Self-directed learning is the elusive unicorn of the training process. In a perfect world, every employee would be so highly motivated that they actively seek out learning opportunities to expand their knowledge base and improve their performance. Many organizations have created training programs that encourage as much self-directed learning as possible, from “choose your own adventure” style stories to allowing learners to toggle where and when they experience cleverly designed modules. The learner gets to pick how they experience learning, so it counts as self-directed, right?

In many cases, what we think of as self-directed learning theory could stop learners from having meaningful, functional, day-to-day experiences that could make a difference in their roles. What if, instead of designing self-directed learning strategies that give users the illusion of choice and autonomy, we started thinking about why, when, and how learners seek out information and created a more organic approach? 

What is self-directed learning?

The idea of self-directed learning can be a bit slippery to define, only because it means different things in different scenarios. In real life, self-directed learning happens daily and even hourly. Have you ever used YouTube to learn how to clean a dryer vent or complete a simple car repair? Have you ever used Google to figure out what movie a certain actor was in or win an argument about the best way to cook pasta? Before a big presentation, have you searched for tips to sound more confident or feel less anxious? All of these are examples of self-directed learning. We might not think of it as formal learning because it’s not happening in a classroom or a training module, but it is happening in a moment of need. 

Moment-of-need learning is an example of self-directed learning that has real-world, real-life applications. Instead of forcing learners to access an LMS or experience a full program, moment-of-need learning happens in workflow and is quick, simple, and effective. Most organizations will say they want their employees to engage in self-directed learning, but do they simply mean they want learners to have a small degree of autonomy in a corporate-prescribed learning environment? Before building a training program around the idea of self-directed learning theory, a deeper understanding of what that means might change your strategy to something even more powerful. 

Moment-of-need learning as a self-directed learning strategy

True self-directed learning doesn’t wonder if a learner will have questions, but when. By anticipating the moments of need a learner will have when completing a task, your learning strategy can offer resources that complement the user’s natural workflow. Instead of stopping to complete a training program, moment-of-need learning helps learners get the information they need to continue and apply without major disruptions. Not only does this save time, but the almost-instant process of application helps that learning stick. 

There are five moments of need to be aware of when building self-directed learning opportunities: 

  • New: Users are learning something for the first time and the goal is to teach an entirely new skill or concept. 
  • More: Learners already have existing knowledge, but would like to deepen or expand it.
  • Apply: Learners have the knowledge but need support on how to apply that information to their roles. 
  • Solve: Learners are confronted with an issue and require training to help solve the problem by finding immediate solutions. 
  • Change: When policies, protocols, and information change, learners require quick training to adapt and reduce resistance to that change. 

Acknowledging that moment-of-need and self-directed learning are two sides of the same coin opens a new world of strategy and resources for building training experiences. Instead of event-based training, you help create experiences that help learners get what they need without disrupting their natural workflow. 

Why moment-of-need learning is the best strategy for self-directed learning

If you want learners to take the reins of their own training experiences, you have to first understand what they want. Consider the decades-old 70-20-10 rule for training. It hypothesizes that the ideal ratio for learning is 70 percent experiential, 20 percent social, and just 10 percent formal coursework. Too often we see organizations dedicating their L&D budgets to formal training without giving much thought to how, why, and when their employees might require learning experiences. Instead of trying to reverse engineer training experiences into knowledge gaps, here’s why we prefer moment-of-need learning as a self-directed learning strategy.

It doesn’t interrupt workflow

Let’s be honest: It’s pretty rare that employee training just happens to line up with a moment when a learner experiences a knowledge gap. While there is a time and place for formal training, moment-of-need learning delivers the information exactly when the user is searching for it so they can move on without interruption. 

It supports learner performance 

We love any type of learning that someone can put to good use immediately. Moment-of-need learning supports performance by showing learners a new skill or idea they can adopt immediately. That’s because learners are more likely to seek out moment-of-need learning when they need to solve a problem or improve skills right now

It’s collaborative

In the 70-20-10 training rule, we learn that social relationships are the second most effective learning tools that organizations have in their training arsenal. Moment-of-need learning invites learners to collaborate with their colleagues: Have you ever asked a coworker how to lay out a spreadsheet or the best way to edit an image? You’ve participated in collaborative moment-of-need learning. 

It’s scalable and personal

If you want to encourage self-directed learning, there’s no better way than to focus on moment-of-need learning opportunities. Users can learn as much or as little as they’d like and there’s no limit on how and when they can access information. It’s simply the most personal and organic method of learning; we do it every day. 

It fills an immediate need

Sometimes, learners can’t wait for a formal opportunity to level up their knowledge or skills. Moment-of-need learning is just that: Learning that is essential right away. Not only does it fill a gap as soon as the learner experiences one, but it capitalizes on the self-directed learning interest and urgency a learner experiences. They might be more inclined to learn more simply because it’s something they’re dealing with right now. 

How to build self-directed learning opportunities 

Don’t worry: You don’t need to completely overhaul your learning strategy to make it one that focuses on self-directed experiences. Chances are that you already encourage moment-of-need learning without even realizing it. It’s simply a shift in viewing learning through the lens of your users’ moments of need. 

Let’s try using onboarding as an example. Perhaps you have a robust eLearning onboarding course that leads new employees through all of your policies, protocols, and everything they need to have a successful first month with your organization. Your learner completes the course and they’re ready to dive in, right? Well, maybe. That learner may have completed the course, but you can still anticipate moments of need as they navigate their first 30 days on the job. 

The onboarding process was something new. In the moment of need, a formal experience was helpful to lay the groundwork for future learning opportunities. 

When that learner wants to expand on what they’ve learned, they may look for more by searching the FAQs to find topics that personally affect their role. 

When it’s time to apply that training, they might need to quickly look up information to fill an immediate need, like an example of a properly filled PTO request form. 

When that learner hits a roadblock, they might solve the issue by reaching out on Slack to ask for input or solutions that have worked well for their coworkers in the past. 

When, inevitably, there’s a change made to a policy that was detailed in the original onboarding module, a newsletter or quick explainer video can make efficient work of implementation without requiring all-new training. 

In the above example, we can see how all five moments of need were fulfilled by both formal and informal learning opportunities. Anticipating when a learner might brush up against those opportunities and offering resources in the moment is the best way to ensure users get what they need when they need it and know how to apply the training to their roles immediately. 

The Real Essence of Self-Directed Learning

If your organization believes that self-directed learning is the gold standard for training strategy, we applaud the focus on individual learners. It may, however, be only part of the story. To truly offer learners the chance for full autonomy in training, it needs to be more than offering choices within a carefully crafted framework that you’ve already laid out. Instead, self-directed learning happens when learners truly have the chance to learn how, when, and because they want to. Trust your learners’ judgment and offer ample enrichment opportunities. You might be surprised at how effective those experiences are when you’re able to let learners take the lead. 

Ready to create more organic learning experiences for your employees? Send us a note and we’ll help you find untapped opportunities. 

Subject matter expertise and contributions to this article were provided by our Lead Learning Experience Designer Allisun O’Connell.