From Teaching to Learning

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Tuesday, November 9, 2021
Karina Koch
Editor, The Business & Management Collection, Henry Stewart Talks
Photo by iStock/golero
The value of self-directed learning in a remote world.

After business schools and other higher education institutions were forced to shift to purely remote learning in early 2020, the negative impact on students and faculty was immense. Many reported that they were feeling physically and psychologically isolated. Since then, universities have made huge strides in creating online ecosystems in which everyone can maintain a sense of connection with their teachers and fellow students.

Designing interactive learning environments has become even more imperative now that the pandemic’s effects on higher education are likely to continue for many months. The Chronicle of Higher Education lists more than 1,100 U.S. institutions that require students to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus, but many others in the U.S., have no such requirement. In the U.K., universities are encouraging but not mandating vaccines for their students and staff.

With low levels of vaccination likely to lead to ongoing high levels of infection around the world, many schools will continue to deliver courses in hybrid and hyflex formats. They will give their students more freedom to select the delivery modes that best suit their strengths and levels of concern about COVID.

As educators experiment with different course formats during this uncertain time, how can they harness what they have learned about delivering online learning effectively? How can they improve students’ overall educational experience, whether in person or online? The answers might be found in integrating more self-directed learning experiences into today’s college curricula.

What Constitutes Self-Directed Learning?

As members of Generation Z (referring to people born between 1997 and 2012), today’s youngest college students have grown up with smartphones, social media, and virtual engagement—which perhaps made them better equipped than faculty members to navigate the shift to online course delivery. For many of them, what happens online is often just as real, if not more real, than what they experience in person.

This generational mindset promises to have lasting effects on business education. According to a May 2021 article published by the League for Innovation in the Community College, the key to attracting and retaining Gen Z students could be creating more interactive learning environments that are driven by self-directed learning projects.

That said, just because younger students are digital natives, they are not necessarily automatically well-suited to self-directed learning. Just like students of other generations, they will need to master the art of learning, supported by innovative course design and ongoing faculty guidance.

In contrast to fully teacher-directed learning in which the instructor controls the nature of assignments and the direction of discussions, self-directed learning is a curiosity-based process where students have the freedom to choose part or all of their own educational paths under the guidance and supervision of educators. As Gerald Grow of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee explains in a 2015 article, self-direction can be present in any part of the learning experience. For example, faculty might ask different students to present certain aspects of the course to their peers; or they might allow students to choose how to present their topics, whether via videos, lectures, infographics, games, or other formats.


When teachers encourage students to embark on self-directed learning, students are empowered to collaborate and learn from one another via their own initiative.

Other instructors might even go so far as to enable students to develop the framework for teaching the course. In this case, rather than merely evaluate students based on their ability to provide correct answers, faculty members might take on the role of observers and mentors who help students frame better questions. Such instructors offer students a valuable opportunity to define their own learning journeys in protected educational environments.

Another major distinction between self-directed learning and teacher-directed learning is the role of peer-to-peer or interactive learning. When most or all course content is provided by instructors, the potential for students to inspire and motivate one another is low. Even when students complete group projects, the teacher often assesses their work as individuals. But when teachers encourage students to embark on self-directed learning, students are empowered to collaborate and learn from one another via their own initiative.

While the evidence for the positive impact of peer-to-peer learning is not conclusive, some research shows that students who participate in course content creation report feeling more motivated, more engaged with their fellow students, and more confident in their abilities. As Jonathan Tullis of the University of Arizona in Tuscon and Robert Gladstone of Indiana University in Bloomington write in a 2020 paper, “peer instruction can be an effective tool to generate new knowledge through discussion between peers and improve student understanding and metacognition.”

Five Elements of Self-Directed Learning

According to Linda Kaye of Edge Hill University in the U.K., for students to be truly self-directed, they must take the following five actions within their learning experiences:

  • Establish learning goals.
  • Locate and access resources.
  • Adopt and execute learning activities.
  • Monitor and evaluate learning performance.
  • Reassess learning strategies.

