What motivates self-directed learners?

By Richenda Sabine

Graphic of carrot on a stick to illustrate motivating self-directed learnersWhat motivates you? Is it money, purpose, or something else? According to Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) our basic needs of security, identity and stimulation have to be met before we progress to self-actualisation (growing and developing to reach our individual potential).

Consider this in the context of learning. Without motivation, learning is rarely effective, so how do you motivate learners in the first place?

The answer, it turns out, is that they can largely do it for themselves.

Daniel Pink, in his book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us‘, dismisses the carrot-and-stick approach and tells us to forget everything we think about motivating people. He believes that the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today’s world is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and the world.

This view is borne out In the organisational context of today by the phenomenon of the self-directed learner, which has been well documented in research from learning benchmarking experts Towards Maturity, telling us that:

  • 88% learn more by finding things out for themselves, rather than through F2F training
  • 87% know what they need to learn in order to do their job
  • 74% know how to access what they need for learning

The research also shows a worrying disconnect with what some learning managers think about their learners, indicating that it is more than ever important to understand what motivates the self-directed learner.

There are two types of motivation:

  • Intrinsic – internally generated and comes from personal enjoyment or from a sense of obligation
  • Extrinsic – generated externally from objects, other people and the environment

The burning question in the world of workplace learning is how to keep these two types of motivation aligned, and not in contradiction with each other, so that self-directed learners stay engaged and motivated.

The positive benefits of self-direction

The concept of self-directed learning isn’t new. Centuries ago, Plutarch (46-127 A. D.) succinctly captured the concept of inspiring students to pursue learning rather than simply filling them with content. His metaphor is powerful: “A learner is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.”

Malcolm Knowles, adult learning theorist and educator, defines self-directed learning 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 learning outcomes.’
Knowles, 1975

For young children, self-directed learning is a fact of life. They are naturally curious and drawn to things that interest them, marvelling at each new discovery, often driving their parents mad with endless questions.

For older children, however, there seems to be considerable resistance to learning, and much of the learning that they do seems to depend on directives from teachers or parents, on grades and gold stars, and different types of external recognition.

For adult learners you need to create desire (What’s in it for me?), show them what they’ll be able to do once they complete the course and ensure you set proper expectations (don’t promise what you don’t deliver). Most of us can identify with a scenario like this: you get a reminder to start an e-learning module when you’re in the middle of a deadline and have a million other things to do.
What would motivate learners in a positive direction?

  1. Make it relevant and timely, using examples from their own experience.
  2. Include it in a training plan so that learners are given permission to do the learning rather than thinking they should be somewhere else, doing something else.
  3. Keep it simple by producing the learning in bite-sized chunks – shorter-term, more achievable goals help maintain motivation.
  4. Feedback, for example from the results of a quiz, keeps learners motivated.

Why is it important for adults to be self-directed learners?

  1. There is evidence that people who take the initiative in learning learn more and better than people who wait to be taught. This not only gives them a greater sense of purpose and motivation, but also helps them to retain more information and put it to better use.
  2. Self-directed learning is more in tune with our natural processes of psychological development – adults don’t need teachers and are better off in charge of their own learning.
  3. Developing ‘self-directed inquiry’ skills is especially useful now that there is an increasing opportunity to learn from online resources through, for example, using the internet for research.

Self-direction does not necessarily mean the learner learns alone or in isolation. The critical factor is that the learner is driving the total learning experience, beginning with recognising a need to learn.

Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers wrote the following 47 years ago!

‘We can only have citizens who can live constructively in this kaleidoscopically changing world … if we are willing for them to become self-starting, self-initiating learners.’
Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn

These words are even more pertinent today, as the extent and pace of change have rapidly escalated. Self-directed e-learning is not just convenient, it’s effective. The sense of control not only improves learning outcomes, but it also allows us to tailor our environment to suit us, to work around deadlines, to complete other commitments before starting and to pace our learning to match how we learn best.

Power to the learner!

‘When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.’
John Lennon

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