Last Updated on January 29, 2021

13 Ways to Develop Self-Directed Learning and Learn Faster

13 Ways to Develop Self-Directed Learning and Learn Faster

Learning alone with self-directed learning is not a simple task. It takes trying out new study methods, knowing how you learn, and the motivation to keep going.

While this all sounds simple on paper, it’s important to note people’s overall mood towards learning. For many people, it’s been years since they last picked up a book, let alone a textbook. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people stopped learning seriously after university or college.

It’s good now that you are focusing on your learning anew, because once you delve into what learning is, you’ll realize that school learning wasn’t the most optimal.

Self-directed learning can be a great tool to help you continue your lifelong learning. We’ll discuss what it is and some tips to help you. 

What Is Self-Directed Learning?

Self-directed learning, at its core, is taking learning into your own hands and growing from it. It’s a technique that’s drastically different from what’s taught in most schools. In other words, it’s a highly effective technique that anyone can use and would be great in a school setting.

Here’s Tanmay Vora’s 3L’s of self-directed learning:[1]

Self-Directed Learning

    In fact, there is one school in the US that can attest to that through theory and practice: Brisbane Independent School or BIS. Because the school wasn’t restricted by Federal Curriculums—which are lackluster at best—they could adopt this form of learning.

    This push for self-directed learning came from Jennifer Haynes, who started teaching at BIS in the 1990s. From there, the buzzword at the time evolved into a curriculum program that emphasizes seven characteristics:

    • Playfulness
    • Autonomy
    • Internalized Evaluation
    • Openness to Experience
    • Intrinsic Motivation
    • Self Acceptance
    • Flexibility

    From those seven characteristics, Haynes noted:


    “These characteristics are planned into our curriculum and each student is tracked on a continuum of development. It is wonderful to see how a student can go from needing a teacher to help them even come up with an idea for a project and then observe them in their final years developing planning and implementing a project…They learn how great it feels to develop their own idea and most importantly how to complete the task without anyone standing over them to get it done.”[2]

    Characteristics of a Self-Directed Learner

    The students at BIS give a birds-eye view of some of the characteristics of a self-directed learner. Exploring further, we’ll find more, especially when we consider the methods I mentioned above as ways of improving this learning style.

    From those methods, many papers in education research have emerged over the years showing all kinds of positive side-effects of this method, including for adult education.

    First, self-directed learning includes people taking the initiative when diagnosing their learning and building from there. One study noted that when this happens, people uncover and grow their grit and perseverance, and improve their intrinsic motivation and integrity.[3]

    Second, students feel more empowered through self-learning. With programs moving to the internet,[4] we can see this as a form of self-directed learning. After all, you need to pace yourself when it comes to online courses and problem-based learning.

    Thirdly, people who take up self-directed learning develop other helpful skills. They’ll have an easier time formulating learning goals and identifying their own intrinsic motivation. After all, these sorts of skills can apply to other areas outside of learning.

    For example, we all need to set goals if we want to grow and enrich our business, career, and life. Learning how to set meaningful goals that we are excited to achieve means more than the act of setting a goal we don’t care about.

    Some other characteristics of these learners are:

    Highly Reflective

    It takes a lot to know your interests and how to motivate yourself. As a result, many of these learners spend time in their heads evaluating and reflecting.


    From effective learning to effective motivation, these individuals become more efficient with their learning.



    Being this type of learner means you need to value collaboration and teamwork. This teaches you to seek help and guidance and to offer help when needed. They work better in a team dynamic because of this.

    A Greater Sense of Responsibility

    Ultimately, in self-directed learning, individuals take the initiative and decide when, how, and what to learn. This sense of responsibility is especially important in the 21st century, when education seems to have stalled in its progress.

    More Inquisitive

    This teaching method encourages us to ask why and to not settle with “I don’t know” as the answer. As a result, we learn to ask the more important and impactful questions that spark discussion, discovery, and learning.

    What’s amazing about self-directed learning is that we can adopt it in our own lives.

