5 Problems With Self-Directed Learning We Cannot Ignore

5 Problems With Self-Directed Learning We Cannot Ignore
Studio Romantic/Shutterstock
Summary: Self-directed learning has many positives, but it's important to learn about the drawbacks too. Find out about 5 self-directed learning problems and how to fix them.

The 5 "Gotchas" Of Self-Directed Learning

Many of history’s greatest scientists, inventors, and artists were self-taught. Leonardo da Vinci taught himself engineering. The Wright brothers never graduated high school. Henry Ford never attended college. There is plenty of evidence about the benefits of self-directed learning in the workplace too. It makes staff feel autonomous and corresponds with every adult’s desire for self-fulfillment. No wonder many companies see self-directed learning as the way forward. Self-directed learning has many positives. But we also need to acknowledge its drawbacks.

What Is Self-Directed Learning?

Self-directed learning can be defined as a learning strategy that allows learners to take charge of their own learning process (diagnose learning needs, identify learning goals, select learning strategies, and evaluate learning performances and outcomes) [1]. It is about handing over power to the learner to decide what they need to learn. Rather than your organization sending its employees on courses that are often irrelevant to their day-to-day activities, it assumes that your employees have the capacity to decide what they should learn and how much time they should spend on it. It is about treating your staff as responsible adults who can manage their own time. Most organizations provide self-directed learning in one of two ways:

  1. They deploy a Learning Management System (LMS) where staff read training documents, watch videos, or complete quizzes.
  2. They encourage staff to seek out solutions to their problems online.

We believe that self-directed learning is, in many workplaces, an excellent way to transmit knowledge. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the drawbacks too.

5 Problems With Self-Directed Learning

Here are some of the key problems with self-directed learning:

1. Not Knowing What To Learn

If you are new to a subject it is often very challenging to decide what to begin learning. Which documents should you read? Which course should you complete? What is going to be relevant to the job, and what is simply noise? Many self-directed training courses put the onus on the individual to figure out what they need to learn, but this means that they could potentially spend a lot of time learning irrelevant information while missing out on the most important concepts.

2. Lack Of Time

Research shows that a lack of time is by far and away the greatest obstacle to self-directed learning. If you've got deadlines, meetings, and projects to complete, how many people are going to set aside time each day to learn new things?

3. Lack Of Self-Motivation And Interest

As any Learning and Development professional will know, there are different personality types in your organization. Some people are highly engaged and are continually seeking out ways to improve their skill sets. However, others are less motivated or ambitious; they are good at what they do but lack the drive to continually learn new techniques. In many ways, self-directed learning is a little idealistic! The fact is that many employees just aren't going to go out of their way to do extra training when they don't have to.

4. Too Many Choices

An LMS that is packed with interesting and useful resources would be highly beneficial to the organization. However, sometimes there is just too much choice. If an employee logs into your LMS and is faced with hundreds of courses, videos, and training documents, it can be simply overwhelming. This can be mentally frustrating and leave people demotivated too. It is as if they are being shown all the things that they don't know.

5. The Easy Way Out Is Available

A final drawback of self-directed learning is that psychologically speaking, most people opt for the path of least resistance. Even people who are motivated to learn will generally be drawn to topics that they personally find interesting or engaging. By way of analogy, someone who has a personal interest in sports will spend their free time outside of work reading about sports. Few of them will dedicate their spare time to reading about gardening just for the sake of it! The same goes for self-directed learning at work. If you are interested in management topics, you will naturally gravitate toward learning management techniques. This is fine, but it means you won’t actively seek out information about how to use the new IT system if you’re not personally interested in tech.


Despite its drawbacks, self-directed learning should not be written off. Instead, we need to think of better ways to apply the concept. In our company, our approach is to deliver learning in context. Whenever someone is uncertain about how to use business tools, complete a process, or perform a task in compliance with the rules, they get a relevant training module that opens in a pop-up window that shows them how to do the task. This retains the benefit of self-directed learning while avoiding the risks.

  • Employees remain in control of what they learn and can read whenever they want.
  • Employees don't get overwhelmed with information they don't need.
  • If employees lack knowledge in one area, it is easy for them to find a solution.
  • It takes very little time to consume the information.
  • It encourages employees to learn important things even if they’re not naturally drawn to them.

By putting self-directed learning in context, you give your employees the autonomy to choose what they want to learn and when they want to learn it. And, at the same time, you overcome many of the key obstacles that self-directed learning produces.


[1] What is Self-Directed Learning

Originally published at info.visualsp.com.