Enhancing Self-Direction in the Adult Learner: Instructional Techniques for Teachers and Trainers

(Susan B. Slusarski)

Chapter Nine 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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Adult educators may use a variety of techniques in formal learning situations to overcome learner--and teacher--resistance to self-direction in learning.

Enhancing Self-Direction in the Adult Learner: Instructional Techniques for Teachers and Trainers

Susan B. Slusarski

Does this sound familiar? I was facilitating some training in a major industry. The participants were meeting in small groups to list ways to reduce interruptions during work. The discussions were going well, so I was preparing materials for the next exercise. Juan, who had been quiet most of the session, left his group and approached me. Juan told me the session was going fine, but he really wasn't "into this working in groups. All you need to do, Sue, is tell me what to do, and I will do it." I thanked Juan for his input. He went back to his group. And my perspective on teaching adult learners had been irrevocably jarred.

Depending on one's perspective, it is possible to have interpreted this as a cultural issue: Juan was used to an instructional setting with the instructor as content expert and students doing what they were told. Or, one may view Juan as not ready to be a self-directed learner, unwilling to take responsibility for his own learning. Or, possibly, Juan really was telling me how he learned best! This critical incident made me reflect on my own teaching and view of self-direction in learning.

Self-directed learning has been discussed in three main ways in the past twenty years. Self-direction has been described as "a self-initiated process of learning that stresses the ability of individuals to plan and manage their own learning, an attribute or characteristic of learners with personal autonomy as its hallmark, and a way of organizing instruction in formal settings that allows for greater learner control" (Caffarella, 1993, pp. 25-26). This chapter discusses self-direction as a way of organizing instruction by examining the teacher, learner, and instructional process and by suggesting techniques that help overcome resistance to self-direction and permit greater learner control.

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From Teacher to Facilitator

The teacher's traditional role is that of content expert. In this role, the teacher knows what should be learned and how to learn it; the teacher has responsibility for the learning. In self-directed learning, however, "the focus of learning is on the individual and self-development, with learners expected to assume primary responsibility for their own learning" (Caffarella, 1993, p. 26). If the student has the primary responsibility for learning, then what is the teacher's role? In self-directed learning, the instructor's role changes from content expert to facilitator or guide (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991; Candy, 1991; Knowles, 1980). Hiemstra and Sisco (1990) describe the change in the instructor's role from "content giver to learning manager, facilitator, and resource locator" (p. 5). This new role requires different skills of teachers and a different pattern of behavior in relation to their students. To make this transition, instructors should understand adults as learners, accept a humanistic philosophy; and let go of the traditional view of teacher control. Despite the new outlook, they need to be prepared to build learner control slowly:

Adults as Learners. The characteristics of adult learners have been described by Knowles in his andragogical model of teaching. These characteristics include the need to be self-directing, the possession of a wealth of previous experience and an intrinsic motivation for learning, and the preference for a task-centered orientation to learning (Knowles, 1980; Merriam and Caffarella, 1991). An understanding of these characteristics is basic to accepting a facilitative role with the adult learner.

Humanistic Philosophy. It is important, too, that instructors explore their philosophy of teaching, as self-direction in learning is based on a humanistic philosophical orientation (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990). Facilitators provide learners with more than content, they are mentors giving vision, challenges, and support to learners (Daloz, 1986; McAlpine, 1992). Finally, the instructor takes a risk by being "an authentic human being with feelings, hopes, aspirations, insecurities, worries, strengths, and weaknesses" (Knowles, 1975, p. 33).

Sharing Control. To translate these beliefs into practice, instructors may begin by sharing control of the instructional process with learners. For example, arranging the classroom with small tables in a U-shape and starting with introductions brings learners together and sets a climate for shared control (Hiemstra, 1991). The facilitator may give choices--such as self-introduction, partner introduction, or introductions in small groups--on how introductions are conducted. Another technique would be for the group to interview the instructor. After breaking into smaller groups (where they would naturally start with their own introductions), each group develops questions and takes a turn interviewing the instructor. Questions are often about the course, but they may be personal as well. In this way, the instructor demonstrates openness and humanness. These approaches say to the learner, I am willing to share control of the learning with you. In Chapter Ten, Hiemstra describes several micro-

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components of the teaching and learning process where learners can assume or share more control.

Facilitators may give learners some choices in instructional materials to be used. An instructor could provide several readings on a topic and students choose one that interests them. For example, in one workshop, I provided participants several copies of three different journal articles about professional development. After selecting one and reading it, participants grouped themselves by the article chosen and discussed the information. Then each group summarized their discussion for the larger group. This technique could be used in other ways, too. Rather than reading an article, learners could choose reading a book, interviewing three experts, or watching a video on the topic--ifferent materials to accomplish the same learning objectives.

