To: Self-Directed Learning Colleagues

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

Subj: Micro-components for Success in Working with the Self-Directed Learner - A paper delivered at the First World Conference on Self-Directed Learning, September 14-17, 1997, Montreal, Canada

The following ideas and resource materials are premised on ideas about empowering learners that have emanated from some of the research on self-directed learning (SDL). Much of this research in North America during the past 25 years has demonstrated that most adult learners prefer to take considerable responsibility for their own learning. Yet, many traditional teaching and training situations limit opportunities for such personal involvement because control over content or process remains in the hands of experts, designers, or teachers who depend primarily on didactic approaches.

I have spent considerable time during the past twenty plus years conducting or supervising research related to self-directed learning. A summary statement regarding much of what we know about self-directed learning is shown on the last page. I've also published various related articles, book chapters, monographs, and books on the topic (see the references section on the last page pertaining to some of these sources).

One of the initial responses I made to this apparent disparity between what SDL research has demonstrated and much of current teaching or training practice was the development of what my colleague Burt Sisco and I call the individualized instructional process (Hiemstra & 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.

Some of our critics suggest that the process we advocate will not work with their particular teaching areas because the content is controlled by organizational requirements, must be taught in a particular sequence, is too advanced for novice learners, etc. We contend that the process of providing opportunities for learners to assume some control is equally as important, if not often more important, than the actual content because of the ever declining half-life of much of knowledge, the value in helping learners learn how to learn, etc.

What I have been wrestling with recently is thinking through various ways that learners can assume increasing control over certain aspects of their learning process, in other words become more empowered. I am in the process of developing two related products. One is a framework for identifying various teaching and learning process micro-components in which learners can make their own decisions. The next two pages outlines my thinking to date. The second is a resource guide of various techniques, tools, and resources that the self-directed learner can use to plan personal learning efforts, enhance personal skills, or obtain new knowledge. It can be found on my web site and it shows various techniques, tools, or resources displayed within six categories. A work in progress, I invite any of you to add to it.

Thus far I have reviewed related literature, talked to colleagues, reflected on my own teaching, and thought about what such resources should look like if they are to be of value to learners, themselves, or to those wishing to enhance the self-directed learning skills of learners. This material most likely will not be very helpful to you at this early point in its development, although it does give you an idea of the kinds of resources that are possible. As you are one of the very first groups of people to see this work in progress, I would very much appreciate any feedback you care to give me. Does it make sense in the organizational schemes I am suggesting? Are there some obvious micro-components to using self-directed approaches that I am missing? Please feel free to contact me with any of your feedback. I will be very grateful and your advice will help me to make it a more useful resource.


Roger Hiemstra

Research has clearly demonstrated that adults prefer to assume some responsibility for their own learning. However, some instructors and even some learners resist this notion for various reasons. One of my current projects involves developing a framework of teaching and learning process components to provide multiple opportunities for learners to make their own decisions. The following represents my work thus far.

Exhibit 1. Aspects of the Learning Process Where Learners Can Assume Some Control

