Self-Directed Learning: What is it? & Why has it become a predominate learning strategy?

Photo credit: MCpl Kathryn Poudrier, Defence Public Affairs Learning Centre, Copyright 2012 DND-MDN Canada

Self-directed learning is not a new learning strategy as people have been engaging in self-directed learning throughout history. Learning does not necessarily need to take place inside the rigid walls of an institution.  There exists a whole continuum of worthwhile structures that can enable learning, ranging from an instructor-led classroom setting to autonomous independent studies where individuals take control of their own learning.  Formal classroom learning, for most adult learners, is merely the tip of the iceberg. Informal learning, which is usually self-directed as an individual or within groups, is the larger & often undetected mass of the iceberg that is underneath the water. As the British historian, writer and Member of Parliament, Edward Gibbon (1796), pointed out, “every man [person] who rises above the common level has received two educations: the first from his teachers; the second, more personal and important, from himself [themselves]” (as cited in Candy, 1991, p.14). Indeed, this has been the case for me.

Self-directed learning, both integrated into formal and non-formal settings, has an important part to play in learning. I will share here the definitions of self-directed learning, both in method and in goal, in order to dismiss any confusion over its meanings. I will also present six main reasons why self-directed learning has become a predominant type of learning today around the world. 

Canadian Armed Forces Professional Development Framework (2018). Government of Canada.

Defining Self-Directed Learning

Within my work present context, within the Canadian Armed Forces, self-directed learning aligns well as an aspect within the Self-Development Pillar of the Canadian Armed Forces Professional Development Framework (as illustrated above). This pillar is defined as, “self-initiated training and/or education that refines or further develops an individual’s body of knowledge, intellectual and/or professional skill sets, and attitudes that leads to improving the level of a desired competency or competencies. Self-development is normally done outside of formal professional development activities” (Government of Canada, 2018).

The term “self-directed learning” has been used to describe different things.  Some use the term to describe a method of learning while others use it to mean a goal of someone who is able to learn autonomously without direction.  Under the heading of method, two sub-meanings come into play.  Many see the method of self-directed learning to be a type of formal education where the learner has more control over the learning, such as in university individual study courses, while others see it as a type of learning outside the formal educational setting where a learner can learn on their own in any kind of social setting. 

Self-directed learning, as a goal, is also broken down into two sub-meanings.  The first meaning says that the person has a quality that allows them to learn autonomously.  The second sub-meaning says that the goal achieved is the management of oneself along with the ability and willingness to conduct one’s own education (Candy, 1991).  Although these definitions of self-directed learning are different, they are also connected.  These ideas have all been a very popular topic in recent history for research and discussion amongst Adult Educators. 

Reasons Why Self-Directed Learning Has Become a Predominant Learning Strategy

There are six main reasons, as identified by P. Candy (1991) in his book Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice, to explain why the idea of self-directed learning has come to the forefront.  These six reasons show us why adults and adult educators alike are supporting and encouraging more and more learner-centered and controlled education. 

The first reason, as identified by Candy (1991), for the growing interest in self-directed learning is that it fits well within the democratic ideal that our society holds dear.  Within self-directed learning, the learner has more control over what he/she learns and how he/she learns it.  Self-directed learning is not authoritarian in that the learner must follow the orders of a teacher in a rigid structure.  In self-directed learning, the student participates in all aspects of the course structure and learning process.  Naisbitt (1984) points out that the Western society believes more and more that, “people whose lives are affected by a decision must be a part of the process of arriving at that decision” (as cited in Candy, p. 33).  Teachers often consider themselves more as facilitators than instructors and are more likely to give up some degree of control over course material and learning methods to create more of a democratic learning environment. You may have heard the reference that it is preferable for facilitators to be more of the “guide on the side than the sage on the stage.”

Another reason, according to Candy, for the growing interest in self-directed learning is the growing ideology within society of individualism.  Some cultures see this as a positive thing and some as a negative thing (Leach, 1995, p. 568).  Individualism, where one is more focused on the self and autonomy, can easily be seen in Western cultures.  Although some cultures and ethnic groups continue to focus more on community and group achievements than others, in many cultures today, Keddie (1980) points out, “high status is obtained by competitive individual achievements” (as cited in Candy, p. 35). The fact that achievement is seen as an individual accomplishment rather than a family or community accomplishment and the fact that the benefits tend to stay at the individual level, leads us towards this ever-increasing ideology of individualism.  This can easily be seen in the way that people are learning.  Less sharing in the learning experience is seen and more self-directed learning, often alone, and at home away from the classroom setting, is becoming more and more common.

