Many successful, high-achieving students share one quality: the capacity to learn on their own.

Whether they’re independent research scientists, self-taught artists, or simply curious young minds, these students are proficient in self-directed learning.

We encourage all of our students, wherever they are at in the college admissions process, to reflect on the importance of independent learning–and to think of ways they can incorporate it into their schedules.

What is Self-Directed Learning?

The term can mean different things to different people, but, generally speaking, self-directed learning is a pedagogic approach in which students largely steer their own education.

You might say that they follow their curiosity by deciding what they want to learn and determining how to best acquire that knowledge.

“A self-directed learner is a person who takes responsibility for their education, for their attainment of knowledge, and their development of mastery,” writes David Handel, a retired physician and creator of flashcard software company IDoRecall, who frequently discusses learning topics on Medium.

“They are capable of determining not only what they want to learn; they can determine what they need to learn. They can recognize gaps in their knowledge and then develop plans to narrow the gaps. Finally, they execute on those plans and acquire the missing knowledge.”

Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

But how does one become a self-directed learner?

Handel, who describes himself as having been a “mediocre student” throughout grade and high school, argues that the most important skills for self-directed learners to develop are “learning how to learn,” and from there, the ability to exercise metacognition, or “thinking about your thinking.”

Self-directed learners are able to think critically about their own learning: They can recognize the gaps in their own knowledge, or as the expression goes, “know what they don’t know.” And, in filling in these gaps, they’re also able to periodically step back and assess the approach they’ve been taking, identify any shortcomings, and adjust or revamp it accordingly.

Metacognition, writes Handel, is “a supervisory kind of thinking and not at all passive. It is the act of observing your cognition and interrogating your thinking. This prevents your everyday cognition from accepting and filing away to memory inputs from the external world that may be misinformed or outright bogus.”

These are the skills that help student distinguish credible sources from bogus ones — a crucial life skill these days, when the internet is awash with misinformation.

Of course, like anything, self-directed learning still benefits from a certain amount of structure. Creating a learning plan with a schedule, concrete goals and deadlines, and perhaps even a budget, will help learners push themselves toward a deeper level of knowledge than, say, that of a mere hobbyist. It will also help learners know when they’re making progress, which in turn will deliver a sense of satisfaction that encourages them to continue.

One method that might help with planning is to find existing lesson plans around a topic you’re interested in studying. Many professors share their course syllabi online, so browse around — chances are high someone has already done the work of structuring out a learning plan for you, though obviously, you can tailor their timelines to better match your own preferred pace.

Another useful resource is the the Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial by Barbara J. Tewksburg and R. Heather Macdonald.

Self-Directed Learning Resources

Happily, there are a great deal of free ebooks, academic journals, online courses, etc. available online that may help in your educational journey.

Here are just a few:

  • Coursera: take university courses for free
  • Khan Academy: instruction videos around math and science topics, mostly at the secondary school and university levels
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    •    Coursera: take university courses for free

    •    Khan Academy: instruction videos around math and science topics, mostly at the secondary school and university levels

    •    OpenCulture: open-source ebooks, audiobooks, videos, etc.

• The Directory of Open Access Journals: enormous database of science, technology, medicine, humanities, and social science journals

    •    JSTOR: free articles across disciplines on their open-access site

    •    Google Scholar: always a good source for free PDFs of academic work

    •    Manchester University Press: open-access social science and humanities books and journals

    •    Unpaywall: this app legally redirects you to free versions of otherwise paywalled journal articles

    • and ResearchGate: access papers uploaded by academics

    •    Project Gutenberg: one of the largest troves for free ebooks

    •    LibriVox: free public-domain audiobooks

    •    Online Books: a digital archive hosted by the University of Pennsylvania

    •    Duolingo and Memrise: free language learning apps

These are just a few of the many resources out there for students looking to steer their own learning. Obviously, there’s no one right approach, and every person is different when it comes to what works best. The important thing is to keep trying, assessing, and adjusting accordingly.

The reward speaks for itself — a way of living life in which you will always be interested, engaged, and growing.

As Handel writes, “The adults who tend to have the greatest success in their careers, who contribute the most to the betterment of society, and who achieve the highest degree of self actualization are, by-and-large, self-directed learners lifelong learners.”

Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.