Of course, few learning experiences are purely taught or purely self-directed. There is a huge variety of approaches, methods, and techniques, and student creativity can be expressed in any part of the education process. That said, successful self-directed approaches have several features in common:

  • The instructor or institution sets the learning objectives and monitors whether those objectives are met. Self-directed learning is not unbounded curiosity-led learning; it must have a predetermined goal.
  • The institution provides a formal mark or certificate for the course or experience.
  • The instructor provides relevant materials and ensures that students have the technical tools for collaboration, particularly in remote learning formats.
  • The instructor strives to spark students’ enthusiasm and increase their motivation to learn.

That last point is perhaps the most essential part of self-directed educational experiences. Maintaining students’ motivation to learn is far more important than honing their ability to absorb information.

Real-World Examples

Self-directed learning is the guiding principle of the Fordham Social Innovation Collaboratory, an initiative created by the Gabelli School of Business in New York. (This initiative also was named one of AACSB’s Innovations That Inspire in 2017.)

Through this network, business undergraduates, faculty, and alumni collaborate with liberal arts and graduate students, using experiential learning and entrepreneurial skills to ameliorate social problems through community business ventures. The network runs on a purely self-directed ethos. Students complete practicums in which they develop their own goals and create programs to achieve those goals. Their ambition is to harness “social innovation for the achievement of social justice, social entrepreneurship, and environmental sustainability.”

As Donna Rapaccioli, the dean of Gabelli School says in a video about the project, these students “help each other learn about how to make social change.” As they become experts in their areas of interest, she adds, students “become the teachers of their teachers.”

In “Evaluating a Self-Directed Language Learning Course in a Japanese University,” a 2017 article appearing in the International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, the authors describe an English language course in which undergraduates were asked to reflect on their progress as a way to improve learning outcomes. After 15 weeks, the students reported improvements in their interpersonal skills, ability to write and speak English, confidence with the language, and motivation to learn. They also indicated an improved metacognitive awareness of their learning needs—in other words, they had “learned how to learn.”


Decades of research into self-directed learning suggests that we can be optimistic about the power of students to learn and the power of educators to inspire, even in remote formats.

Another example is “A 5-Minute Teaching Model,” presented by Scott Toney, a professor in the department of business information and analytics at the University of Denver Daniels College of Business in Colorado. Toney’s approach involves flipping his classroom so that students work on assigned readings and quizzes before each class, which allows them to spend class time working independently on “hard problems.”

My own company, Henry Stewart Talks based in London, publishes a series on self-directed learning in its Business & Management Collection. Edited by Rowena Hennigan, an expert in remote education, the series examines the many ways institutions can deploy self-directed learning to help students pursue a more rewarding experience.

Saundra Y. McGuire, director emerita of the Center for Academic Success and a retired professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, sums up the power of self-directed learning perfectly in episode 132 of Teaching in Higher Ed. In the 2016 podcast, “Teaching Students How to Learn,” McGuire shares a question she often asks students to help them understand what it takes to become better learners.

“The question is, ‘Would you work harder if you were trying to make an A on a test, or if you knew that you had to teach the information to the class to prepare the class for an upcoming exam?’” McGuire says. “Students always say they would work harder if they had to teach the information.”

Focusing on Learning

Over the coming years, millions of students will continue to feel the effects of the pandemic on higher education—especially the inability to interact with their teachers and peers on campus. However, decades of research into self-directed learning and collaborative learning suggests that we can be optimistic about the power of students to learn, even in remote formats. Likewise, we can be optimistic about the power of educators to inspire students, whether teaching in person or online.

By strategically using technology and designing interactive course content, faculty might also be inspired to embrace new ways of teaching. As they become mentors as well as teachers, they will empower students to engage their curiosity. In the process, faculty might discover that our students will reap previously unforeseen benefits, simply because we start focusing less on teaching and more on learning.

Authors
Karina Koch
Editor, The Business & Management Collection, Henry Stewart Talks
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