What's in a Word? Changes in SDL Language (Lexicon) Over a Decade

Roger Hiemstra

Adult Learning Consultant

Fayetteville, NY


Professor Emeritus, Adult Education

Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY

This is a paper written and delivered by Roger Hiemstra at the 1996 International Symposium on Self-Directed Learning, West Palm Beach, Florida.

The explosion of knowledge, research, literature, and interest related to self-directed learning has been phenomenal during the past decade. The International Self-Directed Learning Symposium has been an important stimulator of such changes and the resulting books and related materials have become important tools for those interested in the topic.

However, such change has prompted considerable flux in the use of the language associated with self-directed learning. This includes numerous associated terms, acronyms, and concepts. Even the nature of the way language has been used to describe self-directed learning during the past decade has changed. Certainly the number of ways for referring to the concept has grown tremendously.

In this paper I explore some of these changes and describe the most popular terms over this time period. I include several observations garnered after looking at the language used during the past decade. I conclude with some suggestions on what is needed in terms of future research.


All eight of the previous books emanating from prior symposia, from 1986 through 1994, served as the primary data base for this paper. A modified content analysis was utilized. Merriam (1991) defines content analysis as "a systematic procedure for describing the content of communications . . . [a] major concern has been measuring the frequency and variety of messages" (pp. 116-117). In this effort, messages, as the unit of analysis, included single words, groups of words, analogous words, and related concepts. The normal content analysis protocol was modified in that categories of meaning were not sought nor was there an effort to do any hypothesis testing.

The protocol used in this research involved a graduate assistant reading through the first symposium book (Long, 1988) and developing a set of words, terms, and concepts that in her view represented a universe of separate meanings. She had completed four graduate courses where information on self-directed learning was included. I examined this list and made some clarifications. The revised list then served as the foundation for another graduate assistant to reanalyze the first book. She, too, had completed several graduate courses where information on self-directed learning was included. A few new terms were developed and agreed to during this process.

Then she analyzed the remaining books (Long, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995) adding new terms as they emerged. A frequency count was maintained throughout the analysis effort. I spot checked three or more passages chosen at random from each chapter in each of the books and determined that very few changes would occur with additional analyses. However, it should be noted that with only one reviewer and my occasional spot checking, triangulation or inter-rater reliability was not attempted. There is no guarantee that all the terms were noted nor can the accuracy of the frequency counting be fully verified. That is the work for future research. The discussion later in this paper portrays the findings from these analyses.

A secondary source of data consisted of one other book. It was written by several people, most of whom had participated in symposia over the years (Confessore & Confessore, 1992). Information from it was used as a comparison with the symposia-generated books. A research associate used the terms from the work above as a foundation and then worked her way through the chapters adding new terms as appropriate. I again used random spot checking in each chapter to verify the accuracy of her work. Many new terms were used in the Confessore and Confessore book, indicating the dynamic nature of the field and that language used for self-directed learning will no doubt continue to evolve over the next decade.

Words were counted each time they were used with only a very few exceptions. For example, if a word, term, or phrase was repeated three times in a paragraph it received a frequency count of three. I made the decision to not count any words or terms displayed in tables, figures, or reference sections. If a term was clearly redundant (e.g., Self-directed Learning Readiness Scale followed immediately by SDLRS in parentheses) it received a frequency count of only one; however, if later in that same sentence SDLRS was again used another frequency count was added). I also made normal associations between concepts or acronyms. For instance, "SDLRS" and "Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale" were counted as the same term when recording frequencies. In other words, each would receive a count of one each time it was used but under the same heading. But, the names of conferences, symposia, centers, or businesses were not counted even if a self-directed learning term was associated with it. In essence, we treated only the text of a chapter as the data source.

I also decided not to use three books that in some respects were companion pieces to the symposia (Confessore & Long, 1992, Long & Confessore, 1992, Long & Redding, 1991). These books had useful descriptor qualities, such as indexes, tables of contents, and precise descriptions of various research works. However, I felt they might be too confining as opposed to just "letting" the results merge from the data.

There were two chapters within the various symposium-related books that were especially helpful in thinking about this paper. Gerstner (1992) provides an excellent discussion of the origin of the term "self-directed learning" from a linguistic viewpoint. She includes a graphic representation from an onomastic approach where the concept is identified and then the various words associated with it are described. She concludes with an appendix which provides some selected definitions of self-directed learning.

