Moving online with self-directed learning

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With the rapid transition that has been necessary recently due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a large number of colleagues are looking for ideas, alternatives and suggestions for developing their learning and teaching approaches online. This series of blog posts are aimed at supporting staff looking for ways to incorporate more blended or online learning teaching whether for the short term or long term.

What do we mean by self-directed learning?

Self-directed learning allows students to define and investigate topics of their own choosing. Students, without the help of others, determine their own learning needs and learning goals or objectives. As the motivation for this is likely to be intrinsic, it can lead to higher levels of engagement from students as they pick topics of personal interest. This then fosters independent learning and when that learning is brought back into a group context, extends the diversity of topics covered among the group. This approach can encourage critical thinking skills and helps develop students research skills.

What are the benefits of moving self-directed learning online?

Moving online can help students take greater ownership of the content of a topic and the method by which they’re going to research, collate and share that new knowledge. There’s a clear link with helping students develop information literacy skills and understanding how to use online database searches, as opposed to just using Google. They will also have the opportunity to find ways of digitally curating and synthesising that new found knowledge using online tools such as OneNote, collaborative Word documents, wikis etc and to share those outputs with their fellow students.

How can I move this practice online?

There are a range of tools that can help students with self-directed study. As always with deciding which digital learning and teaching technologies to use and how, you need to consider what you are trying to achieve with your learning and teaching. Here are some questions to consider which will help with determining the best technology that fits your needs in aiding students with self-directed learning.

  1. Start with the learning outcomes. What are the key elements, skills or competencies that you are looking to support your students to develop through a self-directed learning approach?
  2. How are you currently helping students develop their self-directed learning skills? Have you set-up Resource Lists for your modules?
  3. Do you want students to share their findings back with you or also with other students?

There are a range of tools that can be helpful. ePortfolios such as PebblePad which is the ePortfolio system at Worcester can be used to collate a range of different artefacts that be gathered together into collections for sharing. OneNote can be a useful personal tool as well for students to use to gather information in a variety of formats. Pinterest can be a useful tool for collating and sharing a range of artefacts and ideas. All these tools allow tagging of different types of resources to aid students to bring different ideas together later.

Be clear about how the final outputs from their self-directed study will be shared. Are you looking for students to deliver a PowerPoint presentation online through Blackboard Collaborate or to record a narrated PowerPoint? Alternatives could be an Infographic, poster (both can be done in Powerpoint) or animation using Powtoon or Adobe Sparks . Even a shared Word document via OneDrive can provide the opportunity to gather and share insights and knowledge of a new topic.

Where do I begin?

If you’ve not already had a chance to use it, have a look at the Learner Journeys toolkit developed by Library Services, this can help in identifying some of those key information literacy skills students need to support self-directed learning and help prepare students as they take on more responsibility for researching a topic of their choice. Remember that students may not be familiar with self-directed study as well having to get used to a new tool. Gilly Salmon’s five stage model can be applied in this context to help students become familiar with a new digital learning and teaching approach or technology. In the context of moving self-directed study online this might look like:

  1. Access and Motivation: Encourage students to decide which digital learning and teaching tool they wish to use, perhaps suggest two options such as OneNote or PebblePad and ensure they know where to get help.
  2. Online Socialisation: Encourage students to share the choice of their topic via a Blackboard discussion forum and offer some initial feedback about scope.
  3. Information Exchange: Encourage students to share one element of their topic findings so far and encourage students to comment constructively on the shared findings.
  4. Knowledge Construction: As students become more comfortable with their self-directed study, encourage more sharing and commenting. Use a Blackboard discussion forum where students can post links to their ePortfolios, Word document via OneDrive etc.
  5. Development: Encourage students to bring together their studies on their chosen topic into a final artefact for review and feedback. Consider if you wish to give students the choice of how they will present their final artefact or need it in a particular format.

Where can I go next?

Self-directed study is an important step in developing critical research skills for dissertations, and further post-graduate study. Helping students develop intrinsic motivations through sharing and receiving feedback on their personal study topics helps them develop their skills as life-long learners whether that’s for further academic study or within their chosen career. Consider engaging students further in the curriculum design process, or providing projects, to turn their self-directed study topics into course materials for future cohorts.

Further Information About Self-directed Learning

Advance HE

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This work is licenced by University of Worcester and is derived from the work of Sheffield Hallam University under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit

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