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Self-Directed Learning Requirements for

Learning Management Systems

(Adapted from research by Gerald Grow – Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed and others)

by Nick Anderson & Bruce Lewolt

In her highly regarded book, The End of Competitive Advantage, Dr. McGrath shows that the demise of once dominate companies, like Kodak, RIM (Blackberry), and Circuit City, was predictable due to their rigid structures that were designed to extract maximum value from what they thought was a sustainable competitive advantage. Further, that in today’s environment successful corporate structures must be designed to identify and quickly respond to a transitory competitive advantages and then move on to the next as the market changes. This means that the ability of the employees in the organization to learn and adopt new behaviors may be the only truly sustainable competitive advantage. Such an organization cannot survive with a minimalist approach to learning effectiveness. Instead they need systems that produce sustained changes in behavior, robust improvements in performance and that facilitate efficient self-directed learning.

All of this means that good learning management systems (LMS) need to produce deep and lasting learning and both guide and accelerate the learner’s progression from dependence to self-direction and learning independence. But, typically there are difficulties when an LMS adopts one-size-fits all approach that does not adapt to each learner’s developmental stage. For example, where a learner needs direction and the system is non-directive.

Another dynamic is that learners have varying abilities of self-directedness. The same learner can be very self-directive in subjects where they have both a robust knowledge level and a strong belief in their ability to perform (self-efficacy), yet need a high level of direction in subjects where one or both of these factors are missing.

So LMS design needs to reflect the stages of Self-Directed Learning (SDL) based on the Situational Leadership Model (Hersey & Blanchard). This means that LMS designers need to create an effective progression from dependence to self-direction that adapts to each learner and subject.

The first stage is to consider goals that are directly related to learning. For example:

  1. To create self-directed and life-long learners
  2. To create online learning that adapts to different learners
  3. To allow self-directed and dependent learning to co-exist
  4. To allow curriculum developers to easily create courses adapt to the individual learner.

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SDL Features

In considering which LMS to choose, an organization needs to make sure that the LMS encourages and enables learners to develop:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Proactivity
  3. Control

So, when looking at Learning Management Systems the following questions are important:

  1. How does the LMS adapt coursework to each learner’s prior knowledge?
  2. How does the LMS automate expert learning strategies and promote deep and durable learning?
  3. How does the LMS compensate for the tendency of learners to overestimate how well they have learned something and underestimate how much they will forget?
  4. How does the LMS promote and influence self-directed learning?
  5. Is adaptability just an afterthought as demonstrated by tacking a pre-assessment to the front of an otherwise one-size-fits all learning experience or is adaptive learning the central focus of the design.

The model below summarizes the design requirements for Learning Management Systems that incorporate self-directed learning strategies.



LMS Response




  • Low Prior Knowledge
  • Low Self-Efficacy
Directing and Coaching Prescriptive Content; Feedback Immediacy; Identify then fill gaps followed by showing learners how they have improved; pro-active measures to keep learners engaged and on target.



  • High Prior Knowledge
  • Low Self-Efficacy

Motivating and Guiding

Inspiring content with guided discussion; Goal setting with suggested learning strategies; System is proactive about showing learners the progress they have made.



  • Low Prior Knowledge
  • High Self-Efficacy


System facilitated content selection; Feedback from Subject Matter Experts; Individual and group projects.



  • High Prior Knowledge
  • High Self-Efficacy

Consulting and Enabling

Tools to convert learner selected content into study material like study questions; Projects with suggested resources.

A more detailed explanation follows together with examples of the impact when Learning Managing Systems are at odds with the types of learners they are supposed to serve.

Stage 1: Dependent Learners

This stage is especially true for new hires and learners who have experienced poor results beofre in a subject. They are looking for direction, role clarity and not making a mistake. Critically, setting expectations that this is a transitory nature of this stage and that Stage 4 is their goal

This should be a transitional stage as they lack the relevant knowledge, skills and self-directedness.

The Learning System must be credible, authoritative and seen by the learner as an asset. This means well-organized and rigorous in a way that the learner experiences deep and durable learning. This also means that feedback and grading is unequivocal, objective and most important, seen by the learner as an important part of the learning process. For example, grading to identify areas for more study – which helps the learner become more proficient – as opposed to grading that just produces a score.

The system provides focused, frequent, and immediate feedback. For example, using quizzing or simulations to reinforce learning with explanations of the proper answers at any time learners answer inaccurately.

Lastly, the learner’s cheating opportunities to complete learning tasks without actually producing deep and durable learning must be identified and eliminated.