Carre (1994) presents a synthesis of the "state of the art" of research related to self-directed learning in France. He includes information on the terminology and definitions used in French literature. Both chapters provided useful background information for understanding some of the terminology portrayed in the current papers.


Perhaps most startling to me was the large number of terms used in the sources studied. There were 205 different terms used in the eight symposium-related books, and another 42 were introduced in the Confessore and Confessore book. Before I examined these books, and mind you I have been actively engaged in self-directed learning and related research since 1974, I would have guessed there would be only three or four dozen unique ways you can say "self-directed learning" or closely associated terms. However, this research for me was like initiating the building of a discipline-specific thesaurus.

Table 1 portrays the most popular terms used and associated frequency counts. The number in parentheses indicates the additional number of times the word appeared in the Confessore and Confessore (1992) book. Some of the terms are followed by the word, "derivative," and another number. This means that the term was used additional times but with a slight change. For example, the word "autodidactic" was used 85 times in the symposium-related books in direct relationship to or directly connected with the word "learning." Similar words were used an additional 124 times, such as autodidactic activities, autodidacticism, and autodidaxy.

Table 1. Most Frequently Used Self-Directed Terms and Concepts

Terms, Acronyms, and Concepts In All Books followed by Total Times Used

Autodidactic (learning) 85 (2) Derivative 124

Autonomous learning 56 (2) Derivative 36

Learning projects 231 (149)

OCLI (Oddi Continuous Learning Inventory) 102 (15)

SDLR (Self-directed learning readiness) 188

SDLRS (Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale) 1299 (35)

Self-directed learner 436 (59)a

Self-directed learning 2833 (502)

Self-direction in adult learning 104 (2)

Self-direction in learning 82 (24)

Self-education 105 (5)

Self-efficacy 107b

Self-planned learning 118 (41)

Self-taught adults 109 (2)


aThere were many derived words or terms where "self-directed," "self-direction," "self-education, or "self-planned" was used.

bThis term was used in reference to Bandura's (1974, 1977, 1992) work.

It should be noted that some terms appeared in only one or two volumes and then were never used again. For instance, the term "adult self-directed learning" was used in the 1988 volume but it never appeared again according to our content analysis efforts. Many of the terms were used multiple times but by only one, two, or three authors.

I found fascinating the number of creative ways the term "self-directed learning" actually could be said. I doubt that very many authors consciously thought about how to say the term in a way that had never been used before, but there were many more than I had expected. At the conclusion of each book (they were analyzed sequentially) we thought now there can't possibly be any more new ones the next volume. There always were! A few of them are displayed here so you can obtain a flavor of this profusion:

Assuming primary responsibility

Independent learner

Individual responsibility toward learning

Intrinsically motivated learning

Isolated learning

Learning without a teacher

Self-acquired knowledge

Self-directed regarding learning pursuits

Self-guided learning

Self-managed learning

Self-regulated learning


Solitary learning

Student generated learning

Teacherless individual learners

Unsupervised learning

There also were a few words either specific to the nationality of the author or that require additional explanation to be understood. These are contained in Appendix A, a glossary for such terms. Although most of the terms relate to the learner or learning process, a few chosen for inclusion here related more to teaching the self-directed learner:

Coach adults to teach themselves

Help adults to be more self-directed in their learning

Personal tutoring

Self-directed instruction

Self-directed learning methods

Self-directed teaching

Self-directed training


Finally, there were a few terms where the authors either combined more than one concept or almost appeared to be contradictory. They usually had to be read within the context of the chapter to be understood: These included the following:

Efforts to deliberately learn by one's self

Instructionally self-directed

Lifelong self-learning

Self-conducted learning project

Self-directed classmates

Self-directed in the context of formal education

Self-directed lifelong education

What Does the Future Hold?

It doesn't take much examination of the data portrayed in this paper to realize that the future will see continued expansion of the language used in research and discussion related to self-directed learning. In many respects that represents the field's vibrancy and the excitement many people feel in carrying our related scholarship. However, it also must present a maze of semantic plenitude to anyone new to the literature base. Anyone reviewing the literature as a foundation for subsequent research has to wonder when it ever stops.

