Becoming a Self-Directed Adult Learner
A self-directed adult learner is one who is able to plan, implement and evaluate
his/her own learning experiences with or without the direction of others. A self-directed
adult learner takes the initiative and assumes the responsibility for his/her own learning.
A self-directed learner is not an isolated or independent learner. Self-direction may often
take place in concert with other adult learners. The description that Malcolm Knowles
provides above is an early and often referenced portrait of self-direction that while not
complex reveals the essential nature of the task of self-direction.
The concept of self-directedness in adult learning can be used in fundamentally
distinct settings. Adults can be self-directed while participating in on campus or online
instructional environments. Self-directedness can be a significant component whether an
adult’s learning takes place in a traditional institution or a nontraditional one. Although
we could spend time discussing the application of principles of self-direction to informal
settings, our concern is with its application to formal educational contexts, and in
particular the online graduate theological context.
The work of Allen Tough at the University of Toronto focused on the
self-directedness of adults who initiated their own “learning projects.” He found that 90%
of the adult population engaged in at least one major learning project each year that
involved a minimum of 100 hours. The average adult in the U.S. created five learning
projects per year. What Tough concluded from his many years of research on this
particular aspect of self-directed learning is that a shift in focus is needed away from
“providing” education to “facilitating” the learning that is already taking place.
Putting Off the Old and Putting on the New
The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17 writes that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a
new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Later he would exhort his converts to
“put off your old self . . . and to put on the new self, created to be like God . . . .”
(Galatians 4:22, 24). The motivation for Paul’s command to “put off” and “put on” had to
do with the new identity Christians receive at the time of conversion. Their new identity
in Christ needed to be reflected in their behavior, so, consequently the need to “put on the
The same process applies to those who are beginning a course of study in a new
delivery system like online education. You may need to discard your old learner identity
for a new one that will enable you to succeed in a new environment. One’s old learner
identity often finds its origins in teachers who taught from a purely pedagogical
orientation. That is, they treated you like a child (paidion) and taught you as a child. We
know from our knowledge of New Testament Greek, that Paul used a form of the word
pedagogy (paidagōgos) in Galatians 3:24, 25 in reference to the function of Torah prior
to the coming of Christ. The King James Version translated this Greek word as
“schoolmaster” because it conveyed the idea of someone who teaches children. Although
further study on the role and duties of the paidagogos suggests that formal teaching was
not included among the more mundane duties of escorting and supervising a male heir
until the time of maturity, it is clear that informal teaching took place and parents
expected the schoolmaster to shape the moral compass of the child.
Typically, child learners are passive and receptive to all that teachers tell them.
Good students learn how to conform to these rigid expectations and are rewarded
academically. Other students, who may be brighter than their conforming classmates
may, often chafe under these conditions, like Thomas Edison, and eventually drop out of
As a learner, you have learned to adapt to the expectations and hidden agendas of
the traditional classroom. In fact, many of you, if honest, would confess that you secretly
prefer the old way, because the teacher laid the instruction out for you like Mom did your
clothes when growing up. The professor would come in on the first day of class, hand
you a syllabus, and spend the next 45 minutes slowly walking you through it, allowing
students to ask questions to be perfectly sure everyone understood what was expected.
The syllabus told you the due dates of papers and tests, what topics the professor would
cover, how to write the term paper, when you would take exams, what would be on the
exams, etc. The womb-like environment of the traditional classroom was comforting and
The fundamental flaw from your old academic way of life is the self-concept it
has created in you as an adult learner. Students conditioned in this traditional learning
environment often view themselves as passive receptacles needing to have their
supposedly empty brains filled by the knowledgeable professor. Students taught in this
way, often understand themselves to be dependent upon the teacher for direction,
self-discipline, motivation, and guidance at every step of the way. Online students often
wait for this magical professor to appear and begin giving directions, but alas, he or she
never appears. Rather than waiting to be taught, an online student needs to develop
learning how to learn skills that allow him/her to instigate their own learning process
rather than waiting for someone else to do the instigating.
Change Your Learner Self-Concept
Malcolm Knowles first identified an essential feature of an adult learner as one
who has a “deep psychological need to be generally self-directed” (1980, p.48).
Additionally, Knowles also argued that congruent with an adult’s innate need to be
self-directing, learning situations need to be more transactional with the role of the
teacher shifting from that of dispenser of information to a “resource person, and
co-inquirer” (p. 48).