    How to Develop Self-Directed Learning

    Developing this strategy isn’t that hard. For most people, it needs to be taught explicitly, but the following ways will help in growing and learning this strategy.

    1. Identify Learning Goals

    You can never achieve anything unless you’ve envisioned it. Identify what you wish to learn first. Set specific learning goals that you will be able to measure over time.

    2. Question the Significance

    Make a habit of not taking everything at face value. Always have a cat-like curiosity and ask questions that make you care about the answer. Dive past obvious answers with “why” and “how” questions, and devote yourself to finding the answers.

    3. Find Challenges

    Challenges, while uncomfortable at first, can be exciting and rewarding. Find a challenge related to a problem you care about solving. Overcoming it will then feel meaningful and will push you to continue learning.

    For example, if you want to learn a new language, challenge yourself to read one book in that language each month and watch how it becomes easier over time.

    You can learn more about how to train yourself to crave learning in this video:


    4. Check Your Learning Process

    Learning is better when you’ve set your own learning standards. Regardless of grades, measure your progress against personal learning goals. Schools teach us to use grades. You’ll have to come up with a more meaningful way to measure your learning[5].

    5. Understand Your Learning Approach

    There are tons of resources to help you identify learning styles, but do you really know what your style is?

    Take a moment to look at the format and medium of your learning approach and change it around from time to time as you engage in self-directed learning. Most people are strong in several learning styles, and they can often further develop those they’re weakest in. Experiment to see what works in the long term.

    6. Uncover the Background of a Topic

    Get to know the topic you are learning by checking the background of the topic. Read articles you find interesting, or watch TED Talks related to topics on your learning list.

    7. Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation

    Intrinsic motivation is motivation driven from internal rewards. It seems like a simple concept, but many people struggle with it. Fortunately, it can be learned. One form of it is sharing what you learned with others.

    Try to avoid being hard on yourself if you’re looking to cultivate intrinsic motivation. Too much self-criticism will put you off from continuing your learning journey. Keep it as positive as possible and cultivate gratitude and appreciation for all the effort you’re putting into your education.

    8. Making Something out of What You Learned

    A song, a journal entry, a picture…These are examples of things that you can create from what you learned. Not only does this help solidify what you learn, but it gives you something to look forward to. This is also great for kinesthetic learners!

    9. Leverage Time

    Sometimes we get busy and don’t have time to learn, but that lack of time is more of a reason to leverage the time we do have.

    Take your thirty-minute lunch breaks to eat and squeeze in a learning session. If you go to the gym, listen to a podcast or an audiobook while you’re on the treadmill.

    10. Create a Topic List

    Think of a topic list as a bucket list of things you want to learn about. These can be broad topics or narrow ones. These lists can help you in creating goals and working to achieve them.


    11. Value Your Progress Over Your Performance

    We never truly stop learning. There will always be tiny bits of information or views we are exposed to every day. However, when you want to actively learn, focus more on the stimulation of learning over your actual performance.

    12. Have Realistic Learning Goals

    Self-directed learning is built on a system that we create. To ensure the system is sound, you want to make sure everything is set within your own limits. The last thing you want is to feel discouraged from learning.

    Try to start small and work your way up. For example, if you want to learn how to code, don’t expect to be able to build a fully functioning website in a month. Plan to learn enough to alter text and colors in the first month as a more realistic goal.

    13. Build a Network of Learning Colleagues

    Have a group of people that you can collaborate and connect with. This group of people will push you to learn more and can give you an outlet for when you want to talk about what you’ve learned. Best of all, this group can be either offline or online.

    Final Thoughts

    Self-directed learning is the key to having a more enriching learning experience. While everyone’s taste for learning seems to have diminished, it is due to an old and ineffective system—a system that doesn’t encourage deeper learning or support students to set higher learning goals they care about.

    Self-directed learning is important because it teaches people to be more independent and responsible individuals. They develop skills to be internally motivated, self-sufficient, to ask meaningful and impactful questions, and more.