1. Assessing Needs

1.1 Choice of individual techniques

1.2 Choice of group techniques

1.3 Controlling how needs information is reported

1.4 Controlling how needs information is used

2. Setting goals

2.1 Specifying objectives

2.2 Determining the nature of the learning

2.2.1 Deciding on competency or mastery learning -vs- pleasure or interest learning

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

2.2.3 Determining emphases to be placed on the application of the knowledge or skill acquired

2.3 Changing ("evolution") objectives over the period of a learning experience

2.4 Use of learning contracts

2.4.1 Making various learning choices or selecting from various options

2.4.2 Decisions on how to achieve objectives

3. Specifying learning content

3.1 Decisions on adjusting levels of difficulty

3.2 Controlling sequence of learning material

3.3 Choices on knowledge types (psychomotor, cognition, affective)

3.4 Decision on theory -vs- practice or application

3.5 Deciding on level of competency

3.6 Decisions on actual content

3.6.1 Choices on financial or other costs involved in the learning effort

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

3.7 Prioritizing the learning content

3.8 Deciding on the major planning type, such as self, other learners, experts, etc.

4. Pacing the learning

4.1 Amount of time devoted to teacher presentations

4.2 Amount of time spent on teacher to learner interactions

4.3 Amount of time spent on learner to learner interactions

4.4 Amount of time spent on individualized learning activities

4.5 Deciding on pace of movement through learning experiences

4.6 Decisions on when to complete parts or all of the activities

5. Choosing the instructional methods, techniques, and devices

5.1 Selection of options for technological support and instructional devices

5.2 Choice of instructional method or technique

5.3 Type of learning resources to be used

5.4 Choice of learning modality (sight, sound, touch, etc.) for determining how best to learn

5.5 Choices on opportunities for learners, learner and teacher, small group, or large group discussion

6. Controlling the learning environment

6.1 Decision on manipulating physical/environmental features

6.2 Deciding to deal with emotional/psychological impediments

6.3 Choices on ways to confront social/cultural barriers

6.4 Opportunities to match personal learning style preferences with informational presentations

7. Promoting introspection, reflection, and critical thinking

7.1 Deciding on means for interpreting theory

7.2 Choices on means for reporting/recording critical reflections

7.3 Decision on use of reflective practitioner techniques

7.4 Opportunities provided for practicing decision-making, problem solving, and policy formulation

7.5 Making opportunities to seek clarity or to clarify ideas available

7.6 Choices on practical ways to apply new learnings

8. Instructor's/trainer's role

8.1 Choice of the role or nature of didactic (lecturing) presentations

8.2 Choice of the role or nature of socratic (questioning) techniques to be used

8.3 Choice of the role or nature of facilitative (guiding the learning process) procedures

9. Evaluating the learning

9.1 Choice on the use and type of testing

9.1.1 Deciding on the nature and use of any reviewing

9.1.2 Opportunities for practice testing available

9.1.3 Opportunities for retesting available

9.1.4 Opportunities available for choosing type of testing, if any, to be used

9.1.5 Decisions on weight given to any test results

9.2 Choices on type of feedback to be used

9.2.1 Deciding on type of instructor's feedback to learner

9.2.2 Deciding on type of learner's feedback to instructor

9.3 Choices on means for validating achievements (learnings)

9.4 Deciding on nature of learning outcomes

9.4.1 Choosing type of final products Deciding how evidence of learning is reported or presented Opportunities made available to revise and resubmit final products Decisions on the nature of any written products

9.4.2 Decision on weight given to final products

9.4.3 Deciding on level of practicality of outcomes Opportunities to relate learning to employment/future employment Opportunities to propose knowledge application ideas

9.4.4 Deciding on nature of the benefits from any learning Opportunities to propose immediate benefits versus long-term benefits Opportunities to seek various types of benefits or acquisition of new skills

9.5 Deciding on the nature of any follow-up evaluation

9.5.1 Determining how knowledge can be maintained over time

9.5.2 Determining how concepts are applied

9.5.3 Opportunities provided to review or redo material

9.5.4 Follow-up or spin-off learning choices

9.6 Opportunities made available to exit learning experience and return later if appropriate

9.7 Decision 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 Choices on the use and/or type of learning contracts


Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in learning: Perspectives in theory, research, and practice. London, UK: Routledge.

Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-directed learning for older adults. In American Association of Retired Persons, Resourceful aging: Today and tomorrow (Volume V, Lifelong Education, Conference Proceedings), Washington, D.C.: American Association of Retired Persons, 1991.

Hiemstra, R. (1992a). An analysis of Stephen Brookfield -- Self-directed learning: From theory to practice. In G. J. Confessore & S. J. Confessore (Eds.), Guideposts to self-directed learning, King of Prussia, PA: Organization Design and Development.

Hiemstra, R. (1992b). 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, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma, 1992.

Hiemstra, R., & Brockett, R. G. (1994a). From behaviorism to humanism: Incorporating self-direction in learning concepts into the instructional design process. In H. B. Long & Associates, New ideas about self-directed learning. Norman, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, University of Oklahoma.

Hiemstra, R., & Brockett, R. G. (Eds.). (1994b). Overcoming resistance to self-direction in learning (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hiemstra, R. (1996). Self-directed adult learning. In DeCorte & Weinert (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of developmental and instructional psychology, Oxford: Elsevier Science. Also in A. Tuijnman (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of adult education and training (second edition), Oxford: Elsevier Science, 1996

Hiemstra, R., & Sisco, B. (1990). Individualizing instruction for adult learners: Making learning personal, empowering, and successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Adults spend considerable time learning at their own initiative. This is commonly called self-directed learning. Considerable related research has been completed in the past three decades.

Self-direction can be defined in terms of an adult assuming personal responsibility for related decisions and actions. In terms of learning, the concept encompasses an individual's personality characteristics and those instructional activities or resources which may impact on a person. Thus, self-direction in learning recognizes the instructional process designed to facilitate self-direction and those factors predisposing an adult to accept responsibility for learning-related actions.

Self-directed learning approaches are becoming increasingly recognized as ways of obtaining necessary information outside formal organizations. For example, in the workplace busy employees can learn necessary skills through self-study. The concept also has generated controversy, such as absence of a consistent theory base, some confusion over the term's meaning, and inadequate measurement devices.

Research needed to further develop the concept include efforts to refine existing conceptual models, finding ways to incorporate computer technology into self-directed learning, determining how quality of such learning can be measured, and determining appropriate roles for educators and educational organizations.

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