I believe it is time to put some rhyme and reason into this maze. Papers like the current one and some of the research I have referenced provide some foundational material, but I urge any of you interested in the field's development to undertake some next steps for providing more clarity.

1. A thorough content analysis of much more of the literature than I have attempted here, with an enhanced protocol involving extensive reliability efforts, could provide a solid foundation of meaning.

2. It would be instructive to determine similarities and differences in the use and meaning of words, terms, concepts, and definitions across such variables as location of the research, type of audience being studied, and the nature of any data collection instruments or tools being used. For example, does the SDLRS produce a plethora of concepts different from something like the OCLI?

3. There certainly is a need to build an extensive thesaurus as I suggested earlier in this paper.

I invite your suggestions now or any questions and comments as we enter into some dialogue. Feel free to send me an electronic message.


Bandura, A. (1974). Behavior theory and models of man. American Psychologist, 29.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Towards unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1992). Exercise of personal agency through the self-efficacy mechanism. In Schwarzer, R. (Ed.), Self-efficacy: Thought control of action (pp. 3-38). Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing.

Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in adult learning: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice. New York: Routledge.

Carre, P. (1994). Self-directed learning in French professional education. In H. B. Long & Associates, New ideas about self-directed learning (pp. 139-148). Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Confessore, G. J., & Confessore, S. J. (1992). Guideposts to self-directed learning. King of Prussia, PA: Organization Design and Development, Inc.

Confessore, G. J., & Long, H. B. (1992). Abstracts of literature in self-directed learning 1983-1991. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Gerstner, L. S. (1992). What's in a name: The language of self-directed learning. In H. B. Long & Associates, Self-directed learning: application and research (pp. 73-96). Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Guglielmino, L. M. (1977). Development of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, 1977). Dissertation Abstracts International, 38/11A, 6467.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1988). Self-directed learning: Application & theory. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, Adult Education Department.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1989). Self-directed learning: Emerging theory & practice. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1990). Advances in research and practice in self-directed learning. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1991). Self-directed learning: Consensus & conflict. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1992). Self-directed learning: application and research. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1993). Emerging perspectives of self-directed learning. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1994). New ideas about self-directed learning. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (1995). New dimensions in self-directed literature. Norman, OK: Public Managers Center, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department, College of Education, University of Oklahoma.

Long, H. B., & Confessore, G. J. (1992). Abstracts of literature in self-directed learning 1966-1982. Norman, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Higher and Professional Education, University of Oklahoma.

Long, H. B., & Redding, T. R. (1991). Self-directed learning dissertation abstracts 1966-1991. Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education.

Merriam, S. B. (1991). Case study research in education: A qualitative approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Oddi, L. F. (1984). Development of an instrument to measure self-directed continuing learning. (Doctoral dissertation, Northern Illinois University, 1984). Dissertation Abstracts International, 46/01A, 49.

Pilling-Cormick, J. (1955). Existing measures in the self-directed learning literature. In H. B. Long & Associates, New dimensions in self-directed literature (pp. 49-60). Norman, OK: Public Managers Center, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department, College of Education, University of Oklahoma.

Appendix A -- Glossary of Selected Terms

Autodidaktos -- Instructed by oneself, without a teacher (Long & Associates, 1993, p. 233)

Autoformation -- Self-learning or even self-training, often expanded to mean learning by oneself (Long & Associates, 1994, p. 139)

Autotelic -- Learning with an individualized purpose (Long & Associates, 1992, p. 76)

OCLI -- An instrument entitled the Oddi Continuous Learning Inventory (Oddi, 1984)

SDLRS -- An instrument entitled the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (Guglielmino, 1977)*

Self-efficacy -- The conviction that one can successfully execute specific behaviors required to produce a desired outcome (Long & Associates, 1995, p. 199)

Self-talk -- The use of positive reinforcement and verbal persuasion in building self-confidence (Long & Associates, 1994, p. 34)

Self-undirected in learning -- learning that occurs in the absence of deliberate means or anticipated ends (Long & Associates, 1994, p. 84)


*For a fairly comprehensive list of the various instruments developed related to self-directed learning see Pilling-Cormick (1995).

May 1, 2012

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