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Self-directed learning, autonomy and distance learning

6 min read


One thing that everybody involved in the education system has learned over the last couple of months, is how flexible and adaptive learning environments can be. Emergency remote learning had to be established quickly in school systems worldwide and new challenges emerged. Now more than ever it has become clear that resilience, adaptiveness and self-regulation are essential factors in learning. To prepare students for 21st century challenges, schools need to address skills such as time-management, goal setting, decision-making, problem-solving and study skills, as well as attending to subject knowledge. This presupposes an appreciative teacher-student relationship that acknowledges students’ autonomy and authority in the learning process.

Self-directed learning (SDL) – the process in which an individual takes initiative for their own learning (Knowles, 1975) – is based on the assumption that learners can determine their personal learning needs and set appropriate steps to achieve their personal learning goals. While SDL was originally developed for adult learning environments, self-regulated learning (SRL) is concerned with school environments (Saks and Leijen, 2014) in which teachers set the task for their students who ‘are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviourally active participants in their own learning process’ (Zimmerman 1989, p. 329). A recently published guidance report on metacognition and self-regulated learning (EEF, 2018) establishes three components that are essential in SRL environments, namely cognition, metacognition, and motivation. While cognition refers to knowing, understanding, and learning, metacognitive strategies are those with which students monitor their cognitive processes. Motivation then, is the willingness to engage in cognitive and metacognitive processes. The EEF suggests seven recommendations to establish SRL (EEF, 2018):

  1. Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge.
  2. Explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning.
  3. Model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive skills.
  4. Set an appropriate level of challenge to develop pupils’ self-regulation and metacognition.
  5. Promote and develop metacognitive talk in the classroom.
  6. Explicitly teach pupils how to organise and effectively manage their learning independently.
  7. Schools should support teachers to develop knowledge of these approaches and expect them to be applied appropriately.

While all these aspects are challenging, number five seems to be particularly challenging in emergency remote learning environments, in which it is often difficult to communicate with students. It seems, however, that communication and feedback are most crucial in learning environments that physically distance teachers and pupils from each other. While we know, for example, from Hattie and Yates (2014) about the importance of feedback in learning processes, distance learning can make this quite a challenging task. To establish an online environment, in which students can explore their personal cognitive, metacognitive, and motivational competences, it seems essential to highlight communication and adequate ways in which to give feedback. Additionally, in a new environment such as the online classroom, we should remind ourselves that ‘an autonomy orientation in learning does not mean abandoning structure; it means creating structures [‚Ķ] that allow children to solve their own problems, that provide guidance and allow children to assess their own competence’ (Deci and Ryan, 1982, p. 14).

An interesting model proposed by Roberts and Inman (2015) addresses differentiating instruction that is based on pre-assessment and reflection. To plan a differentiated classroom that caters for students on different cognitive, metacognitive, and motivational levels, teachers should use the tool of pre-assessment. This can help us to understand what pupils already know, what they want to learn, how they prefer learning, what their personal interests and strengths are and what their experiences are. Pre-assessment, however, not only allows the teacher to better understand their pupils, but is also a first step for pupils to reflect on themselves. In order to develop strategies needed for self-directed learning, e.g. formulating personal learning needs and goals, students need be taught these metacognitive strategies (EEF, 2018).

Roberts and Inman (2015, p. 51) suggest several ways to pre-assess, some of which focus more on content and others on pupils’ interests:

  • end-of-the-previous-unit assessment
  • end-of-the-unit assessment (the unit to be learned)
  • T-W-H and K-W-L Charts (What do you think about this topic? What do you want to learn about this topic? How do you want to learn about this topic?, or What I know, What I want to know, What I learned)
  • mind map
  • venn diagram
  • the five most difficult questions
  • open-ended question(s)
  • interest and experience inventory.

Strictly speaking, pre-assessing pupils and then planning differentiated learning plans, implies that teachers set tasks for the pupils, which could be seen to undermine self-directed learning, in which the learner takes the initiative. It is, however, highly questionable that this strict definition then could ever be applied to classroom contexts that ought to be guided by teachers based on the curriculum. What can, however, be directed by the learner is the formulation of needs, goals and learning strategies. In applying pre-assessment tools, teachers can support pupils in reflecting on exactly these needs, goals and strategies.

Roberts and Inman (2015) further illustrate how teachers can differentiate the content that needs to be learned, the process of how pupils learn and the product with which they demonstrate their learning. Depending on the levels of pupils’ readiness, strengths and interests, teachers could determine certain factors while others might be chosen by the pupils. In other words, while the teacher might want to establish the content that needs to be learned by all pupils, the pupils can determine how they want to present what they have learned. An interesting tool for product differentiation might be, for example, the My Way – Expression Style Inventory (Kettle et al., 1998). In another learning unit students might focus on their personal interests and how they could develop these. An interesting tool for discussions on their interests is, for example, the Primary Interest-A-Lyzer (Renzulli and Rizza, n.d.) and the Secondary Interest-A-Lyzer (H√©bert, Sorensen and Renzulli).

It has become apparent, in my experience, that online teaching and learning relies to a great extent, one that I underestimated in the beginning, on regular communication and feedback between my pupils and me. This refers not only to feedback on submitted tasks but, maybe more importantly, on feedback on their learning strategies. From the feedback that I have received, which was essential to adequately adapt my online classroom, a lack in communication led to a decrease in motivation and an increase in insecurity. Therefore, in addition to guidance in the learning process, it is crucial that teachers and pupils in online settings also actively and collaboratively assess and reflect on the learning process. Especially in situations in which a teacher-pupil relationship cannot rely on any non-verbal communication, it becomes essential to explicitly guide and comment on the learning process, so as to create an appreciative atmosphere in which learning can take place and learner autonomy can flourish.

Key questions

  • Which strategies do you use to create an appreciative atmosphere in your online classroom?
  • Which communicative channels could you use to give feedback? What are advantages and drawbacks of different channels and online environments in general for communication?
  • How can you effectively keep track of your students personal learning goals, their capabilities and their interests?
  • How can you make the content of your lessons relevant for your pupils?



Deci EL and Ryan RM (1981) Curiosity and Self-Directed Learning: The Role of Motivation in Education. Available at: (accessed 2 June 2020).

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning: Guidance Report. London: EEF. Available at: (accessed 2 June 2020).

Hébert, Sorensen and Renzulli (n.d.) Secondary Interest-A-Lyzer. Available at: (accessed 18 June 2020).

Kettle KE, Renzulli JS and Rizza MG (1998) Products of Mind: Exploring Student Preferences for Product Development Using My Way … An Expression Style Instrument. Gifted Child Quarterly – GIFTED CHILD QUART. 42: 48-57. Available at: (accessed 2 June 2020).

Knowles M (1975) Self-directed learning. A guide for learners and teachers. Chicago, IL: Association Press /Follett.

Renzulli JS and Rizza MG (nd) Center for Creativity, Gifted Education, and Talent Development. Primary Interest-A-Lyzer. Available at: (accessed 2 June 2020)

Roberts JL and Inman TF (2015) Strategies for Differentiating Instruction. Best practices for the classroom. Waco: Prufrock Press.

Saks K and Leijen A (2014) Distinguishing self-directed and self-regulated learning and measuring them in the e-learning context. Procedia- Social and Behavioural Sciences: 190-198.

Zimmerman B (1989) A social-cognitive view of academic self-regulation. Journal of Educational Psychology 81(3): 329-339.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How do these reflections compare to your own experiences of online learning?

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