Self-directed learning has been garnering significant attention over the last few years. There is an old saying that goes, “Everything old is new again.” Case in point: While growing up in rural Jamaica in the 1950s, miles away from established, big city learning institutions, my mother did her studies via “correspondence courses,” aka “distance learning programs.” She registered by mail for the courses she needed and was sent textbooks and lessons by return mail. She studied when she found the time between caring for younger siblings and doing household chores.

Today, it comes under the guise of “independent learning,” independent study,” “lifelong learning” and a collection of similar terms, often defined as the ability of individuals to be responsible for their learning process. Malcolm Knowles described it as “a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating the learning outcomes.”

A self-directed learning strategy allows learners to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn and how deeply they want to learn a topic. Therein lies a power: The power of flexibility to structure one’s learning path, the ability to take charge of the learning process and the power of taking responsibility to make decisions about the outcome. In corporate America, however, this power is often denied to learners.

Why is Self-directed Learning so Powerful?

Here is a conversation I had with my millennial son the other day:

Me: Hon, ever heard of self-directed learning?

Son: Well yeah, learn on your own. I do that every day, learning how to code and stuff.

Me: Do you find you learn better or worse than in college?

Son: Better

Me: Why?

Son: I am not bored; I only learn what I want to learn, how I want to, and when.

That conversation reveals the secret sauce, where the self-directed learner has the option and opportunity only to learn what they are interested in at that time and how. The power of interest drives self-directed learners, making them highly motivated. The self-directed learner already connects to the topic and is more willing to engage in the content and spend more time on the subject. The self-directed learner will obtain content from various sources and resources.

In my son’s case, his resources were YouTube, Vimeo and several other video sources and websites. If it is the case that the self-directed learner is part of a standard training program, it can be more challenging. The traditional mode dictates work that should be completed in a particular way and by a specific date. However, with self-directed learning, since it is based on and driven by interest, the self-directed learner determines how long they will take, identifies additional resources to support education and decides how and when they will learn. The learner is responsible for their education and all the following activities. According to Ilkay Askin Tekkol and Melek Demirel, the self-directed learner is linked with more upper-level thinking. Additionally, Shuang Geng, Kris Law and Ben Niu also noted that self-directed learners also tend to seek additional resources to supplement their learning.

A self-directed learner is not the same as someone who is assigned an eLearning course and can do it at their own pace. In that self-paced role, the learner does not necessarily have the same heightened interest in the course or program and needs to determine what they want to learn.

Self-directed learning is powerful because of the self-motivation factor. The individual takes the initiative to learn and may receive help from others or go on their own because of the need or desire to learn. Many tertiary institutions have realized the power of self-directed learning and have included aspects of it in their curriculum in various formats, such as independent studies and projects.

Self-directed Learning and Today’s Workforce

Today’s employers can capitalize on self-directed learning to ensure a more engaged workforce. An engaged workforce means better performance, as enthusiasm and dedication are enhanced. According to Gallup, “low engagement alone costs the global economy $7.8 trillion. So, organizations should strive to have a highly engaged workforce across all generational cohorts. The most influential generation in the workforce today is the millennials. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are the single largest generational group, with 35% making up today’s workforce. This cohort is expected to grow to 75% by 2025.

Additionally, millennials are the least engaged in the workforce. According to Gallup research, 55% are not engaged. Employers can engage this burgeoning workplace cohort by harnessing the power of self-directed learning. According to Statista, 61% of millennials feel that learning is key to a successful career.

It is simple; millennials want to learn, so we need to provide learning opportunities. Effectively executing self-directed learning with this significant workplace cohort increases learning efficiency and enhances individual performance and overall business effectiveness.

More than 50% of millennials would learn a new skill to perform a new function to enable career success. Organizations should endeavor, therefore, to harness that learning power if learning equates to engagement. Research indicates that millennials learn differently than other generational groupings. They tend to learn experientially in real-world learning environments and with real-world examples. Millennials are tied to technology, so offering learning opportunities to their learning style would be appealing.

According to Anu Galhotra, the learning preferences of millennials are varied, and they favor learning that meets those diverse needs. Self-directed learning can fill that learning gap.

Therefore, if learning engages employees and improves performance, capitalizing on the power of self-directed learning for an improved workforce should be a priority for organizations. The big question is how to harness that power.

Harnessing the Power of Self-directed Learning

Here are five strategies that may be useful to assist in harnessing and unleashing the power of self-directed learning within an organization:

1. Develop a continuous learning culture: Providing a learning culture means encouraging employees to learn to become self-directed learners. This culture is achievable in a variety of ways. For example, start the conversation within the company on the benefits of learning and the advantages of expanding job skills. Motivate them to learn through informational sessions and learning fairs. Organizations can also offer opportunities for upskilling, cross-skilling or reskilling (see Figure 1).Figure 1.

2. Increase access to learning opportunities: Provide a stress-free learning environment where employees can learn when and how they want. That would mean providing many learning choices and opportunities in various modalities, such as eLearning, video-based learning, mobile learning, webinars, social learning, lunch and learns, virtual learning, mentorship and instructor-led learning. Ensure there are choices and availability of all types of courses: not just work-related courses, but also courses that are for sheer enjoyment. For instance, you could offer courses on photography, guitar and mindfulness.

3. Remove obstacles that may deter learning: For instance, ensure that the learning management system (LMS) is modern and user-friendly and can house different learning content in various styles and formats.

4. Develop a learning community. One example might be an intranet community site where employees can share ideas and information on what they are learning, courses they have taken and training ideas. Having that in-house learning community will invigorate both learning and learners.

5. Encourage employees to participate in training: Organizations should not follow the mantra, “If you build it, they will come.” In addition to providing the opportunity, organizations should also encourage those not naturally motivated by learning. Organizations can provide rewards and recognition for learning achieved or even create learning competitions. Organizations, however, will have to be creative in this endeavor.


Self-directed learning is powerful on many fronts, from individual, educational and organizational perspectives. Individuals who love to learn have already harnessed the power of self-directed learning. Organizations will have to learn how to leverage this power across all generations within their company to maintain a high-performing and effective workforce. If an organization has not figured out how to do so effectively, now is the time to figure out how to leverage that power and maintain it. This will ensure an engaged workforce and business success in the 21st century.