Resources Related to Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Learning

(Huey B. Long)

Chapter Two


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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Several key resources related to resistance and self-direction in learning are highlighted.

Resources Related to Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Learning

Huey B. Long

Formal recognition of, and planning for, self-direction in learning (SDL) often constitutes a significant change in educational approaches. As a result, a high degree of intimidation is associated with its introduction to individuals who have no previous SDL experience. Thus, fear of the unknown, along with a reasonable satisfaction with the status quo, contributes to resistance. While the primary purpose of this chapter is to identify and report some resources that may contain helpful suggestions and ideas about overcoming resistance to SDL, several corollary objectives exist. In order to identify the literature, and to take appropriate action to overcome resistance, some parameters concerning the topic need to be established. Therefore, the following content is of three kinds. First, an effort is made to clarify critical terminology. Second, comments are made about theoretical aspects of resistance. Third, three dimensions of resistance are discussed briefly. A listing of selected resources is followed by a concluding comment.


In the chapter title, the terms overcome, resistance, and self-direction in learning require clarification. The third term is defined first and then the other two are defined in order.

Self-direction in learning as defined by the editors is as follows: "Self-direction in learning refers to both the external characteristics of an instructional process and the internal characteristics of the learner where the individual

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assumes primary responsibility for a learning experience" (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991, p. 24). While this writer does not believe that self-direction in learning is always associated with the external aspects of the instructional process, the definition above does not significantly affect the content of this chapter. My definition, as generally used, focuses on the learner's psychological processes that are purposively and consciously controlled, or directed, for the purpose of gaining knowledge and understanding, solving problems, and developing or strengthening a skill. Instructional activities may either facilitate or inhibit the process, but not necessarily cause or prevent it. In addition, SDL is frequently associated with goal setting, identification and selection of resources, and time management. Both definitions, however, address the implication that the learner engages in reflection, assessment, and evaluation as opposed to routinely and automatically accepting and internalizing information. Accordingly, SDL can occur in a classroom full of other learners as well as in a solitary model. Related terms include self-regulated learning and self-planned learning.

The words overcome and resistance each have their connotations. Overcome has three connotations: to conquer or defeat, to surmount or prevail over, and to overpower or exhaust. In the vernacular, overcome is endowed with a more active meaning than resistance. Resistance is defined as a force that opposes or retards. Even though resistance is frequently used in a negative way it also may have positive connotations. Consequently, as noted in Klein's (1969) chapter annotated below, resistance may be perceived as being "bad" or "good."

Thus, using the above definitions, overcoming resistance to SDL refers to removing or overpowering a force (resistance) that opposes or interferes with individuals' efforts to manifest responsibility and control over the learning process. Note that resistance is defined as an active construct rather a passive absence of something. This connotation of resistance is best understood in the framework of physics where resistance is conceptualized as a force such as friction that inhibits motion. Resistance to SDL may be analogous to the difficulty of launching a rocket into a space orbit. Thousands of pounds of thrust (energy) are required to overcome gravity. Metaphorically, the learner who resists self-direction in learning is anchored in an experience bounded by similar forces.

Some of the forces that retard the application and pursuit of self-directed learning are discussed in the following pages prior to the identification of resources. Three aspects of resistance are discussed below, as follows: locus of resistance, common sources of resistance, and strategies to overcome resistance.

Locus of Resistance

Resistance to SDL may be found in organizational structures and procedures, as well as among educators and trainers, and also among learners. As would be expected, the nature of resistance may vary among the three locations of resistance. Most of the literature concerning overcoming resistance focuses on the learner's resistance.

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Organizations. Major organizations such as corporations, public schools, and higher education institutions have a long history of fostering dependent approaches to learning. These approaches are reflected by instructional techniques that emphasize recall, repetition, and memorization. Such organizations tend to prescribe roles for teachers, trainers, and professors so as to emphasize relationships and behaviors that intentionally limit learner initiatives. Whenever SDL is perceived to modify the traditional structure, personal roles, and status, resistance to it is common. An organization designed around passive learning practices will also be inclined to resist SDL as incompatible with its systems for grading and evaluating student progress.

Educators and Trainers. Educators and trainers are another source of resistance in the learner-teacher transaction. Their resistance emerges from several sources, including the tendency to prefer the familiar over the unfamiliar and the commitment to traditional platform instruction. Yet, the issue of control seems to be the major conceptual obstacle, or stated differently, the major source of resistance to the application of SDL. Lack of knowledge about SDL also leads educators and trainers to raise questions concerning their ability to apply SDL techniques.