    Now is the best time to get into self-directed learning and to fall in love with learning again.

    More Tips on Learning

    Featured photo credit: Amy Tran via


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    Published on April 15, 2021

    9 Steps to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

    9 Steps to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

    You have probably heard of the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

    That old cliché gets thrown around quite a bit in educational circles, but what really goes into inspiring people to become independent, lifelong learners? Read on to learn more about self-regulated learning and how to make it more effective.

    Self-Regulated Learning

    One theory about teaching people how to learn is through self-regulated learning. In the broadest sense, it’s the idea that individuals should set their own learning goals and work independently and with a sense of agency and autonomy to achieve those goals. It’s the opposite of a teacher handing out a worksheet and students completing it just because the teacher told them to.

    Self-regulated learning is constructive and self-directed.[1] Instead of the worksheet example, self-regulated learning involves the students setting their own learning goals, deciding how to best achieve those goals, and then systematically and strategically working toward them. Teaching strategies like the Workshop Model and Portfolios are more aligned with self-regulated learning than a one-size-fits-all worksheet or lecture.

    Workshop Model

    The workshop model consists of three parts. Class begins with a mini-lesson, then students spend time working independently while the teacher circulates conferencing with students. Finally, the class ends with some kind of summary derived from what students learned through their independent work.

    Heavy hitters in the workshop model are Lucy Calkins and Nancie Atwell.[2][3] Their work has been instrumental in spreading best practices so that teachers know how to create truly student-led learning experiences.[4]


    Another example of an instruction that’s moving toward self-regulated learning is student portfolios. Students set learning goals and periodically reflect on whether or not they’re achieving those goals. They keep all their reflections and student work in folders and have periodic conferences with their teacher on how they’re pressing toward their goals.[5]


    The problem though is that the workshop model and portfolios require a different mindset and skillset from teachers. That’s where the theory of self-regulated learning comes in.

    3 Elements of Self-Regulated Learning

    One approach to self-regulated learning is to break it down into three components: regulation of processing modes, regulation of the learning process, and regulation of self. Dividing self-regulated learning in this way helps teachers know how to best help students work toward their individual goals, and it also gives us a glimpse into how we all can become more self-regulated learners.

    1. Regulation of Processing Modes

    The first step in self-regulated learning is to give learners a choice in how and why they’re learning in the first place.

    In our worksheet example, students are completing the task because the teacher said so, but when we reset why we’re learning in the first place, we’re starting to create a foundation for self-regulated learning.

    One educational researcher, Noel Entwistle makes a distinction between three different reasons for learning, and his work makes what we’re all working toward a lot clearer. Students can try to reproduce or memorize information, they can try to get good grades, or they can seek personal understanding or meaning.[6]

    The goal of self-regulated learning is to encourage students to move away from the first two learning orientations (following orders and trying to get good grades) and move toward the third, learning for some kind of intrinsic gain—learning to learn.

    2. Regulation of Learning Process

    The next level of self-regulated learning is when students are in charge of their own learning process. This is also known as metacognition. Studies have shown that when teachers do most of the heavy lifting—deciding what’s working and not working for each student—there’s a reduction in students’ metacognitive skills.[7]


    When I was teaching middle and high school, we had a saying that if we left the building at the end of the school day more tired than the students, we hadn’t done our job. What that means is that teachers have to find a way to get students to do the heavy lifting of metacognition—thinking about thinking. And students need to accept the challenge and become curious about what’s working and not working about their individualized and (at least, partially) self-generated learning plans.

    Boosting metacognition might include learning about how the brain works, what metacognition is all about, and all the different learning styles. Becoming curious about your individual strengths and learning preferences is crucial in beefing up your metacognitive skills.

    3. Regulation of Self

    Finally, there’s goal setting. If students are going to become truly self-regulated learners, they have to start setting their own goals and then reflecting on their progress toward those goals.