Some learners may initially resist taking some control and choose to have the teacher provide direction on what to learn and ways to go about learning (Pratt, 1989). As Schuttenberg and Tracy (1987) found, "some adults prefer direction in their learning process for reasons of efficiency, reliance on instructor expertise, or familiarity with traditional instructor-student roles" (p. 4). These may have been Juan's reasons for speaking to me during the training class. As Schuttenberg and Tracy suggest, "the overall strategy is to begin where the learners are" (1987, p. 6). The instructor may need to take more control at first. Then, as learners expand their repertoire of learning strategies and develop confidence in their learning abilities, facilitators may relinquish control.

The rewards for moving from teacher to facilitator of self-direction in learning are great. The instructor's role becomes "multidimensional, including being a facilitator, manager, resource guide, expert, friend, advocate, authority, coach, and mentor" (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990, p. 61). In essence, the teacher becomes a co-learner with the learner.

Helping Learners Overcome Resistance

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for resistance by adults to taking control or assuming self-directed learning is the conditioning of prior schooling. Many K-12 or college experiences were teacher-directed. Moreover, some of these experiences may have included highly competitive situations, belittling by an arrogant teacher, speed reading requirements, and cramming for tests.

Self-directed learning situations are different. They require learners to relate to peers collaboratively--to see peers as resources, giving and receiving help from them (Knowles, 1975). This may initially be confusing to some adults. As Taylor (1986) describes in a study on self-direction in a higher education classroom, "adults who subscribed to the idea of self-direction in learning but whose experience has been primarily teacher-directed formal education were faced with a discrepancy. . . . They found themselves in an intense struggle to grapple with disorientation and to develop an understanding and a way to deal with this 'new world of learning"' (p. 69; italics in original). How can facilitators help learners make the transition? Caffarella (1993) noted four

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variables that determine readiness for self-direction in learning: level of technical skills, familiarity with the subject matter, sense of personal competence as learners, and the context of the learning event. By examining these four variables as possible reasons for resistance, techniques can be used to decrease resistance and enhance learner self-direction.

Level of Technical Skills. Adult learners may resist self-direction in learning because they feel they lack technical skills not only in the subject matter but also to learn on their own. Readiness for self-direction includes having skills in goal setting, planning, self-management, and self-evaluation (Knowles, 1990). The missing skills can be identified by an inventory such as the SDLRS (Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale) (Guglielmino, 1977) or the SDLPS (discussed by Pilling-Cormick in the preceding chapter), and then addressed by the facilitator through readings, class exercises, and. ongoing feedback. For example, to build the technical skills of writing a book review, the facilitator may discuss how to review a book, distribute an article on writing book reviews, provide a model of a well-written book review, and then have the learners read and critique short book reviews before they write their own. In this way, learners develop the technical skills needed to perform the task.

Familiarity with the Subject Matter. When learning a subject area unfamiliar to them, students may resist taking control of their learning until they are more familiar with the subject. In a heuristic case study of adult views of their own learning, Ellsworth (1992) found that self-directedness varies with the subject matter being learned. With more intimidating subjects such as math or physics, adult students desired more teacher-directed situations. With familiar subject matter such as social relations or business, they desired more self-directed learning situations.

Facilitators may help learners feel more comfortable with a new topic by providing a frame of reference for course material. Michel (1992) suggests using a structured overview, graphics, or a conceptual map. The structured overview is an outline of the topics to be covered. Graphics representing the main concepts may be used as reference points or to introduce the material. Similarly, a conceptual map shows the relationships between concepts and provides a "schematic summary" (Michel, 1992, p. 18) of what is being learned.

Another technique is to encourage the learner to be less hesitant about the unfamiliar and to take risks. At conferences, I have encouraged participants at my session to attend subsequent conference sessions on topics unfamiliar to them. By learning to deal with the unfamiliar, adult learners develop confidence in their ability to handle new information.

Sense of Personal Competence as Learners. Adult learners need to view themselves as able to learn on their own. Ellsworth (1992) found that "confidence was cited as an almost necessary factor in engaging in self-directed learning" (p. 28). One technique for building confidence is to expose the learners to the concept of learning styles. By discussing different learning styles with learners or having them complete a learning style inventory, mismatches between their learning approach and instructional approaches used can be dis-

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cussed. Often, when learners know their best learning style, they will have more control over the learning experience. Another technique to help build learner confidence is to share the concept of "Smart Martian" with the learners. In their own environment, Martians are smart. Learners in a new learning experience are like Martians who arrive on Earth--quite capable but needing to learn how things are done on Earth. A Smart Martian attitude by facilitator and learner recognizes that the learner is competent and helps set a climate for a positive learning experience.