Stage 2: Interested Learners

When the learner exhibits proficiency in knowledge, skills and culturally appropriate behavior, they are ready for the next stage. Their willingness to engage and be motivated is when Stage 2 functionality in the system accelerates them toward self-directedness.

Here the system switches from direction to persuasion and excitement. The system uses different functionality to support and reward the curious. Another important difference is that the system adapts to each learner.

It now becomes important that the system introduces the skills of becoming self-directed. The critical transition in the system is to move away from rigid requirements and toward building the learner’s belief in their ability to being self-directed learners. So, in this stage, the system moves toward:

  • System directed discussions
  • Demonstrations by outside experts
  • Structured projects with known outcomes
  • Guided practice

Most importantly the system provides help with scheduling and the tedious components of personal content creation so frustration doesn’t push the learners back to Stage One.

Stage 3: Involved Learners

By this stage learners feel that they are participants in their own education and training. They are ready to explore an area with a good guide. They will explore some of it on their own, but still need help developing their confidence and self-direction, especially in working with others.

The means the system has to wean learners from being directed to developing their own learning needs. This progression reduces their reliance on extrinsic motivators while developing their intrinsic motivation. It is here that Learning Management Systems can help learners develop greater mental resilience and therefore higher performance. For example, the system needs to help learners:

  • Master the right mindset
  • Develop intrinsic motivation
  • Maintain focus
  • Deal with learning difficulties
  • Control their emotions

They learn to identify and value their own life experiences. They learn to value the personal experiences of others. They develop critical thinking, individual initiatives and a sense of being a co-creator of their work culture.

The system therefore needs to facilitate. Learners now need to feel part of the decision making and to take an increasing role in developing the system’s functionality so that it serves them. For example, the system switches to:

  • Open-ended assignments
  • Written criteria
  • Learning contracts
  • Self-evaluation checklists

These tools then progress learners setting their own assignments in the system and creating their own learning exercises.

Stage 4: Self-Directed Learners

At Stage 4, learners set their own goals and standards – with or without help from the system. They use the full range of resources that the internet provides. They are skilled at culling useful information from the plethora of inaccurate information on the internet. This does not mean they become loners; in fact, they are encouraged to be highly social. Here the system provides resources to capture best practices and develop learning paths for others.

Here the expectation is that learners demonstrate the ability and willingness to take responsibility for their learning, direction and productivity. They exhibit skills in time management, project management, goal setting, self/peer evaluation, information gathering and use of resources

Now, the system takes on a monitoring role and a knowledge bank for learners with access to expertise when needed. The system’s role now has shifted from teaching to cultivating a learner’s ability to learn. As a result the system teaches and then helps automate expert learning strategies.

It is at this stage that learners take ownership of the learning system.

The Implications of System Mismatches with Learning Stages

Typical mismatches are:

  • S1/S4: If learners are already at Stage 4 they are likely to resent the confines of being required to follow rigid learning paths. This often occurs where the system can’t adapt to the learners knowledge, experience or learning preferences. This is a recipe for rebellion, retreat and boredom.
  • S1/S2-3: Here the learner feels there is no regard paid to their experience and knowledge: e.g., older new hires and high performing employees.
  • S4/S1: This different problem occurs when dependent learners are asked to engage in a system that is designed for independent learners. The system fails for several reasons; like people don’t use the system as they lack skills like goal setting skills, self-evaluation, critical thinking, project management and self-esteem to engage with the system. As one researcher put it:
    • “They may feel frustration and anger when, in a misguided spirit of democracy, they are expected to make decisions without sufficient knowledge of expertise”.

Wanting close supervision, immediate feedback, frequent interaction and so on means this type of student is unlikely to respond well to an S4 system style.

The Three Learning System Adoption Traps

Finally, all learning system implementations must take steps to avoid falling into the three traps that prevent the widespread adoption. If widespread adoption is not achieved, the company won’t have the ability seize one transitory competitive advantage after another.

Trap 1: The System never gains traction:

If in the early stages the system does not provide, and in the later stages the learner cannot identify, content that is valuable both to the learner and the employer, the system will never gain internal support.

Trap 2: System gains traction but produces frustration:

If the learning system can’t adapt to each learner’s prior knowledge, cognitive profile and learning preferences – course completion suffers because some learners will fail and others will be frustrated by having to take lessons on material they already know or restudy material that they have already mastered.

Trap 3: System fails to produce measurable results:

If the system doesn’t promote deep and durable learning, the course content won’t be mastered and will be quickly forgotten. The result is that the training fails to produce any sustained change in behavior or measurable increase in performance. Once learners and managers realize that they have not benefited in the long run from investing time and money in the courses, any support for the system will quickly erode.


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