As adults mature in all aspects of their personhood (physical, intellectual,
emotional, social, moral, and spiritual), they develop a need for more autonomy. Having
achieved a sense of autonomy and independence, adults normally do not become
isolationists but rather begin to develop strategies and skills of interdependence,
mutuality, and reciprocity. Social skills become more fully developed that enable
maturing adults to work more effectively and harmoniously with all types of people
toward common objectives.
However, this sense of autonomy and self-directedness, although innate, can be
stifled and stunted by situational variables imposed by work, home and institutional
variables created by educational environments. Adults who have experienced traditional
forms of education, in which teachers expect students to assume a passive role, often
enter online degree programs unable to cope with the differing student expectations. With
no one to tell them what to do and when to do it, many adult students flounder and
Listed below are some suggestions for facilitating a change in your learner
self-concept that will enable you to begin acquiring the requisite skills necessary for
success in an online graduate theological education environment.
1. Choose to erase from your conscious frame of reference the view of yourself as a
passive, other-directed learner, dependent upon some system of academic support for
success as a student. This old identity will not serve you well in an online setting.
2. Choose to replace your old learner identity with a new one more congruent with
who you are as a mature, able, competent and self-directing adult. You are self-directing
in other areas of your life, why should you be expected to jettison that skill set when you
enroll in an online course?
3. Decide to act as though you are certain to learn. The overwhelming research
evidence of the last forty years clearly indicates that adults can learn anything they want
to, even though it may take them longer to do so. Choose not to let the fear of previous
academic failures deter you from accomplishing your academic goals. Remember, your
failure may be attributable to the pedagogical constraints imposed upon you by a mass
produced educational system. Do not attribute to yourself failures that may have been the
result of the way the system taught you.
4. Set realistic and attainable goals for yourself. Do not allow your emotions to
distort your sound judgment regarding what you will be able to do given the constraints
of work, home, church and community.
5. Affirm the value of your own background and experiences. The great advantage
that adults bring to the learning situation, that children do not have, is their vast
experience. Remember, when you were eighteen you probably had not had the
experience of being a full-time worker, a spouse, a parent, a participatory citizen, an
active leader of a church, or a successful businessperson, but by age thirty, you may have
had all of these experiences under your belt. Use these experiences to your advantage and
never be ashamed to share them or hesitate to integrate them with what you are learning.
These experiences enable you to see relationships and connections not afforded less
mature learners. Your learning of new material is also enhanced by your previous
experiences because you are more apt to integrate new learning with old learning and
thereby give it new meaning, hence your experiences can provide you with additional
insight and a sense of mastery.
6. Recognize the expertise you have acquired from your vast experiences. One of
the beneficial side-effects of reaching middle age and beyond is a sense of emerging
mastery and competence. Do not hesitate to carry over this sense of mastery and
competence into your educational environment.
7. Obediently accept the promised empowerment of the Holy Spirit than enables
our learning and acquisition of knowledge about God’s world and God’s word. One of
the features of the Spirit’s empowerment in the Book of Exodus was the accompanying
“wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge” (31:1; 35:31) and a general “spirit of wisdom”
(28:3; 35:31, 35) that manifested itself in various abilities including the ability to teach or
communicate the knowledge and wisdom received from the Holy Spirit to others (35:34).
While Christians learn like all other human beings, they possess a divine enablement
through the Spirit of God that embellishes native human abilities. We see this same
phenomenon at work in Daniel and his three friends who study and learn like everyone
else but at an exceptional level, that attracts the attention of the secular authorities.
Adult learners need to appreciate and affirm the vast resources they already have
at their disposal to succeed in an online educational setting. Unlike your 18-24 year-old
counterparts, you have developmental baggage to check when you enroll in a degree
program that if unpacked and used, will provide you with many advantages. Foremost
among these items is a healthy self-concept grounded in a firm belief that as image
bearers of our Creator, you are intelligent, creative, unique, competent, and an amazingly
adaptive person. We encourage you to affirm your value both as a person and as a
self-directed adult learner, ready for success, no matter what you are learning or where
you are learning it.
Understanding the Basics of Adult Learning
Adults learn differently than children. While we may have known this intuitively,
it took Dr. Malcolm Knowles to popularize the term “andragogy” to distinguish teaching
adults from “pedagogy” teaching of children. If the teaching of adults is different from
the teaching of children then it follows that how adults learn is different from how
children learn. Both terms, pedagogy and andragogy, involve both how to teach and how
to learn. How a student learns may often determine how we teach so that we teach in a
way that resonates with learning styles and learning modalities.
