Teaching Self-Directed Learning to Learners at All Stages of Development

By Erin Rodems, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Resident, Veterans’ Affairs Maryland Health Care System

Self-directed learning theory is based upon several fundamental concepts.  First, all individuals have the capacity to engage in and develop self-directed learning skills.  Second, learners can (and should) take greater control over the learning experience.  Third, self-directed learning habits are transferable from one activity to another.  Therefore, the teacher’s role is to assist the student develop self-directed learning skills by providing direction and support based on the needs of the student and the activity involved.1
Grow’s staged self-directed learning model provides a method for teaching students to become self-directed learners.  One of the fundamental principles of the model is that every student is different and not all students have the same capacity to self-direct their own learning.  The ability to self-direct may vary greatly with different types of activities.  For example, a student may be very skilled at self-directed learning in pharmaceutical calculations but may require a greater degree of direction in learning the pharmacotherapy of heart failure.

It is important to understand that self-directed learning is a skill that can be taught and Grow proposes the staged self-directed learning model in order to teach students to be more self-directed learners.  According to the model, learners are classified into stages I to IV based on their readiness for independent learning.  The teacher plays a different role at each stage of learning.  Stage I learners are very dependent on the instructor to guide the learning process.  The instructor serves more as a subject matter expert.  Examples of stage I learning would be attending a biochemistry lecture or learning to counsel a patient by watching a teacher-to-teacher role play.  At the other end of the spectrum, in stage IV, the students’ learning is largely self-directed and the teacher serves as a consultant.  A few examples of stage IV learning would be 4th year advanced pharmacy practice experiences (APPEs) and residency training. 

In pharmacy education, all stages of self-directed learning are employed to some degree throughout the curriculum.  Stage I learning is employed when formal lectures are given by a subject matter expert.  The P1 year has the most stage I learning.  Stages II and III are employed during the P1 through P3 years with the goal that by the P4 year students are on there way to be coming self-directed learners with a high level of independence who can make the transition to independent practitioners at graduation.2 

By employing multiple stages of learning simultaneously throughout the pharmacy curriculum and gradually introducing more self-directed types of learning activities, students will start to make the transition to more independent learners.  For example, in a study conducted at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy that evaluated pharmacy students’ readiness for self-directed learning and the effect that APPEs had on students’ readiness for self-directed learning, it was found that the pharmacy curriculum prepared most students to have a high degree of self-directed learning prior to going on APPEs.  70% of students possessed a high degree of readiness for self-directed learning prior to APPEs and 81% after the completion of APPEs.  This study is encouraging because it shows that the majority of graduating pharmacy students are prepared to assume the role of independent learner.3  Many aspects of the pharmacy profession require pharmacists to engage in self-directed learning.  Responding to drug information questions and maintaining a current knowledge base as new therapies become available and as guidelines change are prime examples of when pharmacists would need to employ self-directed learning skills in their professional lives.

Given that learners at each stage have different needs, it is paramount that the instructor accurately assess the learning stage of their students and tailor the instructional methods to best facilitate student learning at each stage.  At Stage I, teachers must gain the respect of the class by asserting him/herself as the subject matter expert.  Students in stage I struggle when instructors have unclear expectations for assignments or exams, therefore, students at this stage require clear objectives, a comprehensive syllabus with assignments defined in explicit detail, and examinations that focus on course objectives in order to improve their success in the course.

Students at stage II are often highly motivated learners with a need to understand the relevance of the course material.  A case study regarding a real patient with multiple medical problems would be an effective strategy to employ in stage II because it would allow students to apply their knowledge to a real-life scenario.  Students will then be able to see the relevance of the learning activity and it would motivate them to want to learn more.  Stage III learning should focus on teaching critical thinking and metacognitive skills to students who are ready to take responsibility for their own learning but need to learn the tools in order to do so. The teacher should serve primarily as a facilitator at this stage to help students develop metacognitive learning strategies.  Students who are stage IV learners benefit most from a teacher who grants them autonomy.  Teaching at this stage should focus on the teacher as a delegator who takes a more passive role in the students’ learning experience.2 

For an instructor to teach their students not only to be self-directed learners, it is paramount for the teacher to identify where students are in the self-directed learning process and tailor their learning activities to accommodate the students’ varying capacities to self-learn.  Instructors who are able to effectively assess their students and adjust their teaching styles to suit their students’ learning needs will not only win the respect of their students but they will be providing them with a lifelong skill.   Teaching students self-directed learning habits will help them become independent learners. 

1.  Hiemstra R.  Self-Directed Learning. Syracuse (NY): Syracuse University, Department of Instructional Technology and Adult Learning, 2004.  Available from: http://www-distance.syr.edu/sdlhdbk.html.
2.  Grow, G. Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed.  Journal of Adult Education Quarterly Spring 1991; 41 :125-149.
3.  Huynh D, Haines ST, Plaza CM et al. TheImpact of Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences on Students’ Readiness for Self-Directed Learning.  Am J Pharm Educ 2009; 73 : Article 65.