Intentional learning is a critical competency. But despite the importance, learners still struggle to find the time for learning. Although self-directed learning (SDL) sounds like it allows for flexibility, it often places demands on people to learn outside of work when they are recovering from tiring days. As a result, learning is often ineffective and people may feel burned out with learning demands. How can brain science help us improve the formats and contexts for self-directed learning?

Factors that enable SDL include reflection, self-determination, motivation, resilience and positive learning behaviors and skills such as growth mindset. Brain science can show us how to facilitate SDL as it relates to each of these factors.

Reflection: It helps to connect learning to who people are as individuals. This requires tapping into the self-networks in the brain, a component of which is the default mode network (DMN). It’s hard to find time to reflect, but there are a few workarounds to consider. For example, doodling activates the DMN, and when it does, it can improve memory by 29%. Many people have a difficult time meditating on learning but providing a five-to-10-minute experience such as video or virtual reality can be helpful for reflection.

Self-determination and motivation: Self-determination and motivation are connected by self-determination theory, which teaches us that the brain changes to enhance motivation when three criteria are fulfilled: autonomy (give people the freedom to learn when they can), competence (allow them to measure how their learning has improved, and social relations (allow them to share the learning and connect with others).

Resilience: Resilience is the “capacity to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress.” When stress escalates, there are progressively diminishing returns until it starts to work against you. In the brain, this can show up as a lack of cognitive flexibility, making it very difficult to absorb and manipulate information.

For this reason, you want to suggest that any SDL be scheduled after deliberate stress reduction if someone is feeling overwhelmed. There’s no point pushing through a mountain of information just to get to the other side because you will likely not retain it. Organizations would do well to connect anxiety and stress-reducing apps and platforms to their learning platforms so that people who are learning can de-stress if they need to.

Growth mindset: The growth mindset is one in which the learner believes that the brain will get stronger as their learning progresses. This contrasts with a mindset of “learned helplessness,” where the learner has already given up on enjoying learning or on improving in any way. Having a growth mindset means that the brain does not screech to a halt after an error is made. Instead, the learner is deft to correct the error and learning is enhanced.

In the online self-directed learning that we have provided at Reulay, we have addressed many of these factors head-on. For example, in the personalized self-directed learning modules on building resilience, there are short mental resets in the form of personalized and relaxing video (or virtual reality), and an ability to reflect on whether something has been learned. In addition, we have a library of “possibility” experiences to enhance a growth mindset.

Of course, this is not the only way to achieve these goals, but it is important to be deliberate about SDL to optimize the brains of self-directed learners.