There is no doubt that the learning and development field is changing today, more rapidly than at any time in the past. It is changing in terms of the assumptions that drive it, the methods by which it supports learning, and the expectations that organizations and learners have about it.

The biggest changes currently spring from restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, from our view of what learning is, and the shift in emphasis from course and content to the role of learners themselves.

Since March, Learning Solutions has been publishing on the effects of COVID on learning experiences and the relocation of many employees from offices to home. Even for those who are not working from home, the same forces are affecting how and where employees receive onboarding, coaching, and learning experiences. Remote, decentralized learning is a trend that we can expect to continue even beyond the eventual end of the pandemic. Organizations have learned that it works, and employees by and large have been in favor of it. This certainly affects our work in learning and development.

This article begins an exploration of the other major shift that is already in play and that will continue to affect our work: the phenomenon of self-directed learning. This is a trend that (like distance learning) was already underway before the pandemic, driven by a desire to reduce or eliminate the cost of formal instruction and to keep up with the speed of change itself. Yet as recently as 2017, only a fourth of L&D leaders felt they had been successful in supporting self-directed learning.

What is self-directed learning?

Let’s use the classic definition from Malcolm Knowles. Self-directed learning is a process “in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating those learning outcomes.” (See reference at the end of this article.)

Why is self-directed learning important?

To begin with, people like and increasingly seek out opportunities to learn about things that interest them, including skills and knowledge that help them do their jobs better. Jane Bozarth cites the findings of University of Toronto professor Allen Tough, who found that the average North American adult undertakes eight self-directed learning projects a year of about 104 hours each. That’s a good indicator of the value that employees themselves place on staying current, and this costs their employers nothing.

In addition, as JD Dillon pointed out in one of his “In Real Life” columns, for organizations it is a matter of scale and cost: “Businesses are hunting for increasingly agile skill sets to stay competitive. To keep pace and demonstrate value, L&D must find ways to provide flexible learning opportunities for a myriad of roles without substantial costs or administration.”

From the experts: How to promote self-directed learning

In her column linked to above, Jane Bozarth suggests several ways that L&D can support self-directed learning at little or no cost, including changing L&D job descriptions to designate them as “individual performance consultants to source learning resources both within and outside the workplace, and help workers connect with others in the organization or the industry.”

Dan Belhassen suggests adopting a philosophy of “Agile Microlearning”—chunking content with adaptive training and drip-delivered learning. He also thinks that delivering essential knowledge in short daily bursts, using adaptive algorithms that personalize the experience for each learner, will extend the idea of spaced learning in a way that fits the employee's workflow.

In the latest Guild research report, Self-Directed Learning: Essential Strategy for a Rapidly Changing World, Catherine Lombardozzi dissects the key principal dynamics for self-directed learning: the overall process, the required individual capabilities, and the necessary environmental supports. Lombardozzi also addresses several popular myths about self-directed learning, such as the idea that it is a solitary activity and that it is only appropriate for certain topics.


Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. Chicago, IL: Follett Publishing Co.