How to Learn Anything
Shortcuts to Knowledge and Understanding

8. Self-Directed Learning

Content Guide

How You Learn


General Purposes of Adult Learning

Principles of Adult Learning

Characteristics of Adult Learners

Learning Styles

Learning Contracts


Memory Map

How You Learn

Before we get into the specifics of how people learn let us find out a bit about how you learn.

Think about some recent learning experiences you have had at school, home or while you were vacationing. Think about what you enjoyed while you were learning. Think about what you disliked. Use the following questions to identify some of your own learning preferences:

1. I learn best when... (Note things about the environment, the time of day, the topics, people, etc.)

2. I have the most trouble learning when...

3. The best thing a teacher can do for me is...


"Learning" is a word we use all the time but do we know when we are learning and when we are not? Are we always learning?

To help us understand learning, there are a few definitions we need to look at before we can discuss the ways we learn.

Learning is a process we go through consciously and unconsciously. We are always receiving information through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. We learn while we are awake but we also learn at a different level when we are asleep.

Learning takes place when our environment is stable and when our environment changes. We learn by watching and we learn by doing.

There are three broad categories of learning:

1. problem solving through which we try to control our environment and people around us,

2. communicating with others and learning to understand them,

3. self-reflective learning through which we try to understand ourselves.

Self-Directed Learning is simply a method of acquiring knowledge or skills based on what we want and need to learn. The learner chooses what to learn, how to learn it, what resources to use for learning (e.g. experts, friends, books, television, and videos), and when they would like to learn it.

Self-Instructional Learning is another method of learning where learners use resources designed by other people to help them acquire knowledge or skills. This book, for example, is self-instructional. Computer manuals or software tutorials are self-instructional. Learners may choose, or be told, what they need to learn and resources are designed by other people to help learners acquire the knowledge or skills in a very specific way.

Learning Styles. Everyone is forced to learn in many different ways but all of us have preferred ways of learning that we find more comfortable and enjoyable. Perhaps we enjoy lecture style learning or perhaps we enjoy working in group activities to learn. Our preferred way of learning will change in different situations. We also have preferences for the way we perceive, interact with and respond to learning. Some of us enjoy thinking about things rather than learning based on our feelings. Others like to experience learning in active ways while others like to observe people doing things. Learning styles looks at the structure and process of our learning rather than the actual content of that learning.

Principles of Adult Learning

Principles are the basic structures by which we understand the events and realities in our lives. Adult learning has basic principles to help learners and teachers understand learning more clearly and what each can do to help learners learn more effectively.

Listed below are specific principles of adult learning:

· Adults need to learn how to learn to achieve their personal and professional needs and hopes.

· Adults learn throughout their lives using different learning styles which change from situation to situation (eg. prefer lectures to reading for an overview of a topic but prefer reading to listening for details).

· Adults want learning to be meaningful in relation to their work, their families, their leisure, and their personal growth (however they wish to define it).

· Adults may choose to self-direct their learning, if they have the necessary skills to accomplish this, or they may choose to have their learning directed to acquire content and skills more quickly.

· Adults learn through experience and reflection about their learning, together with the use of a wide variety of resources.

· Children and adults both learn from experience, curiosity, benefit-oriented projects, and by constantly asking questions.

· It is necessary for educators to understand change events (versus developmental theory) so that they can adapt their assistance to meet exciting or traumatic changes within a learner's life.

· Learning can take place individually or within groups.

· An educator's respect for learning means an acceptance that learning never stops for learners or educators.

· Adults often learn what they think or know is expected of them rather than learning what they want to learn.

· Culture, politics, religion, the physical environment, and peer pressures all influence one's learning and the methods educators use to assist learners.

· Adults' physical (including disabilities, nutrition, eye sight, hearing), emotional, intellectual, biological and spiritual characteristics can help or harm their learning.

· Learning can be mishandled by well meaning, but autocratic, educators who use various methods, including intimidation, negative behavioral techniques, or even discriminatory beliefs to socialize and harm a learner's development and sense of self-worth.

· An educator and a learner's philosophy and principles of learning change over time to reflect their own evolution.

· Educators and education are overrated relative to their effects on an individual's life and their learning outside of traditional education. This is not to say that educators do not have a role to play perhaps just less of the traditional paternalistic role they, and so many other authoritative professions, have assumed for so long.