    How to Make Self-Regulated Learning More Effective

    Now that you’ve learned the important elements of self-regulated learning, here are 9 ways you can make it more effective for you.

    1. Change Your Mindset About Learning

    The first way to become a self-regulated learner is to change your mindset about why you’re learning in the first place. Instead of doing your schoolwork because the teacher says so or because you want the highest GPA, try to move toward learning to satisfy your curiosity. Learn because you want to learn.

    Sometimes, this will be easy, like when you’re learning something on your own that you’ve self-selected. Other times, it’s tougher, like when you have a teacher-selected assignment due.

    Before mindlessly completing your assignment, try to find “your in.” Find what’s fascinating about the topic and cling to that as you complete it. Sure, you need to complete it to graduate, but by finding the morsel that’s interesting to you, you’ll be able to start experiencing a more self-regulated kind of learning.


    2. Explore Different Learning Styles

    There are lots of different ways to learn: auditory, visual, spatial, and kinesthetic. Learn what all those styles mean and which ones feel especially effective for you.

    3. Learn How Learning Works

    Another great way to become a more self-regulated learner is to learn how learning works. Read up on cognitive science and psychology to figure out how we form memories, how we retain information, and how our emotions affect our learning. You have to understand the tools you’ve been given before you can wield those tools most optimally.

    4. Get Introspective

    Now it’s time to get introspective. Do a learning inventory and reflect on when you’ve been most and least successful in your learning.

    What’s your best subject? Why? When did you lose interest in a subject? Why? Ask yourself tough questions about how you learn, so you can move forward more strategically.

    5. Find Someone to Tell You Like It Is

    It’s also helpful to find someone who can be honest about your learning strengths and weaknesses. Find someone you trust who will be honest about your learning progress. If you lack self-awareness about your learning style and abilities, it’s difficult to be a self-regulated learner, so work with someone else to start becoming more self-aware.

    6. Set Some SMART Goals

    Now it’s time to set some learning goals. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. They’re a great way to become a self-regulated learner.[8]

    Instead of just saying, “I want to get better at Spanish,” you might set a SMART goal by saying “I want to memorize 100 new Spanish vocabulary words by next week.” Next week, you can test yourself and measure whether or not you’ve achieved your goal.


    It’s difficult to see how we’re progressing and learning when our goal is vague. Setting SMART goals gives you a clear barometer for your learning.

    7. Reflect on Your Progress

    Goals don’t mean much unless you measure your progress every now and then. Take time to determine whether or not you’ve achieved your SMART learning goals and why or why not you did. Self-reflection is a great way to boost self-awareness, which is a great way to become a self-regulated learner.

    8. Find Your Accountability Buddies

    Armed with your goals and deadlines, it’s time to find some trustworthy people to help keep you accountable. Now, your learning progress is your responsibility when you’re a self-regulated learner, but it doesn’t hurt to have some friends who know what your goals are. You can turn to this trustworthy group to discuss your learning progress and keep you motivated.

    9. Say It Loud and Proud

    There’s a phenomenon where we’re more likely to attain our goals when we’ve made them public.[9] Announcing our goals helps hold our feet to the fire. So, figure out a way to make your learning goals known. This might mean telling your accountability buddies, your teacher, or maybe even a social media group.

    Just know that you’re more likely to succeed when you’re not the only one who knows what your goals are.

    Final Thoughts

    Self-regulated learning is learning for learning’s sake. So, change your entire attitude about why you’re learning in the first place. Choose what you want to know more about or start with what interests you most when assigned a topic or project.

    Then, set SMART goals and periodically reflect on your progress. Self-awareness is a skill that can be practiced and improved. Make learning your job and your responsibility, and you’ll be well on your way toward becoming a self-regulated learner.

    You’ll never need to blame your learning struggles on someone or something else. Instead, you’ll have the self-awareness and abilities to be able to take your learning into your own hands and find a way forward no matter your current situation and limitations.

    Featured photo credit: Josefa nDiaz via


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