What It Takes for Employees to Own and Drive Their Own Learning (A Lot!) – Part 1

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

Learning how to learn is critical today. Our fast-changing world has made it increasingly necessary for us to constantly upskill ourselves and adapt to all of the changes in both work and society (to put it simply). According to Jane Hart “Modern Professional Learners understand that learning is ultimately their own responsibility”… and … “they realize it is up to them to take charge of their own self-improvement (for the now) and self-development (for the future).”

OK, nice idea, but … are workers actually able to take that responsibility and if so, do they know how to learn effectively? The simple answer to these questions are: it depends. First, it’s important to realise that when we say, ‘learning how to learn’ we’re talking whether a person can self-direct and self-regulate her/his own learning (SDL and SRL). This is complicated by the paradoxical situation that strong self-directed and self-regulated individuals already are high-performing and high-capacity learners, but those who probably most need to continue to learn are low(er) performers for whom it’s generally not so easy to direct and regulate their own learning (e.g., Torrano and González Torres, 2004).

So, if we need all employees to become effective learners, there are at least four challenges that need to be met, namely we need to:

  1. better understand SDL and SRL; what it is and how it occurs,
  2. figure out how to best support SDL and SRL in the workplace,
  3. determine how to measure SDL and SRL, and
  4. how to train learners to become better at it.

Of course we can’t explore these topics in detail in a blog but what we can do is paint a broad picture to try to better understand what’s actually needed to achieve the ideal, namely that all employees become strong SDLers and SDLers. In this blog, we’ll explore the first two questions and next week, we’ll discuss the remaining two.

What Are SDL and SRL?

SDL and SRL are often confused with each other. Self-Directed Learning functions at a macro-level and can be defined as “a process in which individuals take initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (Knowles, 1975, p 18). Self-directed learners are ready, willing, and able to independently prepare, execute, and complete their learning.

cakeWhat does it take to be a skilful self-directed learner? Short answer: A lot; it’s no piece of cake.

You need to be able to diagnose your own learning needs, formulate your own learning goals, identify and choose those resources that you need for learning, and determine appropriate learning strategies (Brand-Gruwel, Kester, Kicken, & Kirschner, 2014).

Self-Regulated Learning, in contrast, functions at a micro-level and is about the execution of a specific learning task and about managing the subsequent steps in a learning process. Below is an overview of Zimmerman’s (2000) SRL phases and sub-processes.


Brand-Gruwel and her colleagues provide the following image to show the relation between SDL and SRL:

SDL SRL final

Because research tells us that people who are good at SDL and SRL have certain attributes and are, to put it simply, the more knowledgeable higher performers, it’s not realistic to expect that all employees are able to ‘take responsibility for their own learning’. Therefore, we need to provide the right (level of) support to help all individuals to become better at it.

How to support SDL and SRL in the workplace

Some research tells us how organisations can and should support SDL (we’ve written about this before in a blog on how to support SDL in a learning organisation) and SRL. For example, it’s important that employees understand an organisation’s goals and feel that they can contribute to them. They also need to be willing to take risks. Further, an organisation needs an effective communication system and there must be trust, mutual respect, and collaboration (e.g., Confessore & Kops, 1998). According to Confessore and Kops: “HRD professionals must expand their role beyond designing and delivering formal training programs and should become catalysts for learning” (p. 372). Note that this article is twenty years old!!!!!!!

Vervenne (2005) offered the idea that organisations need to get better at aligning individual and organisational learning on the one hand with business tasks and processes on the other. Organisations need to figure out how to integrate work and learning so that learning can be driven by the business processes in which employees are already involved. Making the connection between work and learning seamless can drive the improvement employee performance. For him, supporting a complete self-regulated learning process in a corporate context requires:

  1. analysing complex business situations;
  2. identifying individual and organizational learning goals;
  3. analysing competencies and their match with individual skills;
  4. defining appropriate learning strategies & simulating learning processes;
  5. executing improved learning processes;
  6. monitoring learners’ performance according to the identified goals.

Although this makes sense in the way that it’s necessary to help employees see how learning contributes to improving their work tasks or processes (after all, learning needs to be relevant for them in the context of their performance), we still need to clearly distinguish between ‘improving performance’ on the one hand and ‘learning’ on the other, as improving one’s performance doesn’t necessarily mean something has been learned.

Therefore, we need to find a way to measure SDL and SRL in the context of work and we need to figure out how to provide the right guidance and support to help employees improve their SDL and SRL skill. We’ll discuss these topics in next week’s blog. Stay tuned!