Learners. Resistance to change is not limited to educators and trainers and organizations. Learners themselves are often as resistant to adopting SDL as their teachers. Hence, organizations, educators and trainers, and learners often constitute a powerful coalition to oppose SDL. Durr (1994) proposes that each of the above sources of resistance may operate from previously established paradigms that provide guidelines for behavior (Barker, 1988). It is implied that individuals will have to undergo a paradigm shift in order to become more accepting of SDL. Learners have multiple reasons for opposing SDL. After several years in school, learners (children and adults) adjust their paradigms to fit in with the system's paradigms. They also learn that didactic instruction that requires little or no thinking rewards passive, accepting memorization. Thus, reluctance to depart from past practice is coupled with fear of the unknown. More about resistance located within the learner is found in the resources identified in the following pages.

Common Sources of Resistance and Strategies to Overcome Them

Resistance to self-direction in learning is not limited to the location where it is found, as discussed above. It also seems to be rooted in some common human sources. Opposition to SDL may be described as emerging from emotions, understanding, and values.

Emotionally based resistance emerges from fear of the unknown, uncertainty about how to engage in SDL, and lack of confidence in one's ability to engage in a new kind of learning activity. An increasing body of literature is emerging that suggests willingness to engage in self-direction in learning is associated with self-efficacy. According to this hypothesis, the likelihood of

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engaging in self-direction in learning is positively associated with an individual's personal assessment of competence in given areas. Cognitive resistance is fueled by an existing paradigm of learning and an absence of knowledge about the meaning and processes of SDL. Currently, a variety of conceptualizations and definitions guide the offering of self-directed learning opportunities. Some of these may be meaningless and subsequently may be rejected. For example, self-directed learning is sometimes associated with pathological overemphasis on individualism, which limits its acceptability in group learning situations. Finally; at least as currently perceived by a number of individuals, pedagogical and other values may conflict with some concepts of SDL.

A variety of strategies may be employed to encourage SDL in existing organizations. These strategies may be informed by different social science change strategies. Kurt Lewin's (1951) Force Field theory appears to be basic to many strategies. In essence, this strategy employs techniques designed to reduce the negative forces while simultaneously strengthening positive forces. As noted above, most learners and agents are more comfortable with the status quo. According to Lewinian theory, the status quo is the result of a balance between negative and positive forces. Hence, a change strategy must include awareness of some of the more powerful negative and positive forces that sustain the status quo of passive approaches to learning. Melioration strategies may be useful. See Grow (1991) for an example of this kind of strategy. Grow demonstrates an awareness that it may be difficult to move radically from a learning history based on passive approaches to more active SDL. Durr (1994) reports a strategy used in selected divisions of Motorola, Inc. to introduce self-directed learning procedures. Hiemstra and Sisco (1990) also counsel patience in the introduction and adoption of SDL.

Resources on Resistance to Self-Direction in Learning

The following constitutes only a small part of the literature available on overcoming resistance to self-direction in learning. The literature is extremely varied and voluminous. Works on the topic are found in Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) reprints (identifiable in reference lists by "ED" followed by a six-digit number), adult education journals, business management journals, training literature, childhood education materials, and in a number of books published over the past twenty-five years.

The list could easily be doubled without diminishing the quality of the material. Therefore, three major criteria guided the selection: each item chosen contributed to the impression of breadth or variety of subjects and institutions, or demonstrated the range of publications or the diversity of discipline interest. Finally, when an item appeared in two places, the more comprehensive source was preferred. A major problem in the identification of resources was caused by the failure of two key concepts to be mutually exclusive. Procedures designed to enhance, develop, and strengthen SDL in some cases may also be ways of overcoming resistance to SDL. The former connotes a level of

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acceptance combined with lack of ability or knowledge of how to engage in self-directed learning. In contrast, the latter seems to address some kind of active resistance. Writers cited below do not always make such a distinction between the two conceptualizations.

Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1977.

Bandura proposes a triadic reciprocal causation model of human behavior that provides some suggestions on how to overcome resistance to self-directed learning. According to the model, an individual is influenced by the interaction of his or her internal states, behavior, and environment. The construct of self-efficacy is a powerful force in the model. Furthermore, Bandura describes four major influences acting on self-efficacy: successful performance, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion such as praise, and emotional physiological arousal. See J. E. Jones (1994) for an application of Bandura's model.

Barell, J., Liebmann, R., and Sigel, I. "Fostering Thoughtful Self-Direction in Students." Educational Leadership, 1988, 45(1), 14-17.

