Supporting Self-Directed Learning

In a previous post, I suggested creating self-directed learning environments as a way to improve health literacy. As noted by Fischer and Scharff (1998):

The challenge for environments supporting self-directed learning is to allow learners to work on authentic problems and tasks of their own choosing, and yet still provide them with learning support contextualized to their chosen problem.

This may seem even more daunting when the best learning environment for a particular set of learners is an asynchronous elearning environment (such as a Web site or learning management system (LMS)).

Developing learning scaffolds

Self-directed learning can be enhanced by providing scaffolded instruction. As the name implies, scaffolds are support structures, designed to help learners develop knowledge and skills. Scaffolds lead students “from what they already know to a deep understanding of new materials” (Lange, 2002). They’re also designed to be temporary structures. In a learning environment built with learning scaffolds, learner competence creates more and more independence.

Lange (20o2) describes five aspects of  scaffolding:

  1. Modeling desired behavior
  2. Providing explanations (e.g., identifying concepts, guidelines, processes, and examples of each)
  3. Inviting learner participation in an instructional task with the instructor acting as a collaborator rather than an evaluator
  4. Gradually withdrawing instructor support and requiring more and more learner independence

Some important points about scaffolding

It’s about the forest not the trees
Although instructional materials may be divided into chunks with increasing degree of difficulty, this doesn’t imply that the big picture is lost. The connection between what is being learned and the larger learning goal should always be evident.

Scaffolding does not imply a rigid, instructor-defined path
Learners should be encouraged to find their own unique solutions to learning challenges. The role of the instructor (and/or the learning environment) is to provide focus, suggesting paths where a learner’s strategy isn’t likely to be successful.

Interactivity is an important part of scaffolding
Scaffolding doesn’t imply a patriarchal approach to learning where students are spoon-fed information. Learning challenges can be problem-based, involving real-world fuzziness and multiple possible solutions. They can be experiential, allowing learners to tackle situations they’re likely to face on the job or in their daily lives. Scaffolding simply means that learners are provided with access to resources, tools, and models so that they’re equipped to devise their own successful approaches when tackling learning challenges.

eLearning scaffolds

It can be challenging to create the appropriate scaffolds when designing asynchronous elearning, since these scaffolds must be embedded in the design of the learning environment. Instructional designers have to be able to predict the problems typical learners will have when facing a learning challenge  and provide the appropriate content to support a learner’s progress.

One example:
Teaching learners how to find and evaluate  health information

Modeling desired behavior
Learners view a recorded simulation of an internet search for health information. The problem is one they can readily identify with, for example, searching for flu treatments.

Providing explanations
A narrator introduces concepts and guidelines for effective searching, either prior to, or while the simulation is shown.The narrator demonstrates through examples how a learner can evaluate the credibility of online health information.

Inviting learner participation
The narrator can support a learner’s understanding  through interactive quizzes,  by asking learners to jot down their own search strategies and then displaying some possible search strategies, and/or by having learners  interact with the simulation.

Captivate is a useful tool for creating interactive simulations. To have learners evaluate the credibility of a search result, Captivate also can be used to create interactive branching scenarios, asking learners to identify what’s problematic about different examples of online health information.

Gradually withdrawing instructor support
This can be implemented by providing “discovery modules” in an instructional Web site, in which the learner is challenged with open-ended tasks. For example, in this case, learners might be tasked to compare results of searches on different search engines and to evaluate the credibility of five different Web sites using a worksheet provided.

Additional tools
An elearning Web site can provide tools to help learners develop problem-solving skills, and provide varying levels of support. For example, these tools can include:

  • Links to knowledge resources (supported by a searchable database)
  • Worksheets
  • Templates for journaling, reflection, and self-assessment
  • Student guides (taking students through a series of questions and linking to relevant parts of the Web site)
  • Access to collaborative brainstorming, bookmarking, and note taking tools (e.g., edistorm, Wallwisher, Mashtabs, Zoho Notebook, Diigo Groups)
  • Access to discussion forums and/or social networking groups (e.g., Miio, LinkedIn, Twitter, Ning groups, live chat options, etc)

Social learning for better scaffolding

An asynchronous elearning environment doesn’t prohibit social learning. In fact, as discussed above, collaborative tools and avenues for social interaction can greatly enhance self-directed learning scaffolds. In this context, an instructor can become involved as a community leader. Additionally, peer learning and mentoring systems should be encouraged, with advanced learners supporting the efforts of beginning learners. Peer learning systems provide additional ways for learners to demonstrate their independence and mastery of a subject.

A Web site of self-directed learning materials is a bit like a buffet; learners are able to choose the scaffolding structures they need to obtain the meal they want.


Fischer, G. and Scharff, E. (1998). Learning Technologies in Support of Self-Directed Learning. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 98 (4)

Lange, V. L. (2002). Instructional scaffolding. Retrieved on September 10, 2010 from

7 responses to “Supporting Self-Directed Learning

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  2. I’ve been following this thread with a lot of interest because it is such an important topic. In the past, I think we have labeled certain groups as hard to reach or resistant when the reality is that we weren’t speaking a language they understood. One important aspect of medical literacy I would like to mention is numeracy – the ability to understand numerical information. A person might not understand what it means to take 2 pills 4 times a day, how to calculate calories on a food label, or how much medication to give an infant based on their weight. Low numeracy is associated with a host of complications and poor outcomes, although it has not been studied as much reading comprehension as a component of medical literacy. I work in diabetes education where successful self-management is all about understanding and interpreting numbers. But when I did a PubMed search for diabetes and numeracy, I got a total of 14 citations. One problem is that numeracy is often lumped in with reading comprehension even though they require different skill sets. I don’t think we can always use the same strategies to address low numeracy that we use to address low literacy. I was interested in this post because it made me think about how scaffolding might be used to address some numeracy issues. In the example you gave, the simulation can model or illustrate how people make certain calculations and then make decisions based on their calculations. These examples can be narrated. This is so important because we sometimes forget to explain the thought processes we use in making calculations. If we are not explicit about how we figured something out, there is a good change the leaner won’t get it. Then we can give learners similar problems to figure out and gradually reduce the instructor support. I think this would help people understand how to apply different numeracy skills across different situations and also build their self-efficacy in quantitative decision-making.

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