Transforming Students into Self-Directed Learners

I recently had the opportunity to read “Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Students and Teachers”, by Malcolm Knowles. It was a quick and easy read that reminds us both as learners and instructors the need for learner-centered design. One of the best ways to encourage transformation in a learner is to put them at the center of their own learning. As a lifelong learner and a grad student, I find it most transformative when I am allowed a role in the learning that takes place in the classroom or online environment. I want a say in what is taught as well as the activities used during instruction. I am confident in my ability to direct my learning.

Knowles suggests in his book many practical tools to create an environment in which the learner is the focus. One of the tools is the learning contract, a negotiation between faculty and learner where the learner articulates their desired learning objectives, evidence of learning, and means of assessing that evidence. The faculty is there to guide the process and provide a framework in which the learner can develop learning objectives. Many courses call for learning objectives developed by the faculty to meet specific standards; this does not mean that some learning objectives cannot be contributed by the learner in addition to those faculty-set objectives.

“It is a tragic fact that most of us only know how to be taught; we haven’t learned how to learn” (Knowles, 1975, p 14).

Self-directed learning is a skill that all learners must acquire. With technology constantly changing and information rapidly increasing, the ability to direct one’s own learning must be a priority. An incoming freshman may not yet be ready to take on the role of self-directed learner, but you can teach them how. Faculty must first teach their learners how to learn, and then empower them with the tools necessary to become self-directed learners. As your learners become self-directed, they will transform into lifelong learners who maintain the capacity to stay relevant in an ever-changing world.

Try experimenting with a learning contract in one of your courses. Allow your learners to be part of deciding what and how they will learn. Below is a sample learning contract template you might wish to use.

Learning Contract

For more resources on self-directed learning, join one of CETTL’s 21st Century Pedagogy Institute book discussion groups: “Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills” by Linda B. Nilson, and “Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses” by L. Dee Fink. Check out the Pedagogy Institute calendar and sign up for one of these book discussion groups at:



Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-Directed learning: A guide for students and teachers. Chicago, IL: Follett Publishing Company.


  1. This seems like a tool that is ideally suited for use in capstone courses, particularly those that are project-based. At that point, we should expect our students to be self-directed learners, and the development of the tool itself can be assessed.

    As with any assessment, some mechanism needs to be in place to implement corrective action if the student’s self-directed assessment goals are not met, or if the student struggles with developing the instrument. It would also be interesting to see if this promotes “goal setting” skills in our students as they enter the workforce.

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