How To Be a Self-Directed Learner

Here is list of ways to begin thinking about what to learn in a self-directed way. Imagine it as a set of cards. To have a full deck you will need to know the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of learning. But you can begin at any of these points as a starter and then gradually fill in the details as you think deeper.


Be a Self-Directed Learning (start anywhere)

    1. Pick a domain of knowledge: Perhaps you want to start with a specific domain of knowledge or subject like American History or Environmental Science or maybe start with a job and then match with some of the other things below (WHAT)
      1. Academic Domains (Science, engineering, design, art, music, health, construction, architecture, computers, business, law, finance, anthropology, philosophy, history, psychology, film, television, foreign languages, foreign cultures.)
      2. Interdisciplinary (mix two or more academic domains to see if something interesting comes out). Eg. is there an overlap between health and anthropology?
      3. Pick a career path (doctor, carpenter, baker, social media manager, blogger, entertainment lawyer, too numerous to mention).
    2. Identify a problem: Is there a small or large problem that you have noticed and you want to help solve? Answering it could involve science or engineering, or maybe communications and marketing, perhaps fundraising or awareness raising, or maybe the solution is political ( WHAT or WHY)
      1. Personal problem
      2. Community problem
      3. National/Global problem
      4. Health and Wellness
      5. Solve a Social Ill
      6. Public Policy
      7. Entrepreneurship
    3. Curiosity questions: Is there a question you just want to know the answer to? Research the answer and then pick an end product (#5) to share your research. Or maybe the answer isn’t out there yet, design an experiment (#7) or identify the underlying problem (#2) to answer the question yourself.
      1. What, When, and Who questions tend to be more fact-based. Still worthy of answering but they might not lead to deep research.
      2. Why and How questions are a bit more open ended and require deeper thinking to answer
        1. Why questions (eg. Why do song birds sing? Why doesn’t Springfield have an Ikea?)
        2. How questions (eg. How do plants know where the sun is? How do you make root beer?)
    4. Develop a Skill: Is there a skill you want to learn? (WHY or HOW or WHAT)
      1. Play an instrument
      2. Draw or paint
      3. Learn a language
      4. Code
      5. Juggle
      6. Play chess
    5. Make an End Product: These things tend to leave behind Evidence of Learning. (WHAT)
      1. Physical product
      2. Digital product
      3. Piece of writing
      4. Produce a video
      5. Produce an audio product (podcast, music, sound design)
      6. Perform publicly (acting, presenting, music, sports)
      7. Manage an event
      8. Deliver a presentation
      9. Produce art
      10. Teach
      11. Assess themselves or others (self-reflection, review, editing)
    6. Learn experientially: Do you want to get out of the classroom and learn in a more hands-on way in a non-school setting? (HOW)
      1. Internship
      2. Job
      3. Service Project
      4. Travel or Field Trip
      5. Job Shadow
      6. Informational Interview
      7. Museum, Gallery, Science Center


  • Design and Conduct an experiment: Come up with your own answers. This can be science, social science, or even marketing. Use the basic rules of the scientific method of identifying variables, testing a hypothesis, and publishing results. Combines nicely with #5.


    1. Lab sciences
    2. Field sciences
    3. Psychology, sociology, economics
    4. Surveys, questionnaires, interviews
    5. Data and statistical analysis
    6. Invention and engineering
  1. Pick a Learning Method:  (HOW)
    1. Structured Class
      1. In person
      2. Online
      3. College
      4. Summer Camp
    2. Project-Based (#5 or #2 or #6 or #7)
      1. Product-Based (#5)
      2. Solve a problem (#2)
      3. Conduct an experiment (#7)
    3. Experiential (#6)
  2. Pick Collaborators: Who do you want to learn with and learn from? Who do you want to assess your learning and give feedback? (WHO)
    1. Alone
    2. With co-learners
    3. Teacher led
    4. Outside Expertise or Assessor
    5. One on one coaching
  3. Pick a Schedule and Deadline: How do you want to fit this learning in with your life? Does this require daily practice? Intensive study? When are you going to complete this? Is it open-ended or very definable? (WHEN)
    1. Daily
    2. Ad hoc or open-ended
    3. Intensive
  4. Pick a Location: Is this something that can happen at school or home? Does it require transportation? (WHERE)
    1. At school
    2. At home
    3. On the job
    4. Online
    5. Travel
  5. Self-Analysis: This is the ‘self’ in self-directed. Learning should be driven by your interests, goals, curiosities. (WHY)
    1. Passion or interest. Is there something that you just ‘have’ to do or that you love to do or that is your life’s ambition?
    2. Help reach a broader goal. Do you have a goal to meet and there are steps to accomplish along the way. E.g. I want to be a doctor. To get to medical school I need to get through calculus and organic chem or I want to start my own business and I need some experience with budgets and planning and business laws.
    3. Participate with a co-learner. Is there a friend that you want to work with? Is there an expert that you want to learn from?
    4. Personal Challenge. Do you want to just take on something because it will be a challenge?
    5. Curiosity. Are there things that you just want to know more about?