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. This chapter presents a framework of micro components or aspects of the teaching and learning process to provide multiple opportunities for learners to make their own decisions.

This document became a chapter in Hiemstra, R., & Brockett, R. G. (Ed.). (1994). Overcoming resistance to self-direction in adult learning (No. 64). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. It is included here by permission.


Roger Hiemstra

Assuming Personal Control Over Learning Efforts

Self-direction in learning has been important and common among many adult learners throughout history. One important finding emanating from self-directed learning research during the past 25 years has been that when given the opportunity most learners prefer to take considerable responsibility for their own learning. As Tough (1979) found some 25 years ago, "The learner . . . retains the primary responsibility for planning and guiding a self-planned project" (p. 99). Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) and Candy (1991) reported considerable substantiation in the literature that this preference continued to be found since then.

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. I and my colleague, Burt Sisco (1990), developed a six step model for individualizing instruction that involves learners throughout the process.

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 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 in facilitating learners taking more responsibility and ways to empower learners to do so, I often hear comments like the following as reasons why they cannot move to a self-directed or individualized instructional approach: "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 certainly 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 either 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 over night.

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 often are personally involved in that assessment effort.

In essence, I believe the process of providing opportunities for learners to assume some control is equally as important, if not often more important, than the actual content being covered in a learning effort because of the ever declining half-life of most knowledge and the value in 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.

Overcoming Such 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 be able to incorporate aspects of such processes.

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 content or the learning process is not possible. I hope that presenting my current ideas in this sourcebook will prompt future research, thinking, dialogue, and refinement.

Therefore, this chapter presents a list of micro components or aspects potentially existing in any teaching and learning situation. In essence, each micro component provides an opportunity where learners can be encouraged or helped to take increasing personal control. Based on my experience as an instructor for nearly 30 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 potentially 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 micro component can be dealt with in each learning situation.

In addition, what I'm 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 just acquiring certain knowledge and then somehow demonstrating that such knowledge has been retained over a certain time period.


I used several techniques thus far to extract or develop the micro components.

1. 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've written about teaching adults in the past several years.

2. 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 micro components (Brookfield, 1986; Cross, 1981; Knowles, 1980; Knox, 1986; Long and Associates, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991; Tough, 1979).

3. 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.

4. Initial Drafting of Ideas. I synthesized the information gathered to this point and developed an initial list of micro components. In this process I sought discrete items, clarified the wording, and developed them into a sequential framework.

5. Collegial Assistance. Once I had assembled the first draft of micro components 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 micro components.

6. Public Presentation and Feedback. I presented the material at a public session of the Sixth 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 78 micro components pertaining to the teaching and learning process where learners can assume some control. They are grouped under the following headings:

1. Assessing Needs.

2. Setting Goals.

3. Specifying Learning Content.

4. Pacing the Learning.

5. Choosing Instructional Methods, Techniques, and Devices.

6. Controlling the Learning Environment.

7. Promoting Introspection, Reflection, and Critical Thinking.

8. Instructor's/Trainer's Roles.

9. Evaluating the Learning.

Exhibit 1 contains the micro components 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 micro components. 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.

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 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 micro component 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.

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 the emphases to be placed on use and/or application of the knowledge or skill


2.3 Changing ("evolution") objectives over the course of the 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 learner to learner, learner to 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 for learning or practicing decision-making, problem solving, and policy formulation provided

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, such as pleasure, occupational enhancement, 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

9.5.2 Determining how concepts are applied

9.5.3 Opportunities provided to review 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 use and/or type of learning contracts


Brockett, R. G., and Hiemstra, R. Self-direction in Learning: Perspectives on Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Brookfield, S. D. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Candy, P. C. Self-direction for Lifelong Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Cross, K. P. Adults as Learners. 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: 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 (revised and updated). Chicago: Association Press, 1980.

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

Knox, A. B. Helping Adults Learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986.

Long, H. B., and Associates. Self-directed Learning: Application & Theory. Athens, Georgia: Adult Education Department, University of Georgia, 1987.

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

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

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

Tough, A. M. The Adult's Learning Projects (2nd ed.). Austin, Texas: Learning Concepts, 1979 (first edition in 1971).


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