Unfortunately, we still assume that adults learn like children and so we often
teach them like children rather than adults. We still use the term pedagogy when we talk
about teaching methods even if those methods have adults as their audience. Two things
have to happen if we want adults to learn more effectively and successfully. First, we
must embrace and accept the scientific research on adult learning that clearly indicates
they learn differently than children and teenagers. Second, we need adult learners to
embrace and accept a new identity as an adult learner and cultivate a new approach to
learning. What we know about adult learning after forty years of research is fairly clear.
Here is a suggestive list distilling the results of that research which may be helpful in
furthering your understanding and appreciation of your own learning abilities.
Adult learning must be paced according to the physical, psychological,
and intellectual realities of adult aging. The best policy is to learn how to cooperate with
the natural aging process when learning rather than trying to deny it or fight it.
Adults are more self-directed than other-directed when it comes to
learning. One researcher at the University of Toronto found that the average adult spends
about 500 hours a year on various types of learning projects. These are self-motivated
and self-planned activities prompted by an adult’s curiosity, need, and interest. The fact
that you enrolled in this course is a clear indication that you are a self-directed learner.
Most of our students are not required to take our courses or earn our degrees. They come
to Liberty freely and voluntarily because they have a desire to learn, improve themselves,
or prepare for a future to which they believe God has called them.
Adults have a deep desire to see that the content they are learning can
have immediate application to their life, vocation, or ministry. Material to be learned by
adults must be meaningful and have prima facie evidence of applicability. Adults need to
know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it. In a sense, this
makes adults very pragmatic learners. This does not mean that they are not interested in
learning for the sake of learning and expanding their insight and understanding. It means
that they also want to see how knowledge and information directly impacts what they are
doing or plan to do in their vocations and ministry.
Adults prefer learning environments that are supportive and stress free.
Many studies on adult learning make it clear that if adult learners sense a threat to their
self-esteem, they will withdraw from the learning experience. Reducing the perceived
threat of the learning experience will go a long way in improving an adult’s learning
ability. Reducing learner anxiety often connects to educational gaps that adults bring with
them to the online classroom. Many adults in online courses and degree programs have
multiple year gaps between one degree and another. It is not unusual to have adult
students in a course who have not been in a course or degree program for 10, 15, or even
20 years. Adults in this situation experience anxiety and hesitancy about their ability to
compete and perform at a graduate level. They are often unsure of their abilities and feel
at a distinct disadvantage over their younger counterparts.
One way adults prefer to experience reduced stress is with either a
reduction in or elimination of a time frame within which to learn or master a subject or
skill. Research studies comparing adult learners with young learners working on math
problems found that when they imposed a time limit for solving the problem, younger
students did better. However, when they removed the time limit, adults competed with
younger students and did just as well in problem solving. When adults cannot modify
time limits (like the length of a term or semester) then they must call upon their learning
agility and make adjustments accordingly. This means that adult learners will need to
give themselves more time in fulfilling reading and writing assignments, for instance.
Giving themselves a head start on course assignments reduces this learner anxiety and
improves academic outcomes.
Adults tend to be multi-modal learners. The typical learning modalities
are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile. That is, we often have a preference for
learning new information through the eye gate, the ear gate, or through touch and
movement. While children tend to have one of these three manifested in a dominant form,
adults have learned to morph or merge these three into a blended style that incorporates
all of the modalities. This makes adult learners more agile and capable of adapting to
different learning settings. This ability to adjust their learning to the instructional method
of the course or instructor gives adults a learning edge over their youthful counterparts.
Adults are motivated to learn as they experience needs and interests that
learning will satisfy. Motivation in adulthood is always linked to some aspect of the
adult’s life. Motivation to learn something is not devoid of context which gives it
meaning to the adult. The reason why many adults are not motivated to learn what we
want to teach them is because we have done an inadequate job of convincing them of its
Adults’ orientation to learning is life-centered. Adults, therefore, become
ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order to cope
effectively with real life. Adults seek out learning experiences in order to cope with life
events (marriage, divorce, new job, different job, retiring, etc.)