Barell and his colleagues provide some grade-specific suggestions for elementary and secondary schoolteachers. They recommend that teachers create an environment where students have opportunities to observe each other thinking out loud, and to practice identifying problems, planning solutions, monitoring their own progress, and evaluating their own results. It is also important for students to learn critical thinking that respects others' viewpoints.

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

Among other things, Brockett and Hiemstra discuss how self-directed learning can be facilitated. Strategies for enhancing learner self-direction are also noted. Other topics include research on the instruments developed by Guglielmino and by Oddi to assess aspects of self-directed learning attitudes. Additional chapters are devoted to topics such as policy and ethical issues.

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

Candy's 567-page book contains fifteen chapters that address various topics and issues in self-directed learning. Even though he does not specifically discuss ways of overcoming resistance to self-directed learning, he does identify variables that appear to be related to the enhancement of self-directed learning (p. 417). From the way the topic is presented, it appears that he may consider these variables appropriate in either of two circumstances: when the learner is not psychologically opposed to self-directed learning, and when resistance exists. The variables are competence, resources, and rights.

Confessore, G. J., and Long, H. B. Abstracts of Literature in Self-Directed Learning 1983-1991. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1992.

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Confessore and Long provide 242 abstracts of articles, books, and chapters on self-directed learning published between 1983 and 1992. Many of the abstracts address ways of strengthening self-directed learning. The abstracts are indexed for easy identification by topic, subjects, instrumentation, and author. It is a useful reference tool.

Durr, R. "Integration of Self-Directed Learning into the Training and Education Process at Motorola." Paper presented at the 8th International Self-Directed Learning Symposium, West Palm Beach, Florida, Feb. 17-19, 1994.

Durr describes a procedure being used in the training department at the Motorola facility in Boynton Beach, Florida, to implement self-directed learning. He discusses how the training staff has attempted to reduce paradigm conflicts and facilitate the acceptance of self-direction in learning. Durr describes an individualized approach initiated by two departments within the organization. The process begins with a personally devised set of learning objectives. After the objectives have been identified by the employee, possible methods of accomplishing the objectives are explored. The employee-learner remains centrally involved in the process.

Godfrey, E. "Structuring Freedom: An Alternative Approach to Post-Graduate Course Design." Management Education and Development, 1983, 14(1), 68-81.

Godfrey describes a three-term model used to progressively move students toward self-direction. She observes that students must be involved in changing content, ways of learning, and available resources. Godfrey also notes students must be able to negotiate individually what they do and how. In addition they must be involved in identifying evaluation procedures and criteria.

Grow, G. "The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model." In H. B. Long and Associates, Self-Directed Learning: Consensus and Conflict. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1991.

Grow developed what he calls the Staged Self-Direction Learning Model based on Paul Hershey and Kenneth Blanchard's theory of situational leadership. Grow's model also follows Lewinian theory concerning moderate change as opposed to radical change by indirectly changing the relationships between positive and negative forces in the life field. According to Grow, the teacher's role behavior changes as the learner progresses through four stages he calls dependent, interested, involved, and self-directed. In the first stage the teacher acts as authority source and coach, as a motivator and guide in the second stage, and as a facilitator in the third stage. Finally, the teacher serves as a consultant and delegator in the fourth stage. Examples and illustrations are included.

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

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Hiemstra and Sisco's book is practical as opposed to theoretical. Based upon their combined thirty years of teaching experience, Hiemstra and Sisco describe how to individualize instruction. Only a few pages of the volume directly address how to overcome resistance to SDL, however. These pages contain specific comments concerning the problems presented by institutions, teachers, and learners.

Their suggestions are of two kinds: application and attitudinal. Application suggestions include self-revelation (by the teacher) about philosophy and awareness of the challenge SDL presents to some learners, and use of varied resources to engage learners' participation. Attitudinal suggestions include advice to teachers to trust in themselves and their students and to be patient.

Jones, J. E. "Self-Confidence and Self-Directed learning: An Overview from Social-Cognitive Psychology." In H. B. long and Associates, New Ideas About Self-Directed Learning. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1994.

Jones describes a process she uses in art classes for older adults. She identifies learner self-confidence and personal goals as major considerations in the development of self-directed learning. Based on her experience and on social cognitive psychological theory, she proposes a set of guidelines for building self-efficacy that she indicates will result in increased learner acceptance of self-directed learning. Her guidelines include eight categories of teacher-learner collaboration that take place throughout the entire instructional process. Thirty-four specific acts are included in the eight activity categories.