The third reason that Candy states that self-directed learning is becoming more popular is the concept of egalitarianism.  Within this idea, teacher and students are considered equals.  The teacher may have some extra information regarding a certain subject but both parties can equally contribute to the learning experience.  Lawson (1979, p. 19) points out that teachers and school organizers with egalitarianism in mind, “ought not to impose their own educational and curricular values if they can avoid doing so” (as cited in Candy, p. 37).  From an egalitarianism point of view, all learners should be considered equal; all should have the same learning possibilities and possible benefits.  Self-directed learning fits nicely into this concept since, theoretically, all learners can participate and benefit from self-directed learning. While this is true in theory, in the modern age, however, unequal access to Internet can cause inequalities in accessing the Information Highway that is often used as a conduit to gaining new and up-to-date knowledge.

A fourth reason that self-directed learning has been becoming more popular, according to Candy, is subjective or relativistic epistemology.  In this concept, knowledge is relative.  Knowledge can be different to different people and so, therefore, one instructor can not be said to have the correct or true facts in which they will impart to the students.  What is correct or true for one is not always exactly correct or true to another.  In this view, “the ideal teacher-student relationship bears no resemblance to that of master and apprentice” (Candy, p. 39).  A teacher should act more as a facilitator or a resource person, according to Candy, since knowledge is relative and dependent on the individual and the circumstances and society that surround it.  Within this view, knowledge, in relation to the facilitator/participant relationship, should more be co-constructed. This concept of knowledge being subjective and relative fits well into the idea of self-directed learning.  One who sets out down a path of self-directed learning finds and molds their own truths and their own forms of knowledge. 

The fifth reason, as Candy states, for the increasing attention and support that self-directed learning is receiving is humanism.  Humanism is a word that has become very popular in psychology as well as in education.  Many equate humanism with Maslow’s self-actualization theory.  Education often acts as a means towards a person reaching the highest levels of needs fulfillment, that level called self-actualization.  When Maslow looked at those individuals who had achieved self-actualization, a quality that he found was autonomy and independence.  Autonomy and independence, in terms of education, can inspire self-directed learning.  As a means to help an individual realize their highest potential, self-directed learning is humanistic in its basic levels.  Adult development through self-directed learning is just one of the measures that adults can use to achieve self-actualization.  According to Maslow, all persons are “striving towards health, individual identity and integrity, and autonomy” (as cited in Candy, p. 40).  These humanistic ideas are very prevalent in the goals of self-directed learning.

The final reason that Candy mentions that leads to the popularity of self-directed learning in research and practice in recent history is the construct of adulthood.  In his book, he discusses at what point someone is considered an adult.  Is one an adult when they reach a certain age?  Is the psychological level or level of ability to be autonomous how we decide when one can be considered an adult?  The discussion of whether or not a child can take part in self-directed learning has also been brought forward.  Joblin (1988) points out that, “the myth persists that children must be taught, whereas adults can learn for themselves” (as cited in Candy, p.44).  Whether this would be true or false, these discussions and research around these topics within the field of Adult Education has brought the subject of self-directed learning to the forefront of topics within the field. 

These six reasons, as presented by Candy, have caused the topic of self-directed learning to be on the tongues of adult educators and learners alike.  Teachers, or facilitators as many call themselves, are encouraging and creating more and more opportunities for self-directed learning.  Learners have been stirred by these six reasons to seek out a kind of learning where they can have more control over the curriculum and structure of learning. Today, the opportunities for this, both in formal and in informal settings, abound. 

Concluding Thoughts

Malcolm Knowles, in his assumptions regarding andragogy (aka. adult education) and self-directed learning, said that adults have an, “innate psychological need to be self-directed” (as cited in Leach, 2005, p. 565) and this is one reason for the certain future of self-directed learning. As Combs (1972) states so well, “The world we live in demands self-starting, self-directing citizens capable of independent action.  The world is changing so fast we cannot hope to teach each person what he/she will need to know in twenty years.  Our only hope to meet the demands of the future is the production of intelligent, independent people” (as cited in Candy, p. 47).  Although this quote is now 50 years old, it still rings true and perhaps even more so today. We all must practice our intellectual muscles to know where and how to find and use the information we need to keep pace with the ever-growing complexity of our world and of our workplace. These requirements of our modern world can assure us that self-directed learning, and the skills required to successfully learn on our own, will forever hold an important place in life-long learning methods. 

Self-directed learning can, and should, be a good compliment to traditional education, towards the goal of achieving a society of life-long learners. What journal article, news article from a “link-of-a-link,” blog article, doctrine publication, book chapter, or YouTube video are you exploring today in support of your current learning needs or life-long learning goals?


Candy, P. (1991). Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Leach, L. (2005). “Self-Directed Learning”. In L. English, (Ed.) International Encyclopaedia of Adult Education (pp. 565-569). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Government of Canada. (2018). Canadian Armed Forces professional development framework.

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