Experience is the richest resource for adult learners. This is the most
marked difference between children and adults with respect to learning. Children have
very little experience, adults have a great deal of experience. Adults bring their
experiences with them like checked baggage on an airplane. It functions as a lens through
which adults perceive new knowledge and information. It also functions as a Geiger
counter sniffing out inauthentic or contradictory pieces of information or knowledge that
do not match what they have known or learned from living life. This often comes across
to the instructor as a critical or difficult attitude from the adult learner. Instead, it is
simply the adult coming to terms with the discrepancy and wanting to think through it. As
American educator John Dewey reminded us not all experiences are educative or
positive. Just because adults have had experiences does not mean that those experiences
are valid or correct. Adults want a learning environment that will allow them to explore
these discrepancies without retaliation or negative feedback from the instructor.
Adults learn through personal reflection upon experiences. As adults
mature, they become more interior and reflective in their cognitive processes. In older
adults, we call this behavior “life review” or “reminiscing.” Paulo Freire, the famous
Brazilian adult educator, advocated the importance of critical reflection upon our learning
experiences. Adults have a built-in tendency to do this anyway because they have so
many life experiences that prompt the reflection. Adults need to learn how to use this
natural tendency to their advantage in learning contexts. Allowing time to consider,
ponder, and ruminate about what one has just learned or mastered cements that learning
in our long term memory centers in our brains. We can do this in two ways. First, while
awake and alert by intentionally thinking about what we have learned and how we might
use that learning in our vocations and ministries. Second, by getting plenty of sound
sleep. When we sleep, especially during REM periods of sleep, our brains engage in
sorting, filing, and synthesizing what we have learned during our waking hours. When we
use a combination of these two approaches, we are solidifying what we have learned and
making it part of our thinking and reasoning.
Adults learn through dialogue and discussion. Adult learners have greater
mental and verbal abilities than their younger counterparts. They prefer to be in
situations in which these abilities are prized and accepted. When given the opportunity to
choose, most adults will choose to be in learning situations in which they are encouraged
to participate verbally and mentally. Active participation in learning means that adult
learners invest in their own learning. While most adults have taken most of their
education on campus in a physical classroom, online courses require a different form of
dialog and interaction. Digital dialog and keyboard interaction are the norms in online
learning so adults must again employ their learning agility and adjust to this new way of
The more learning and education an adult receives the more he/she wants.
The single best predictor of whether an adult will participate in a learning activity is prior
level of educational attainment. It seems as though the more an adult exposes themselves
to learning, and the more beneficial and helpful the learning is perceived to be, the more
such learning an adult wants and needs. I have seen hesitant and nervous adult learners
enter a Liberty degree program unsure as to whether they could compete and complete,
only to see them take multiple degrees and many of them enroll in doctoral programs.
This is a joy to observe as adult learners find that they have God-given abilities to learn
and grow toward whole person impersonation of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Developing Learning How to Learn Skills
Although it is important to change your learner self-concept and to be aware of
your strengths and weaknesses as a self-directed adult learner, you need certain academic
skills to complement who you are becoming as an adult self-directed learner. Please note
we are discussing learning skills, not attributes that one possesses innately. Anyone,
regardless of prior academic performance, can learn these skills and become a better
student. Skills are acquired abilities learned by practice and use. Time on task is a great
equalizer of academic abilities. We want to encourage you to take the time necessary to
acquire and enhance the skills identified in this section.
We have identified five learning skills: reading, writing, listening, critical
thinking, and essay test-taking that are essential for one to be successful in online
education. Given the nature of online delivery, these skills need to be acquired or
sharpened, as the case may be.
Here is a pre-test that will assist you in determining your need to read this section.
Check which of the following statements about reading you think are true.
I should read most material at the same speed.
Underlining important information as I read will help me remember it.
Good readers can remember most of what they read.
Reading slowly is the key to good comprehension.
Good readers try to memorize large amounts of information as they read.
When I read rapidly, I remember less information than when I read slowly.
If you checked most of these statements as true, you will probably benefit from reading
this section. There are many reading techniques in the learning skills literature. However,
one that seems most appropriate to online theological education is the “Proactive
Reading” technique proposed by Professor Robert Smith of Northern Illinois University.
We have modified his basic approach but the germ for the technique is entirely his.
Think of proactive reading much like you would approach the use of a computer.
