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Finding Self-Directed Learning

Roger Hiemstra

After my Ph.D from the University of Michigan in 1970 I started as a professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Although initially I found success with scholarship, I was not pleased with myself as a teacher. Two things happened in 1972 that helped me change my approach to teaching and the primary focus of my research. I heard Allen Tough give a conference presentation on his work with adults’ learning projects. Then Malcolm Knowles came to our campus and talked about his work with andragogy. Because I had taken a course at the University of Michigan on creating instructional videos, my Chair asked me to work with Malcolm and the Nebraska Education Television Council for Higher Education to create a television segment related to teaching adults.

In preparation for that effort I re-read Malcolm’s book (The Modern Practice of Adult Education), created a plan for what might be covered in a 30 minutes instructional video, and spent 20 minutes with Malcolm prior to the taping. We decided on an interview format. Malcolm brought to the studio several of the charts he had used in a lecture with our graduate students. As only Malcolm could do, he effortlessly talked about andragogy and how it can be used in the classroom. During this process I had an epiphany and realized that the discomfort I had been feeling the past several months as an instructor in trying to find my way as an instructor could be overcome by using the techniques Malcolm had been using for years. That video is a priceless look into Malcolm Knowles’s work and how he revolutionized the adult education field. I recommend that you look at it knowing that it ran periodically for years on public television in Nebraska and I suspect impacted favorably on many instructors of adults (Hiemstra & Knowles, 1972).

It certainly impacted me as I began using an andragogical approach in my instructional efforts and initiated what has been more than four decades of research on self-directed learning and individualizing the instructional process. In essence, I found my way to self-direction and began encouraging learners to accept increasing responsibility for their own learning. Not only have I continued to build my own skills as a self-directed learner, I take pride in helping many graduate students take increasing responsibility for their own learning. My involvement over the years with the International Society for Self-Directed Learning (ISSDL) has enabled me to not only share my own views on self-directed learning, but also to associate with hundreds of like-minded individuals. A much longer discussion on this topic can be found at An Adult Educator from Kalamazoo. You also might be interested in considerable information on self-directed learning within my web page.


Roger Hiemstra is a founding member of the International Society for Self-Directed Learning and serves on the Board of Directors. He is Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University, where he chaired the Adult Education Department. His website (linked above) has a wealth of information on SDL.

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