Self-directed learning is a broad type of employee development. This type of learning is completed individually, by the employee, with little or no support from any external organizational structures or other people. Self-directed learning is self-powered, self-administered, and self-motivated learning. While it could take a multitude of forms, the most common types of self-directed learning are reading, listening to prerecorded information, watching videotaped information, and following printed or recorded instructions to complete a task. In other words, the learning may be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic and performed by readers, observers, listeners, or doers independently on their own time and at their own pace.

Reading

Visual learners learn best by reading or looking at graphic representations of information. Much of the self-directed learning that we typically experience is done  by reading books, articles, newsletters, websites, blogs, charts, graphs, graphic models, and other information. Learners can learn visually from printed or online material anywhere because it is easily accessible and transportable. Self-directed learners can read in a library, at home, in the office, or even at a bookstore, where they can skim all the books that interest them in a particular section. They can read online on their computer at their desk, on their laptop at a café, on their e-reader on the beach, on their iPad at the park, or on their mobile device at the airport.

Listening

Auditory learners learn best by listening to audio delivery of information. Self-directed auditory learning involves listening to recorded information in the form of audiobooks, recorded lectures or presentations, or any other recording of audio information. This type of learning also can take place anywhere because it can be done via the computer or laptop, using built-in speakers or plugged-in headphones. It also can be performed via the many different kinds of audio devices available, such as iPads, MP3 players, and mobile devices. Learners can absorb information in most places where reading is possible and in places where reading would not work so well, such as while driving, riding a bike, or jogging. EMC supplements its executives’ training by providing participating learners with preloaded iPods featuring playlists of executive summaries of leading business books, for example.

Watching

A form of learning that combines audio and visual learning, viewing recorded audiovisual information is a highly engaging way to learn, especially if the information is presented in an interesting and attention-grabbing way. Learners can use a computer, VCR, or DVD player at home, in the office, or anywhere with a portable player or a laptop, an iPad, or even a smartphone. With the explosion of video-sharing services such as YouTube, the amount of recorded audiovisual information that can be instructional has grown exponentially. Recordings can vary from mini-tutorials by pedestrian peers via YouTube, to videos of world-renowned experts on TED.org, to National Geographic specials with multimillion-dollar recording budgets. Additional ways of audiovisual learning include visiting cultural institutions that use headsets and prerecorded tours, such as museums, zoos, and arboretums.

Doing

Tactile or kinesthetic learning is learning by doing. Some learners learn by trying to do it themselves. It is learning through the body, through movement and the sense of touch. Self-directed kinesthetic learning involves either learning by trial and error organically, or learning by following written, auditory, or audiovisual recordings. Depending on the subject matter, kinesthetic learning may or may not need any special settings or materials. If learners are trying to learn how to cook a Catalan-style Spanish stew, they need ingredients, utensils, and kitchen appliances. But if they are trying to learn how to create a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, they need a computer or laptop with the Excel program, but no special location or any other tools. This type of learning also can include shadowing, observing, and practicing skills of role models in the work environment or in specialized locations such as factories, workshops, stores, and other institutions.

Who should try it?

Learners are empowered to set goals and achieve learning objectives that are totally customized to their learning levels and needs. Self-directed learning encourages responsibility and ownership, and puts learners in control of their learning. Therefore, to fully benefit, learners must be self-motivated and independent. Any learner, at any level, in any part of the organization, can benefit from self-directed learning because it can be tailored to suit one’s individual learning level. And, in fact, we can estimate that just about every employee engages in some kind of self-directed learning every year.

Learners who are not self-motivated, or who have significant concerns or inhibitions about the subject matter or their ability to be successful, would probably not find this kind of learning appealing. They may not be able to successfully navigate the lessons independent of external reinforcement, modeling, or accountability structures. Sometimes employees are not interested in learning something, because they don’t value the learning goals, don’t agree with the purpose, or are unwilling to perform the learning tasks. These types of unwilling participants would find it difficult to complete self-directed learning as their chief form of development.

Note: This article is excerpted from Employee Development on a Shoestring by Halelly Azulay.

Halelly Azulay is the president of TalentGrow, a consulting company focused on developing leaders and teams to improve the human side of work. She brings 20 years of professional experience in the fields of workplace learning and communication to corporate, government, regulatory, nonprofit, and academic clients. Azulay is past president of the board of ASTD’s award-winning metro D.C. chapter, where she served in various leadership roles from 2005 to 2010. She was selected to judge the 2009 and 2010 Apollo Awards for excellence in employee development and is a sought after speaker at conferences and meetings for various organizations about leadership, employee development, and communication.