The book is a resource from which you want to glean information. Not all of it is
pertinent and you already know you are not going to remember all of it. You want to be
able to formulate in your own mind the essential gist of the book’s contents. Proactive
reading requires that you switch from being a passive learner to an active, self-directing
one who engages in an interactive fashion with the material you are required to read.
1. Look over the book and read any of the promotional comments printed on the
jacket, inside pocket, or on the back of the book. Evaluators, selected by the publishing
company who are recognized experts in the field, usually make these comments.
2. Read all you can about the author’s background and expertise to write the book.
3. Read all of the introductory materials (foreword, preface, introduction, etc.).
Seek to identify the author’s purpose for writing the book. Identify recognized and
admitted limitations or delimitations of the book.
4. Leaf through the table of contents and index to get a feel for the major topics that
addressed in the book’s contents.
5. Scan the book noting chapter headings, sub-headings, special appendices or any
charts, diagrams, or photos.
6. Scan each chapter before reading it in detail. You want to obtain a big picture
view of the chapter much like you have already obtained of the entire book by what you
have done in the first five steps.
7. While reading a chapter you may wish to make written notations or make marks
that highlight what you think are significant or important statements. These should be
marked only for ease of locating them for future use, not for purposes of hoping they will
improve memory retention. Use notations or marks that do not take long to write or mark
so that you do not compromise your reading rate. You might use short comments like
“agree!” “disagree!” or “proof?”
8. When you are finished reading the chapter, write down or type out the main idea
presented and identify at least two thrust points that indicate how the author (s) support
this main idea or thesis.
9. Critically reflect upon what you have read and respond to it verbally or in writing,
depending upon your learning style preference. With what do you agree, disagree, take
issue with, don’t understand, view as weak, or think is exceptional or well-stated in the
10. Decide how you are going to incorporate and use what you have learned in the
chapter with course assignments. How you proceed will depend upon the stipulations and
parameters set forth in your syllabus. Each faculty will use and integrate required reading
material in different ways. Be sure you are alert to how the instructor expects you to use
the required reading before you begin reading the texts.
Another helpful model for active reading was proposed in the classic How To
Read a Book by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler. You may remember the name
Charles Van Doren from the movie Quiz Show which dramatized the quiz show scandal
that he was involved in as a young man. Adler of course is a well-known American
philosopher. In their book, they advocate the practice of “active reading” because reading
is a very complex activity. You must master each of the skills that comprise the act and
art of reading in order to read something actively and grasp its meaning. These authors
propose a model of reading that involves four different levels that represent four different
purposes for reading. The first level is Elementary Reading and refers to the basic skills
of learning to read that most of us acquire in grade school. The second level is
Inspectional Reading and involves the ability to read or skim a book’s contents in a
relatively short period. Some questions you may ask at this reading level are: “What is
this book about?” or “What is the structure of this book?” or “What are the parts to this
book?” The third level is Analytical Reading and is a more complex and systematic way
of reading than the previous two. Francis Bacon once wrote that some books are to be
“chewed and digested” and that is what one would do when reading at this level. The
fourth level is Syntopical Reading or Comparative Reading. This kind of reading
involves multiple books on the same subject from which the reader is able to deduce a
synthesis of knowledge not present in any of the texts per se.
The Inspectional Reading level is similar to Smith’s Proactive Reading model and
is usually a good place to start for any texts you may be required to read in an online
degree program. If you are required to respond or react to the reading in written form,
you will want to be reading at the Analytical level. If you are going to be writing a paper
on a given subject, you will probably want to be reading at the Syntopical or Comparative
Another very helpful resource on this subject is a chapter in a book. The chapter is
entitled “Becoming a Critical Reader,” and appears in Decker’s Patterns of Exposition by
Randall Decker and Robert A. Schwegler (Longman, 1998). The authors argue that
critical reading involves (1) Previewing; (2) Reading; (3) Reviewing. You can read their
chapter for more details about this method but I wanted to highlight three techniques they
suggest for reading critically that we have found helpful. First, keep a reading journal in
either a notebook or a digital file in which you keep your responses and reactions to
materials you are reading. This is a very helpful technique if you will need to write about
what you have read. Second, jot down marginal notes while reading. These notes should
be brief and abbreviated but serve as a trigger to recall your initial reaction. Third,
highlighting limited portions of the text as you read to indicate what sections of the book
or article was of particular importance to you. If you plan to write about what you are
reading later, you especially what to use highlighting to identify sections you may want
to use as a quotation.