Self-direction is one of the key attributes of an adult learner. How can you encourage it in your online course?
Overbearing pedagogy is a recurring problem for many adult learners. As children, we’re usually taught in a way that emphasizes a “follow the teacher” mentality. The instructor lays out the lesson, delivers a lecture, sets homework, and marks grades. Children seldom take part in determining the course of their educational curriculum, and are mostly trained to follow the plan laid out for them.
But for adults, the situation is the reverse. We’re used to setting our own priorities, and we’re far beyond the point where we’re willing to sit through lessons that don’t have an immediate bearing on our objectives. We already know what we want, and we’re looking for a course that delivers.
Of course, adults don’t want to feel completely abandoned when they take a course. After all, they’re seeking an instructor for a reason. But they want a balance between guided learning and their own impulse toward self-direction.
If you can find a way to incorporate self-directed learning in your course, you will see happier learners, who feel more satisfied with their courses, are more motivated to complete the course work, and retain what they’ve learned better. Here’s how to start.
1. Demonstrate how your course matches their goals.
For most adult learners, your online course is not mandatory. Even if they’re taking it as part of a work program, they may have signed up to meet a career goal. This has two important ramifications for your course. On the one hand, since taking your course isn’t compulsory, it’s on you to demonstrate its value and how it matches learner goals. And on the other hand, if you do make a compelling case for your course, those who sign up will have strong internal motivation to finish.
To build that internal motivation, you want to connect your course to the why behind their decision to enroll. If your students are learning a new language, that why might be “meeting new people,” “getting ready for a big trip,” or “reading a foreign-language book.” Learners who are voluntarily signing up for your course already demonstrate a strong level of self-direction. Your goal is to harness that drive so that they stay motivated.
2. Understand their values and priorities.
Your learners may have signed on to your course to learn a language, but that’s not the full story. Most learners don’t just have a motivation for learning, they also have a good understanding of how they want to learn. They may prioritize short lessons they can complete during a lunch break, or they be looking for a strong support community.
User behavior and customer feedback can tell you a lot about what your learners want out of your course. If your learners are drawn to certain kinds of content, or if they request certain features, adding these elements to your course can help raise learner satisfaction and make them feel their interests are being heard.
3. Turn over the keys.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of self-directed learning is that it requires instructors to turn control of the learning experience over to the learners themselves. While this may mean less planning on the part of the instructor, it also often means more time working with learners individually to establish their goals, or else creating a wider range of content so that learners can choose what to study.
A few ways to encourage self-directed learning include:
- Letting learners set their own completion dates for assignments.
- Allowing learners multiple completion attempts.
- Having learners design their own course projects.
- Organizing modules so that learners can start with whatever interests them most.
4. Show them the outcomes and help them track their progress.
Of course, when learners set their own goals, they need more feedback to understand how well they are succeeding. For instance, if modules aren’t arranged in a particular order, but instead in a way that lets learners pick and choose where to start, they’ll probably need more feedback as to their overall progress in the course.
For more incremental courses that are helping learners build a skills (such as a language), a different form of feedback can be helpful. This might include a streak counter to help learners set a habit, or a badge system as they achieve new goals.
5. Provide a challenge.
Just because learners are setting their own path doesn’t mean they aren’t up for a challenge. Setting a piece of extra credit course work, or offering a special badge for learners who meet their stretch goals, can be a motivator to encourage learners to push a bit harder to meet their objectives.
This is where a community support system can help you out. The more your learners can see fellow learners working toward the same goal, the stronger their motivation will be to keep up. Creating a group where your users can meet fellow learners, share goals, and encourage mutual success can keep everyone involved and accountable.
Self-directed learning doesn’t just boost satisfaction—it improves memory retention.
Adult learners don’t just prefer self-directed learning because it makes them feel in charge. They also remember what they’ve learned more effectively when they have had control over the learning process. This is because the process of self-directed learning helps them organize the process, assign meaning and value to what they have learned, and create stronger associations with the material that will be easier to recall in the future.
By creating a course that prioritizes this kind of learning, you’re not only making your learners happy; you’re helping them learn.