Context of the Learning Event. Many learners will need support to make the paradigm shift to a learner-centered context with a climate of mutual respect and trust. Having names on tent cards and using small group activities that encourage collaborative learning help build a supportive climate.

A different approach would be to change the learning context itself. Field trips help learners relate classroom work to the real world and recognize their capabilities in both situations. For example, members of an ESL (English for speakers of other languages) who have mastered check writing in the classroom may go to a bank and write a check there. A comparable technique would be for learners to give a presentation in class and then give the same presentation in another class or to their co-workers or supervisor. By starting safe and then moving to a new context, learners may develop confidence in different contexts.

By building learning skills and learner confidence, providing a frame of reference for the material, and creating a supportive climate, the facilitator will help learners develop more responsibility for their learning.

The Instructional Process and the Learning Contract

The learning contract is frequently cited as a means to help learners gain control of the learning event by systematically planning subsequent activities, and to move from dependency to self-direction (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991; Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990; Knowles, 1975, 1990; O'Donnell and Caffarella, 1990). Such contracts organize learning more effectively, provide a match between learner needs and training content, allow more creativity in identifying resources and developing strategies, and permit different kinds of evidence pertaining to accomplishments (Dejoy and Dejoy, 1987). Learners indicate what they will learn, how they will learn it, and how the learning will be evaluated. Introducing learning contracts gradually is one way to bolster learners' confidence in managing their own progress and accomplishments.

Deciding the What. Course objectives are integral to any learning. One technique to help learners take control of what they want to learn is to provide a diagnostic exercise or a model of desired competencies, so the learner has a guide to follow (Knowles, 1975). Another technique is to set the objectives in a context familiar and practical for the learner. In a GED class, for example, the objective may be to write a paragraph using a topic sentence and supporting points. However, the learning will be more effective when learners are

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given an opportunity to relate the objective to their own lives. Thus, learners in the process of job hunting could use the exercise to express in a written paragraph why they should be hired for a job, while learners who are expectant parents might use the same exercise to write out in paragraph form what needs to be done when a baby comes home from the hospital.

Similarly, if the goal is to develop language skills, the facilitator may have the learners generate the topics and themes. In an adult basic education class on developing language skills and examining cultural diversity, a facilitator provided copies of "My Name," a short essay about a girl's perspective of her Spanish name, Esperanza (Cisneros, 1988). Students read the essay and then wrote about the meaning of their own names. After sharing their writing, class members developed a list of themes to use for the next language experience. In this way, the facilitator provides learning opportunities based on the learners' experience that are both practical and pragmatic (Caffarella, 1993), and helps learners select specific content to match their learning needs.

Deciding the How. An instructor often provides resources for learners, directing them to a magazine or journal article or bringing in a pertinent book. However, greater learner control over this area would involve helping them identify and secure resources on their own. For example, learners could generate a list of resources for a given topic, including books, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, or programmed instruction materials (Dejoy and Dejoy, 1987). Someone may suggest subject matter experts or other learners (peers) or work supervisors who could be resources.

Accessing such resources may be new for learners. A brief discussion of where to obtain materials or how to request information from people may be necessary. Role-playing information interviews or taking a field trip to the library may provide learners with the confidence to try these methods on their own.

Typical ways of demonstrating learning are writing papers and reports. Learners may be given some choice in the format of a paper--perhaps writing a play or creating a case study--or in the time frame for completion. Other ways of showing evidence of learning include giving a presentation, making a poster, or filming a video. However, facilitators may need to provide how-to information for any of these techniques.

A special technique I like that provides evidence of learning and brings facilitator and learner into a collaborative relationship is journal writing. Through the journal, learners describe feelings, ask questions, react to classroom events, or share their personal lives with the facilitator. The facilitator may then offer encouragement, clarify misconceptions, or simply come to understand the learner's needs better. Thus, "the learner has increased private access to the instructor and considerable control over the agenda for the conversation" (McAlpine, 1992, p. 24).

Deciding How Well. Examinations are often required in learning situations. To give learners some control, the class could write some test questions. These questions then serve as a study guide for the test, and the examination is

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actually made from these questions. Or, the class could decide the most important areas in the content, and the facilitator develops the test from these areas.