Review the list above. Check off those principles you agree with or which best describe the way you learn now. If you become more aware of how you learned in the past you can take more control over how you want to learn in the future. You will be able to make choices based on your knowledge of what does, and does not, work for you.

There are elements to learning that affect how and what a person learns.

1. Physical differences:

· in hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and feeling;

· in abilities;

2. Social differences in culture, religion (i.e. someone's cultural and religious attitudes towards learning), experiences, work, and types of enjoyment.

3. Psychological differences in our beliefs, goals, personal development, intelligence, and self awareness.

4. Economic differences between people may affect formal versus informal learning choices.

5. Differences in levels of education completed.

All of these elements: physical, social, psychological, economic and educational, influence how you see the world and what you decide to learn in that world. These elements are not limitations to learning. Understanding how these elements affect your learning frees you up to keep or change your beliefs about your own learning.


Now may be a good time for you to go back to your responses in the first exercises. Does knowing some of the basics of adult education principles help you to answer the questions more fully?

Do you have any physical, cultural, religious, educational differences that affect your learning preferences?

Do your learning preferences change depending on what and where you are learning?

Learning Styles

We have already defined learning styles as our preferred way of learning rather than the actual content of what we learn. Everyone is forced to learn in many different ways but all of us have preferred ways of learning that we find more comfortable and enjoyable. Perhaps we enjoy lecture style learning or perhaps we enjoy working in group activities to learn. Our preferred way of learning will change in different situations, e.g. learning at work versus learning about your hobbies. We also have preferences for the way we think about learning. Some of us enjoy thinking about things rather than learning based more on our feelings. Others like to experience learning in active ways while others like to observe other people doing things.

David Kolb (1981) is a leading expert in this field. He did an extensive survey of 32,963 U.S. graduates and 60,028 faculty members to see if he could generalize the learning style preferences of various disciplines of study. To do this he used his own Learning Styles Inventory which categorizes learners into four distinct groups: doers, thinkers, dreamers and organizers. His study showed that business students were often in the "doer" category while science majors preferred the "thinker" style of learning. In a very general way (his theories are much more detailed) his categories are:

"Doers" (accommodators) enjoy learning situations where they are involved with people. They like to do things, implement plans and try new experiences. They prefer an unstructured learning environment with small group work. They learn best when actively engaged with teachers and other learners.

"Thinkers" (assimilators) like a more structured learning environment where they can watch people, think about what they see and hear and draw conclusions on their observations. They are very logical thinkers and prefer lecture style teaching over small group work.

"Dreamers" (divergers) enjoy looking at things from many angles while using their imagination to the fullest. They are explorers and ask many questions before they are satisfied with their own conclusions. They prefer an unstructured environment where they can spend time learning from and with others.

"Organizers" (convergers) learn best in structured environments where the learning objectives are clearly defined and the practical application of ideas is more important than the process of getting the idea. They prefer action over discussion and therefore dislike small group work.

Kolb's model is often cited and used in schools and industry. He promotes the understanding of learning styles to enhance the flexibility and adaptability of learning to meet specific learning environments.

His work is based on the assumption that people do not have fixed learning traits, but rather, stable traits which can be changed by choice over time. We have preferred styles of learning based on elements of our personality as well as elements of our own education. However, we can modify and adapt those learning preferences to improve how we learn in different situations. Therefore Kolb's categories act as a guide to how we learn now and they act as an invitation to try different styles so that you can adapt your learning to meet the needs of the situation you are in.


Look at the four general categories. Which category sums up your learning style most of the time?

Does your preference change depending on what and where you are learning (e.g. at home, at school or at work)?

If you would like to know more about learning styles and how they affect your learning habits I suggest you read David Kolb's 1984 book listed in the References of this chapter.

Learning Contracts

A learning contract is a contract made between you and another person or for you alone. The contract helps you organize a learning project that you are going to be in charge of from start to finish. You decide, sometimes with a professor's consent or advice, what you want to learn, how you will learn and more. The contract details:

1. what you want to learn,

2. how you are going to learn it,

3. when you want to finish the learning,

4. how you will know you have learned enough,

5. how you will prove that you have learned something,

6. what unexpected things you learned as a result of your contract.

You might make a contract with a professor, a fellow student, a family member or friend, or fill one out just to help clarify for yourself some specific learning project you are involved in.

