2 Choosing a sequence for the introduction of learning material

_____ 3.3 Choosing the types of knowledge (psychomotor, cognitive, affective) to be acquired

_____ 3.4 Deciding on emphasizing the acquisition of theory versus practice or application activities

_____ 3.5 Deciding on a level of competency to be acquired

_____ 3.6 Deciding on actual content areas to be learned

. . . . .  _____ 3.6.1 Deciding on financial or other costs involved in a learning effort

. . . . .  _____ 3.6.2 Deciding on the help, resources, or experiences required for the content

_____ 3.7 Choosing the learning content priorities

_____ 3.8 Deciding on the major planning type, such as self, a group or its leader, an expert, or a nonhuman resource

4. Pacing the Learning

_____ 4.1 Choosing the amount of time to be devoted to teacher presentations

_____ 4.2 Choosing the amount of time to be spent on teacher-to-learner interactions

_____ 4.3 Choosing the amount of time to be spent on learner-to-learner interactions

_____ 4.4 Choosing the amount of time to be spent on individualized learning activities

_____ 4.5 Choosing the pace of movement through learning experiences

_____ 4.6 Deciding when to complete parts or all of the activities

5. Selecting the Instructional Methods, Techniques, and Devices

_____ 5.1 Deciding among options for technological support and instructional devices

_____ 5.2 Deciding on the instructional method or technique to be used

_____ 5.3 Choosing the type of learning resources to be used

_____ 5.4 Choosing the appropriate learning modality (sight, sound, touch, and so on)

_____ 5.5 Deciding among opportunities for learner-to-learner, learner-to-teacher, small group, or large group discussion

6. Controlling the Learning Environment

_____ 6.1 Deciding how to manipulate various physical or environmental features

_____ 6.2 Deciding how to deal with emotional or psychological impediments

_____ 6.3 Choosing how to confront social and cultural barriers

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_____ 6.4 Deciding how to match personal learning style preferences with informational presentations

7. Promoting  Introspection, Reflection, and Critical Thinking

_____ 7.1 Choosing how to interpret theory

_____ 7.2 Deciding on means for reporting or recording critical reflections

_____ 7.3 Deciding whether to use reflective-practitioner techniques

_____ 7.4 Deciding whether to undertake decision-making, problem solving, and policy formulation activities

_____ 7.5 Choosing how to clarify newly acquired ideas

_____ 7.6 Choosing how to apply newly acquired information

8. Instructor's or Trainer's Role

_____ 8.1 Deciding on the role or nature of any didactic (lecturing) presentations

_____ 8.2 Deciding on the role or nature of any socratic (questioning) techniques to be used

_____ 8.3 Deciding on the role or nature of any facilitative procedures used to guide the learning process

9. Evaluating the Learning

_____ 9.1 Choosing the use and type of any testing

. . . . .  _____ 9.1.1 Choosing the nature and use of any reviewing activities

. . . . .  _____ 9.1.2 Choosing the nature and use of any practice testing activities

. . . . .  _____ 9.1.3 Choosing the nature and use of any retesting activities

. . . . .  _____ 9.1.4 Choosing how tests will be used in any required grading

. . . . .  _____ 9.1.5 Deciding on the weight given to any test results

_____ 9.2 Choosing the type of feedback to be used

. . . . .  _____ 9.2.1 Deciding on the type of feedback provided to learners by an instructor

. . . . .  _____ 9.2.2 Deciding on the type of learner's feedback provided to the instructor

_____ 9.3 Choosing the means used for validating achievements

_____ 9.4 Choosing the nature of learning outcomes

. . . . .  _____ 9.4.1 Choosing the type of any final products

. . . . . . . . . . ._____ Deciding how evidence of learning is reported or presented

. . . . . . . . . . ._____ Deciding how to revise and resubmit final products

. . . . . . . . . . ._____ Choosing the nature of any written products

. . . . .  _____ 9.4.2 Deciding on the weight given to final products

. . . . .  _____ 9.4.3 Choosing the level of practicality for any learning outcomes

. . . . . . . . . . ._____ Deciding how to relate learning to current or future employment

. . . . . . . . . . ._____ Choosing how to propose knowledge application ideas

. . . . .  _____ 9.4.4 Choosing the nature of the benefits from any learning

. . . . . . . . . . ._____ Deciding how to propose immediate benefits versus long-term benefits

. . . . . . . . . . ._____ Deciding how to seek various types of benefits, such as pleasure, occupational enhancement, or acquisition of new skills

_____ 9.5 Choosing the nature of any follow-up evaluation

. . . . .  _____ 9.5.1 Choosing how knowledge can be maintained

. . . . .  _____ 9.5.2 Choosing how concepts are applied

. . . . .  _____ 9.5.3 Choosing how to review material

. . . . .  _____ 9.5.4 Choosing how to follow up on new learning

_____ 9.6 Choosing how to exit a learning experience and return later if appropriate

_____ 9.7 Deciding on the type of grading used or completion rewards to be received

_____ 9.8 Choosing the nature of any evaluation of instructor and learning experience

_____ 9.9 Choosing the type of learning contract validation

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only during the first half of any class session (4.1) and the latter half devoted to small group work (4.3) or individual study (4.4).

It is my expectation that the microcomponent framework, when it is better understood and refined, will help many learners and teachers or trainers overcome some of their resistance to self-direction in learning. However, this is work in progress and more effort on delineating the components and how they can be used by learners is required. Your feedback, ideas, critique, and comments are welcome.


Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. Self-Direction in Adult Learning: Perspectives on Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1991.

Brookfield, S. D. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Candy, P. C. Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Cross, K. P. Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981.

Hiemstra, R. "Translating Personal Values and Philosophy into Practical Action." In R. G. Brockett (ed.), Ethical Issues in Adult Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.

Hiemstra, R. "Individualizing the Instructional Process: What We Have learned from Two Decades of Research on Self-Direction in Learning." In H. B. Long and Associates, Self-Directed Learning: Application and Research. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1992.

Hiemstra, R., and Sisco, B. Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. (Revised ed.) New York: Cambridge, 1980.

Knowles, M. S. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. (3rd ed.) Houston: Gulf, 1984.

Knox, A. B. Helping Adults Learn: A Guide to Planning, Implementing, and Conducting Programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Long, H. B., and Associates. Self-Directed Learning: Application and Theory. Athens: Lifelong Learning Research/Publication Project, Department of Adult Education, University of Georgia, 1988.

Long, H. B., and Associates. Self-Directed Learning: Emerging Theory and Practice. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1989.

Long, H. B., and Associates. Advances in Research and Practice in Self-Directed Learning. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1990.

Long, H. B., and Associates. Self-Directed Learning: Consensus and Conflict. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1991.

Tough, A. M. The Adult's Learning Projects. (2nd ed.) Austin, Tex.: Learning Concepts, 1979.


Roger Hiemstra is past professor of adult education and chair of the adult education graduate program at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, and currently is professor and chair of adult education at Elmira College, Elmira, New York.

June, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven or The Index.