Brand-Gruwel, S., Kester, L., Kicken, W., & Kirschner, P. A. (2014). Learning ability development in flexible learning environments. In Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 363-372). New York, NY: Springer.

Confessore, S. J., & Kops, W. J. (1998). Self‐directed learning and the learning organization: Examining the connection between the individual and the learning environment. Human Resource Development Quarterly9(4), 365-375.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning. Chicago, IL: Follett Publishing Company.

Saks, K., & Leijen, Ä. (2014). Distinguishing Self-directed and Self-regulated Learning and Measuring them in the E-learning Context. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 112, 190-198. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042814011720

Torrano Montalvo, F., & González Torres, M. (2004). Self-regulated learning: Current and future directions. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 2(1), 1-34.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self‐regulation: a social cognitive perspective. In Boekaerts, M., Zeidner, M., and Pintrich, P.R (Eds) Handbook of self‐regulation (pp13‐39). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.


12 thoughts on “What It Takes for Employees to Own and Drive Their Own Learning (A Lot!) – Part 1

  1. davidberke says:

    It’s easy to agree with Vervenne that:
    “Organisations need to figure out how to integrate work and learning so that learning can be driven by the business processes in which employees are already involved. Making the connection between work and learning seamless can drive the improvement employee performance.”
    But the requirements he names – or you name for him – have little to do with work or the practicalities of work or the practicalities of learning.

    Integrating work and learning is not difficult if the manager is willing to take the time – or is required to do that. An After Action Review – or one of its variations – accomplishes it. Regular project status meetings can accomplish it. The question is: what do you do with what you’ve learned.

    Individually, that’s not hard to answer: you learn what to do differently and presumably you try that out and continue to learn. Organizationally, it might be more difficult to answer because it might require changes well beyond what an individual might or might do.

    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      I agree with that, however, I think the challenge there is that you very much depend on the skills and quality of the manager. Not all managers are good people managers, although in an ideal world they should be. Ideally, the manager should be ‘part of the process’ but I think it would be better if the individual ‘worker’ can also do without if necessary.

      • davidberke says:

        It would be great if individuals had the perspective to do both SDL and SRL. Those who come closest tend to be those who already are expert.

        If you’re toward the other end of the spectrum you might be able to identify what you need to work on and what to do about it – at least in general terms. But, it seems to me, that it would be very difficult to get to the level of detail needed for SRL without some help.

        If you have access to a recording – video or just audio, if appropriate – and you know how to make sense of what you’re seeing/hearing, then maybe you can do it on your own. But just because you might be able to observe when something went wrong, doesn’t mean you know what to do differently. If you work somewhere where it is ok to experiment (and fail), then you might figure things out over time. Or not.

        You don’t need a good “people person” to make this work. But it would be important to have someone who can facilitate a problem solving session and help define the gap between the goal and what was accomplished.

  2. Colin Sewell says:

    It is exasperating to see yet another teaching “expert” try to justify their own worth/importance by asserting that most adults are stupid. You have taken interesting research and applied it in the most wrong-headed way possible. Humans are quite capable of breathing in and out all day long, and of going about their daily lives, without interference from “training”. The condescending, “I know what’s best for you” tone you use says all anyone needs to know about what you really think of adults/workers.

    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      Hi Colin, thank you for taking the time to respond. First I’d like to say that I never think about people as being stupid/smart when it comes to learning. Everyone needs to learn continuously so it has nothing to do with being stupid or not stupid. Second, I guess what you interpret as being condescending and being patronizing, is actually an attempt to bring nuance to the question how easy or difficult it is for people to learn how to learn and drive their own learning. I think we both agree that it’s important for people to become strong learners, especially in today’s world. Research clearly shows that it’s the already high performing people who are really good at SDL so I believe that your take on it is focusing too much on the ‘elite’ (the minority who are very strong learners). I’m passionate about finding a way to put better support in place in organisations to increase people’s ‘learning capability’. As you can read in a previous blog on the topic (https://3starlearningexperiences.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/how-to-support-self-directed-learning-in-a-learning-organisation/), there is a lot around fostering communities, collaboration, and so forth, so I’m not sure where your ‘training’ and ‘teaching’ focus comes from.

    • pattishank (@pattishank) says:

      Colin, In reading your response, I think you completely misunderstood. There was nothing here about stupidity. Perhaps you are saying that learning is easy and there’s no need to do it better. These fields of study: cognitive science, information design, usability, user experience, attention sciences, and related areas heartily beg to differ. Helping people learn is quite a difficult business. Making people go it alone results in skills shortages from which organizations often don’t recover. WEF and OEDC skills research shows the devastating effects of these problems.

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