By Linda Cartwright.

Nowadays self-learning is an economic necessity. Although it isn’t quite the same as life-long learning, the two overlap significantly. The underlying reason for both is the growing speed of knowledge accumulation in every field of human activity.

Although the importance of inner motivation and responsibility for one’s education has been known since the times of Ancient Greece, today it becomes the only adequate solution to the growing discrepancy between the curriculum that becomes outdated before the ink dries on your test papers and the growing pace of progress.

We all will need to hone our skills and acquire new knowledge to keep up with it and stay current in our career path. To do that, we will have to adopt the habits that characterize a successful self-directed learner.

Embracing independence

The difference between the usual school or college and self-directed learning isn’t that big. Most of it is an illusion that learning is something done to you by teachers and instructors. Yet this isn’t true! Ideally, they should create a context for your self-learning, setting goals, pointing you towards helpful resources and facilitating the process by advice, assessment, and feedback.

When you learn self-directedly, you create this context for yourself – you are the one who identifies your learning needs, sets goals, looks for resources, comes up with exercises, and estimates progress. Although it comes with a weight of responsibility, it is also very liberating.

Motivating yourself

In traditional education, motivation is maintained by grades that supposedly reflect achievements and translate into better job opportunities and higher income. This unavoidably leads to shortcuts, when students feel justified in getting paper help for better grades without actually learning anything new. For them, learning was never a point of education – it’s a game and the one with the highest score wins it.

Self-directed learning does not provide you with such a rigid framework. Instead, it implies that your motivation will also come from within. You have to create your own kind. For example, learning for the sake of self-improvement or to advance in your chosen field. Of course, when done right, learning is intrinsically enjoyable. Whichever it is, motivation always comes from you.

Setting SMART goals

To stay motivated consistently you need regular rewards. The best reward for a learner is the sense of accomplishment and progress. To measure your success you need goals. As a self-directed learner, you are responsible for setting your own goals, which is a skill in itself. Whether you are only a beginner or a confident learner, make sure your goals are the SMART ones.

SMART stands for “Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-defined”. Specific and measurable – for you to be able to track your progress and celebrate accomplishments. Action-oriented and time-defined – to have a roadmap and deadline. Realistic – to be able to get your carrot and stay motivated. It’s always better to achieve a goal and set another than to work twice as long without any positive reinforcement.

Remaining persistent

When your motivation is depleting or you are just going through a rough patch that has nothing to do with your learning, you will want to slack a bit. Yet all learning takes time, effort, and repetition. Self-learners know they should stick to their plan and practice self-discipline.

If you aren’t that good at self-organizing, follow Benjamin Franklin’s five-hour rule – devote one hour a day every weekday to deliberate learning. All successful self-learners apply this rule in one form or another. Important note: never lump those hours together. Proper spacing ensures better retention, while shorter learning sessions are good for focus.

Maintaining self-discipline

For self-directed students learning is usually fun, yet, even so, it requires a degree of discipline. We often embrace the negative sides of discipline – beating ourselves up for failures or inventing punishments for skipping practice. If you want to be a successful self-learner, you should shift to a more positive mindset.

The word “discipline” shares its origins with the word “disciple” – a follower of certain teachings on the path of knowledge. Therefore, discipline is persistence on this way. It’s made up of small parts – successes and failures – and on those small parts you should focus, while keeping a long-term view. That is committing to everyday steps towards the goal, yet not overreacting to occasional failures.


A good deal of self-learning philosophy comes from the progressive education movement and works of John Dewey who named experience a cornerstone of learning. The most effective learning comes from integration of subject matter, personal take on it, and experience – both past and present.

Self-learners come up with hypotheses and test them; they apply their theories in practice. They engage in design-thinking and innovation effortlessly because problem-based learning is their natural way of gaining knowledge.

Learning actively

Active learning helps a better understanding of the material and allows you to choose which skills form your skillset to apply to which task. However, while some subjects seem to be made for active practice and hands-on tasks, others are not. What about literature or history where all you can do is reading?

You can make your reading active! Make notes, comment, ask questions, argue with the author on the margins of the book – this way you engage actively with the text and make sure you keep your mind focused on it, instead of wandering while your eyes glide aimlessly through the page.

Staying curious

Curiosity is the main driving force behind learning, it doesn’t come from any extrinsic motivation – it’s hardwired into our brains to make us learn eagerly from the first days of our lives. However, as grown-ups, we differ by the level of curiosity that we maintain.

As a rule, high-achievers and even geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci stay extremely inquisitive throughout their entire lives. Successful learners are prone to asking questions and the most important is “Why?” Some even define curiosity as “the desire to know why”, which is the most abstract question distinguishing humans from other animals.

Curiosity emerges from two opposing feelings – anxiety about unknown or complex and the excitement of discovery. Keeping them in balance is key to healthy and enjoyable learning.

Shifting to a growth mindset

Even if improvement doesn’t come easy, it is possible. You can achieve almost anything if you work towards it persistently. That’s the growth mindset in a nutshell. Why does it have to be stressed? – Because the traditional education system imprints a fixed mindset on students. According to it, you are either gifted at something or not. Left hemisphere vs. right hemisphere, STEM vs. Humanities, nerds vs. athletes, A vs. F – all sorts of false dichotomies.

What is even worse, the fixed mindset limits everyone – successful and struggling students alike. If you are proclaimed “smart”, this smartness becomes a title you can lose when you don’t know the answer, so you shy away from challenging tasks. This robs you of motivation to move further, creating the illusion that you have reached your destination. At the same time, it makes you insecure, since it bases your value on academic achievements.

As much as it is important to acknowledge and leverage your talents, you must never let them limit you and define your way if your heart is set on something else or circumstances prompt you to learn something you supposedly don’t have an aptitude for.

Employing critical thinking

The most valuable resource for self-directed learning is one’s awareness of self and the ability to inquire about the world around us. Of course, traditional classroom is no stranger to this method either, and teachers use the 5Ws and the H (What, Why, Who, When, Where, Why and How) to encourage students to think reflectively.

However, critical thinking is more than just asking questions. It’s about deciding what to believe and what not to believe. That includes openness to new perspectives, awareness of self-interests, and the ability to consider and assess the credibility of the information.

Vetting sources and content

Since the active search of information to engage with is a hallmark of self-directed learning, assessing how reliable a piece of information is takes a central place among self-directed student’s competencies. Especially today, when “fake news” and inaccurate estimations are trickling down into the domain of common knowledge at the frightening speed, it’s paramount to be discerning and be able to determine the credibility of information and its source to tell the fact from opinions or worse – propaganda.

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