1. The tricky part to a learning contract is describing what you want to learn. It must be written in a very concise and clear way. It is not enough to say you want to learn to understand what happened to people during the 1989 recession. You need to write what people in particular you want to study and what specific areas of results you will look at (or else the topic is much too big). Another project may be learning to be more assertive but that, again, is too broad a learning project. To break the project down into something manageable you might write that you want to more assertive when dealing with professors or tutorial leaders.

2. Once you have a specific learning objective you need to describe what kinds of resources you will use. These can include:

· experts (people love to give free advice or information),

· books, magazines, journals, newspapers, diaries, your own notebooks,

· videos, records, audio cassettes, film strips, slide shows, television, radio,

· friends, colleagues, family members,

· researchers,

· computer searches, indexes, abstracts,

· the public librarian.

3. Setting a target date is helpful to force you to co-ordinate this project with your other studying, your family, your social time, your relaxation time, and, perhaps, your work. You should break down your learning project so that you can succeed in a relatively short time (less than 6 months). Otherwise you may tend to procrastinate so much that you never accomplish what you want.

4. How will you know if you have learned enough? Perhaps you want to learn a skill. When you are able to do the skill or teach it to someone else you will probably have learned enough. One of the best ways to know how much you have learned is to ask yourself how comfortable you are with the knowledge or skill.

5. If you need to prove to someone else that you have acquired the knowledge or skill you can use various methods to prove it:

· writing a report,

· demonstrating the skill,

· have someone evaluate your knowledge or skill,

· ask friends, family or other students to ask you questions or observe you while you learn,

· write a diary or journal of how you are learning,

· produce a finished product or service when you are ready (e.g. produce a video, give a course, take pictures, or present the information or skills).

· teach someone else and have them evaluate your knowledge and/or skill,

· present them with a finished degree, certificate or course completion form.

6. Most learning projects result in unexpected learning. You should record some of that unexpected learning as an extra reward for your efforts.

Important Note

Use the learning contract to help you narrow your learning focus to a level of knowledge or skill that you feel comfortable doing and accomplishing within a relatively short amount of time. Spending some time seriously thinking about what you want to learn can save you many frustrating hours of wasting your learning time!

Once you have written a draft of your contract you may find it helpful to have a friend, other student or professor/instructor to review it for you. Use the following questions to ask yourself if your contract is complete:

1. Are the learning objectives clear, concise, understandable, and realistic?

2. Do they describe what you want to learn (as opposed to what you think you will do)?

2. Is there any thing else you want to learn that is more important to you?

3. Is your description of how you are going to learn reasonable and realistic?

4. Are there other resources (people, books, articles, videos, other reports, etc.) that would be useful?

5. Does the evidence you are going to have seem relevant to the specific things you want to learn?

6. Is there other evidence you might want to have?

7. Is your method of proving the usefulness of your evidence clear, relevant and convincing?

8. Are there others ways to prove the usefulness of the evidence?

As a result of answering these questions and getting suggestions from others you might decide to change your learning plan.

Remember that the contract is a guide to your learning. If you need to change it as you go along, do so. If you need to get changes approved by a supervisor, then make the changes as early as you can in your learning process to avoid wasting your time.

Blank Learning Contract

1. I want to learn, [specific learning objectives versus what you want to do]:

2. I will learn this by, [give specific ways you will learn, e.g. speaking with experts, reading, doing an activity, etc.]:

3.  I will finish this learning by, [give a specific date]:

4. I will know I have learned enough when, [e.g. when you are able to repeat or teach a skill, or when you are satisfied with your knowledge]:

5. I will prove that I have learned something by, [e.g. through doing a report, getting someone to evaluate your learning, etc.]:

6.  I will record any extra learning I do as a result of this contract.


The key to successful learning is to know more about how you learn best, what learning situations are difficult for you and how you can adapt your learning preferences to fit any situation.

Once you know more about how you learn, why you learn, and what you need to learn for, you can use that knowledge to improve your learning skills of reading, writing, notetaking, studying, and managing your learning time. (See other chapters.)

If your learning is part of your school or work and you need the support of a teacher or supervisor, you might find a learning contract a useful tool to help you decide what, how, and when you will learn. As a self-directed learner you may also find a learning contract a helpful tool to guide your learning.

Regardless how you learn, there are short-cuts you can find and ways to be more flexible so that most learning situations will be more comfortable and more enjoyable. Learning is life-long so you might as well find ways to make it enjoyable!