Klein, D. "Some Notes on the Dynamics of Resistance to Change: The Defender Role." In W. G. Bennis, K. D. Benne, and R. Chin (eds.), The Planning of Change. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.

Klein's chapter is particularly informative as he discusses resistance as a favorable behavior from the defender's point of view. The literature often represents resistance as "bad" because it is discussed from the change agent's perspective. According to Klein, resistance has an important benefit for the defender or object of change. It is used to protect the targets of change from threats to their integrity.

Kops, W. J. "Self-Planned Learning of Managers in an Organizational Context. " In H. B. long and Associates, Emerging Perspectives of Self-Directed Learning. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1993.

Kops reports a qualitative study of middle and senior-level managers concerning self-planned learning of the middle-level managers in an organizational context. He discusses findings concerning self-planned learning efforts and organizational context before turning to an examination of the issue of modifying management training to accommodate self-planned learning. Of direct

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interest to this review is the identification of four conditions in the organization that diminish self-planned learning and six conditions that enhance self-planned learning.

Long, H. B., and Confessore, G. J. Abstracts of Literature in Self-Directed Learning 1966-1982. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1992.

Long and Confessore's 168-page book contains 141 abstracts of articles, books, and chapters on self-directed learning. Many of the abstracts include information on improving self-directed learning. The volume is indexed by several topics, including subjects, instruments, and type of publication. It is a useful reference tool.

Long, H. B., and Redding, T. R. Self-Directed Learning Dissertation Abstracts 1966-1991. Norman: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1991.

This 326-page book contains 173 master's and doctoral thesis abstracts concerning self-directed learning. Many of the abstracts refer to issues of enhancing and improving self-directed learning. Indexed for identification of abstracts by various topics, including subjects and instruments, the book is a useful reference document.

Lowry, C. M. "Supporting and Facilitating Self-Directed Learning," 1989. (ED 312457)

Lowry identifies ten ways by which self-directed learning can be enhanced. Examples include encouraging learners to appreciate that they can act on their world individually or collectively to change it; negotiating learning contracts for goals, strategies, and evaluation criteria; providing examples of previously acceptable work; and helping learners to develop feelings of independence relative to learning.

Rodin, J. "Control by Any Other Name: Definitions, Concepts and Processes." In J. Rodin, C. Schooler, and K. W Schaie (eds.), Self-Directedness: Cause and Effect Throughout the Life Course. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1990.

Rodin and her colleagues emphasize the importance of control as a construct that affects a variety of personal actions. Following their premise, it can be argued that resistance to SDL may be in some way located within the learner's need for control. Learners who resist SDL because they are unfamiliar with it may be signaling acceptance of the passive teaching-learning situation because they have learned what they can control and what they can't. Therefore, they prefer the safety of being controlled in known areas to the uncertainty of greater control in unknown areas. Rodin and her colleagues identify three processes important to learning: cognitive processes, motivations, and emotions. Resistance to SDL can seem to the student to be a defense of

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self-direction itself, when the student's life course has shaped an expectation that learning is and ought to be an essentially passive activity.

Watson, G. "Resistance to Change." In W. G. Bennis, K. D. Benne, and R. Chin (eds.), The Planning of Change. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969.

Watson's chapter provides a general theoretical discussion of Lewinian theory of change. He bases his presentation on the assumption that an interaction between the force for change and the subject is required to successfully overcome resistance. He subscribes to the notion that resistance to change is best accomplished by neutralizing or transforming the negative forces to more positive ones and by strengthening the existing positive forces. Personal resistance to change is explained by complacency, preference for the familiar, dependence, self-distrust, insecurity, and other similar constructs. Social systems are influenced by similar variables. Hence, according to Watson's theory, the change agent must identify activities and ways to address these forces.


This chapter identifies some of the locations of resistance to self-direction in learning. Barriers to self-direction in learning may be found within organizations, educators and trainers, and learners. It is suggested that resistance may be explained in part by the conflict between existing paradigms and the self-direction-in-learning paradigm. Resistance in each of the three locations seems to emerge from common sources: emotions, understanding, and values. Only a few of the publications that address, directly or indirectly, the problem of overcoming resistance to self-direction in learning are described here. This chapter may be perceived as a sampler that represents the variety of views on the topic over a twenty-five-year time span.


Barker, J. A. Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms. St. Paul, Minn.: ILI Press, 1988.

Lewin, K. Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper Collins, 1951.


Huey B. Long is professor of adult education at the University of Oklahoma.

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 Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven or The Index.