John Cox on “Self-Directed Learning”

Cox, JohnJohn Cox is president of The Cox Learning Group and a highly-regarded authority on attracting, hiring, and training high-potential workers and then retaining them at a time when competition for talent is greater than ever before. In recent years, he has taught as an adjunct professor at the business schools of the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of North Texas, and the University of Dallas while continuing his research on major workplace issues. Previously, he was corporate manager for training and development at The Southland Corporation and then director of education at ClubCorp. He earned an undergraduate degree at St. Joseph’s University, a masters degree at East Carolina University and a doctorate at North Carolina State University.

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Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an effective self-directed learner?

Cox: The primary characteristic is they take responsibility for their learning. They are “Adult” learners. They see learning as a way to solve some challenge or need that they are facing. In learning activities they expect to have their experience and knowledge utilized. They seek knowledge they can use immediately. They learn new information most effectively when presented in the context of real life or experience-oriented situations. Motivation becomes increasingly internal. Only when a specific need arises that has intrinsic value or personal payoff is an adult learner motivated to learn.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which self-directed learning is most likely to thrive?

Cox: Self-directed learning will flourish in a workplace when leadership supports and facilitates learning using the following types of policy and supportive behaviors:

Build a framework to guide learning. Identify job competencies, build learning activities and evaluation criteria, and provide essential and useful resources. Then organize into a framework called “Training Guides” that provides direction and at the same time allows learning to be self-directed.

o Make the work environment a learning laboratory. Design the learning system to utilize the people, places and experiences that only exist there.

o Support self-pacing. Learners differ in the way they learn and in the length of time it takes them to learn. Self-pacing accommodated these differences.

o Focus on mastery. Some people need more time to master a skill or competency. Gaining mastery strengthens learner confidence and builds stronger performers.

o Use assessment. Start assessments prior to training. Take advantage of what skills and knowledge people bring with them to the job and eliminate unnecessary training. During training allow learners to by-pass elements of training if they can demonstrate mastery.

o Support a self-managed system. Give employees control of planning their time, scheduling learning activities, selecting resources, and arranging performance evaluation. Allow learners to take responsibility for overcoming various problems, difficulties, and postponements that normally occur in real job environments. In essence, let them practice management skills as they work to complete their training program.

Which seems to be the most self-defeating misconception about self-directed learning? What, in fact, is true?

Cox: Today, the conventional wisdom is, “How do we teach people what we want them to know and do?” This is our mental model for learning. This is self-defeating because it limits the options available to train people. Why not restate the question this way, “How do we help people learn what we want them to know and do?” This opens up multiple options (including self-directed learning) for how people can learn.

Morris: How best to determine which job competencies to improve through self-directed learning?

Cox: After years of designing and implementing competency-based training, I have come to support the research that says how you apply knowledge is linked to how and where that knowledge was acquired. I have found that 90% of job competencies are learnable on the job through guided job based experiences involving observing and working with role models, inquiry, problem solving, analyzing processes, and social and collaborative learning activities. The other 10% of job competencies can be grouped in two ways; behavioral skills that are best learned in a classroom setting or skills difficult to learn on the job due to criteria such as safety or task complexity.

Morris: Which specific activities seem to be most supportive of effective self-directed learning?

Cox: The best way to support a self-directed approach or any learning initiative is to make learning challenging and connected to the real world. By learning on the job and applying acquired skills under workplace conditions a type of challenge is created that’s different from traditional training. The most effective way to insure competencies are transferred to the job is through practice on the job under real workplace conditions. Creating challenge and a connection to the workplace prepare learners for the job before they enter it.

Morris: How best to measure one’s progress during engagement in self-self-directed learning?

Cox: Learning is greatly enhanced by using the learning strategy called “contracting” to measure progress. Learners receive immediate and continuous feedback either positive or constructive from their coach/advisor who documents mastery of learning activities.
Contracting is an effective tool for managing a self-directed framework. It ties together the learning system and serves as a management control for evaluation, feedback, and documentation of each learner’s progress.

Morris: To what extent can technology support self-directed learning initiatives? Please explain.

Cox: Technology serves two roles. It facilitates acquisition of information through ubiquitous tools such as email, Internet, and information sources that support learning efforts. And, it helps manage and document learning results for the learner and the organization.

Specific ways technology supports a self-directed system include:

o Creates a depository for training guides…a place to store and have readily accessible training guides based on multiple jobs across the organization.

o Organizes the assessment process… either before or during training, documents the results of assessments for each learner.

o Tracks learning results… document successful completion of learning activities and competency competition.

o Enables a resource “Library”… a storage place for multiple resources ready to be accessed via links located in training guides when needed by the learner.

o Makes system updating easier… enables periodic updates of all elements of the learning framework for immediate access.

o Distributes training materials… provides access to training materials and resources easily and quickly regardless of workplace location.

o Facilitates feedback… in addition to immediate and continuous coaching that occurs with competency development, technology allows feedback to be personalized via recognition by leadership for individual learner progress.

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If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions about self-directed learning, please contact John directly by clicking here.

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