Self-Directed Learning: The Key to Supercharging Your Study Habits

Carolina Jacobs

Feb 7, 2022
Student 2

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Transitioning to college from high school can be challenging for more reasons than one. Students are given more freedom and more responsibility, and the combination can be overwhelming. However, the challenges of a college education bring opportunities for students to develop life skills that mark maturity and will benefit them for the rest of their lives. Here’s how students can apply the principles of self-directed learning for success in college and beyond: 

What Is Self-Directed Learning?

Self-directed learning is an educational mindset where students take personal responsibility for their own learning journey. Self-directed learners pursue active learning strategies to set and achieve their own learning goals, both in and out of the classroom. They know how to “teach” themselves, although they may still rely on a teacher for guidance in passing classes.

Students benefit in many ways from self-directed learning. Their grades tend to improve since they are personally invested and interested in their work. However, self-directed learners also have improved confidence levels, higher initiative and motivation in other areas of their lives, and increased resilience for life-long learning. 

Self-directed learning develops students’ inner resources in three different areas – it strengthens self-management and self-monitoring skills and increases motivational ability. Because it supports and develops these skills, self-directed learning can also help students grow personally and emotionally. 

5 Ways to Learn More Effectively

Students can invest in themselves and their futures by pursuing self-directed learning strategies during college. Here are five examples of how college students can engage in self-directed study:  

1. Recognize Responsibility

The underlying principle of self-directed learning is that students are primarily responsible for their own education. For college students, self-directed learning happens when they learn to “teach themselves” instead of relying on teachers to do the work for them. 

For example, many teachers spend the first class period of a new semester reviewing the course syllabus. Their goal is to orient students so they know what is expected and how to pass the class. Many students will come to this class so the teacher can tell them what to do. 

However, self-directed students rely on themselves to pass classes and review syllabi and class requirements on their own time. Because they know they are in charge of their education, they view class time as extra support rather than their primary source of learning. 

2. Set Personal Goals

Self-directed learning increases motivation because students create meaning by pursuing their own goals. Successful students don’t rely on external factors to motivate them – they cultivate internal motivation that keeps them going even when they don’t feel motivated. 

Motivation skills are a muscle that grows with practice. Students flex that muscle when they follow through on a project even when they don’t feel like it. As students continue to reach their goals, their confidence and determination will increase. 

Building motivational muscle is similar to working out actual muscles – students should start small and build this skill over time. For example, students that break large assignments down into manageable pieces will feel more motivated than those who approach projects as one large, daunting task. 

3. Stay Curious

Cultivating curiosity can be challenging for serious students who are hyperfocused on completing their coursework. However, curiosity is the lifeblood of the learning process. Without it, students will start to feel bored, frustrated, and stuck. 

Self-directed learning is a natural result of a curious mind, but it can be hampered by perfectionism. When students are afraid of being punished for mistakes, they will avoid asking questions. Without questions, deep learning can’t occur. 

To learn well, students need to think beyond grades and focus on the larger picture. What can they learn from their classes? Why does it matter? What is particularly interesting to them? While grades are important, they were never meant to be the goal of coursework.

4. Check Up On Progress

Successful self-directed learners periodically check in with themselves to review their progress and reevaluate their learning strategies. In conventional classrooms, teachers perform this role. However, in college, there are too many students for teachers to monitor effectively. 

Students who monitor themselves make the most progress and also protect themselves from unpleasant surprises, like missing important assignments and failing classes that seem easy. Self-monitoring reduces stress and gives students confidence that they can achieve their goals. 

Self-monitoring is a circular process that involves setting goals, creating a plan to achieve them, and then periodically evaluating that plan for its effectiveness. The most successful students are willing to change plans that aren’t working, adapting their approach to evolving circumstances.

5. Study Outside of School

The best way to practice self-directed learning is to pursue a subject outside of the school curriculum. All of the skills which make up self-directed learning – taking responsibility, setting goals, cultivating curiosity, and evaluating progress – are tested when students are the only authority for a goal they’ve set. 

College is a busy time, but students can stretch themselves by pursuing interests outside of school in small doses. For instance, students who are interested in nutrition can start cooking their own meals once a week. Students who love birds could study one bird every two weeks during the semester.

Students can create their own learning environment by setting goals, tracking their progress, and inviting friends and family to keep them accountable. Cultivating interests outside of school is healthy and will strengthen students’ learning skills for in-class projects. 

A Self-Directed Life

College students have an incredible opportunity to develop a life-long learning mindset by practicing self-directed learning strategies. Cultivating personal responsibility, assessment skills, and motivation will lead to success in school, students’ personal lives, and the workforce. 

Students who make this shift in their study habits will start to see its effects in other areas of their lives too. The only thing required to begin self-directed learning is a little bit of self-initiative, organization, and a desire to grow.

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