Other verification of learning may come from feedback from the facilitator, the learner's supervisor, or the learners themselves. A facilitator often becomes the evaluator and in many cases is most familiar with the student and the learning objectives. In some circumstances, the learner's supervisor or a co-worker may be a more appropriate choice to verify the learning. In other circumstances, learners may do self-evaluations or assess their own performance on daily learning activities (Jurmo, 1989).

Learning contracts can provide a useful baseline for evaluation. However, learners may initially resist using such contracts, and it may be necessary to schedule a separate orientation session for learners. Here, the learning contract is examined as a learning process. The facilitator can "help trainees better understand the planning process, the idea of a learning contract, and the notion of their own learning style" and "foster their awareness of learning to learn concepts as a set of skills" (Dejoy and Dejoy, 1987, p. 66).

For learners who are more skilled, the decisions for all parts of the learning contract may be made by the learners with the facilitator providing support. Learners could read articles on how to use learning contracts or meet with a partner who has already worked with them. A panel could discuss their experiences with learning contracts--how they first felt about the approach, what some of the difficulties were, how they adjusted, and what they saw as the benefits. The facilitator might provide samples of learning contracts. Or, learners might meet in small groups and develop a contract for an imaginary student, sharing their products with the large group for feedback. Another technique would be to establish peer support groups during the course.

At first, the facilitator may need to provide many opportunities--topics, materials and resources, and activities--from which learners can choose to help build confidence and the skills to learn independently: Later, learners will have developed the skills to select their own topics, materials, and activities, alone or in collaboration with others.


For many teachers and trainers, encouraging learners to take control of their own learning has become paramount. Self-direction in learning "has become for many adult educators one of the major goals of their instructional processes: allowing and, in some cases, teaching adults how to take more responsibility and control in the learning process" (Caffarella, 1993, p. 29).

To accomplish this goal, instructors must view their role as that of facilitator--not content-giver, but guide and mentor. Learners will need to develop learning skills and confidence in their abilities as learners. Facilitators help by providing opportunities for learner decision making and learner control through the instructional techniques used.

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Developing self-direction in learners is a worthy goal for any instructor. Self-direction provides a match between learner information needs and the learning content, develops motivation, improves learning skills, and helps learners respond to changing workplace requirements (Dejoy and Dejoy, 1987). Indeed, as Caffarella (1993) states, "the ability to be self-directed in one's learning, that is, to be primarily responsible and in control of what, where, and how one learns, is critical to survival and prosperity in a world of continuous personal, community, and societal changes" (p. 32).


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Cisneros, S. The House on Mango Street. Houston: Arlo Publico Press, 1988.

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Dejoy, J. K., and Dejoy, D. M. "Self-Directed Learning: The Time is Now." Training and Development Journal, 1987, 41 (9), 64-66.

Ellsworth, J. H. "Adults Learning: The Voices of Experience." MPAEA Journal of Adult Education, 1992, 21 (1), 24-34.

Guglielmino, L. M. "Development of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale." Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467A. Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, 1977.

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

Jurmo, P. "Instruction and Management: Where Participatory Theory Is Put into Practice." In A. Fingeret and P. Jurmo (eds.), Participatory Literacy Education. New Directions for Continuing Education, no. 42. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Knowles, M. S. Self-Directed Learning. New York: Association Press, 1975.

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

Knowles, M. S. "Fostering Competence in Self-Directed Learning." In R. M. Smith and Associates, Learning to Learn Across the Life Span. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

McAlpine, L. "Learning to Reflect: Using Journals as Professional Conversations." Adult Learning, 1992, 3 (4), 15,23-24.

Merriam, S. B., and Caffarella, R. S. Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Michel, S. L. "Training 101: Three Tools to Help Learners Learn." Training and Development Journal, 1992, 46 (6), 17-19.

O'Donnell, J. M., and Caffarella, R. S. "Learning Contracts." In M. W. Galbraith (ed.), Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1990.

Pratt, D. D. "Three Stages of Teacher Competence. A Developmental Perspective." In E. Hayes (ed.), Effective Teaching Styles. New Directions for Continuing Education, no. 43. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

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Schuttenberg, E. M., and Tracy, S. J. "The Role of the Adult Educator in Fostering Self-Directed Learning." Lifelong Learning: An Omnibus of Practice and Research, 1987, 10 (5), 4-6, 9.

Taylor, M. "Learning for Self-Direction in the Classroom: The Pattern of a Transition Process." Studies in Higher Education, 1986, 11 (1), 55-72.


Susan B. Slusarski is Assistant Professor of Adult Education, Kansas State University.

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.