Whenever you finish learning new information it is helpful to take a moment or two to evaluate what you have found most useful and what you would like to do with that information. This process can be very useful whether you write out the answers or just think about them.

1. What general concepts, ideas or techniques have you learned?

2. List at least three techniques from this chapter that you could use immediately.

3. What other concepts, ideas or techniques do you want to learn?

4. Is there anything you have learned that you could pass on to your colleagues, family members or friends?

5. Do you have any further comments or ideas you want to record based on what you have learned?


The following references are only a few of the many useful resources that you can find in your local libraries, within your school library, and in your local book stores. Look for further books but also for journal articles, magazine reports, films, videos and audio cassettes. Also keep in mind how much you can learn from experts in the field, including people in your own school.

For more intensive research, read the suggestions in the chapter "Writing and Researching Papers".

Bell, Barbara Gurrier. (1984). Tools in the learning trade. New Jersey: Scarecrow Press. 179 pages.

Presents and her eight indispensable tools for college students with specific recommendations and critiques of: dictionaries, synonym books, writing guides, one-volume general encyclopedia, research guides, style manuals, calculators and computers, and handbooks on creative thinking.

Brookfield, Stephen D. (1986). Understanding and facilitating adult learning: A comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 375 pages.

Detailed work on adult learning needs and motives; how adults learn and how educators can facilitate that learning.

Brown, Barbara. (1980). Supermind: The ultimate energy. New York: Harper and Row. 286 pages with index.

Brown uses her background in brain and behavior research to argue the existence of super mentality within people. She documents the poverty of scientifically acceptable notions of mind capabilities. She examines the mind-body connection and how that can improve or harm a person's health. Also examines the evolutionary argument for intelligence in humans and how the unconscious mind's potential needs further study.

Kidd, J.R. (1973). How adults learn (rev. ed.). New York: Association Press. 318 pages.

Classic Canadian text on lifelong learning, adult versus child learning, physical and sensory capabilities, motivation and adult needs, theories of adult education and environmental considerations. Kidd's underlining belief is that people of all kinds, ages, and from all places have a great capacity to learn, grow and enlarge.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1986). Using learning contracts: Practical approaches to individualizing and structuring learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 262 pages.

Divided into two sections, Knowles presented an understanding of contract learning and how to develop and use learning contracts in various settings, eg. independent study, academic classrooms (nursing), professional development, and degree programs. Knowles described many specific teaching/facilitating techniques to assist learners in achieving their educational goals, eg. role playing, group dynamics, case studies, counselling techniques, use of media, and climate-setting methods.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Promotes understanding of learning styles to enhance flexibility and adaptability of learning to meet specific learning environments.

Kolb's theory based on works by Piaget (cognitive-development process on the nature of intelligence and how to develop intelligence shaped by experience), Dewey (pragmatist approach) and Lewin (phenomenological perspective of Gestalt psychology). His model, summarized in annotated notes of Kolb, 1981, is based on the assumption that people do not have fixed learning traits, but rather, stable traits which can be changed by choice over time.

. (1981). Learning styles and disciplinary difference. In A.W. Chickering and Associates (Eds.), The modern American college (pages 232-255). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Through an extensive survey of 32,963 U.S. graduates and 60,028 faculty members, Kolb was able to generalize about the learning style preferences of the various disciplines in universities.

Mezirow, J. (1985). A critical theory of self-directed learning. In S. Brookfield (Ed.), Self-directed learning: From theory to practice (pages 17-30). New Dimensions for Continuing Education, No. 25. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

View of self-direction as requiring freedom from self-deception and coercion, and understanding cultural/ historical/biographical reasons for personal needs, wants and interests.

Ostrander, S. and Schroeder, N. (1979). Superlearning. New York: Delacoste Press. 342 pages with index and exercises.

Examines the concept and practical applications of superlearning, superperformance, and super-rapport. Presents exercises and examples of how people can achieve faster and more comprehensive learning with less stress and anxiety.

Rogers, C.R. (1983). Freedom to learn for the 80's. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill. 312 pages.

Using examples from elementary, secondary and post-secondary institutional education, Rogers stressed the role of the facilitator, how adults learn, methods of self-evaluation and an example of his graduate program curriculum.

van Bommel, Harry (1985). The busy person's guide to notetaking, speed reading, studying and time management North York: Skills Development Publishing.

Presents practical information on taking notes, speed reading, studying and time management techniques to encourage a comprehensive and integrated approach to studying.


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