How to Stop Failing in School By Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

Published by Klint Ciriaco on

self-directed learning
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Becoming a self-directed learner allows you to adapt in any learning situation in school, but before we dive in, let’s explore the consequences of not becoming one by looking at two examples.

Student 1

This student submits a poorly written paper but questions the grade her instructor gives her.

She tells her professor she is a “gifted” writer and has always aced her English classes in high school.

She also admits to starting her project the night before the deadline because she says, “That’s just how my creative juices flow.” 

Student 2

Another student does the opposite.

He’s taking a chemistry class and his professor explains that the course consists of concept-heavy materials.

The student highlights his books to a point where the pages glow like neon signs, memorizes a bunch of terms through flash cards, and re-reads chapters before exams.

And yet, he performs poorly in class. 

What’s going on? 

Both students seem to have two different problems on the surface, but they share the same trait: they are not self-directed learners. 

Let’s look at some of the characteristics of students who can’t direct their own learning: 

They have an inaccurate assessment of their skills

In the case of the first student, she thinks the skills that allowed her to thrive in high school will work in college.

The second student on the other hand isn’t aware that memorizing won’t work in a concept-heavy class. In short, he’s doesn’t know he’s supposed to learn the how not the what.

They rely on the same method

The first student relies on “pressure” to force her “creative juices to flow.” She may have succeeded in the past with such approach so she doesn’t bother exploring other methods.

The second student on the other hand might have passed his exams in high school by relentlessly memorizing, re-reading, and highlighting books. 

They don’t adapt

They don’t seek out new ways to solve new types of problems most likely because they don’t want to let go of the process that helped them succeed. 

It could also be emotionally painful to give up the identity attached to their methods. The first student, for example, has been called “gifted” in high school. 

Adapting to a situation means abandoning the old ways in pursuit of a better process. A non self-directed learner has difficulty doing just that. 

How to become a self-directed learner

So, what is self-directed learning? Simply put it, it’s a students’ ability to adapt in any learning situation.

The book, Learning How to Learn, offers a fantastic principle on how to become a self-directed learning machine:

To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of the task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed. P.191

Let’s break it down. 

Assess the task at hand

You can’t hit a target if you don’t know what or where it is. So, make sure you fully understand what you’re dealing with. 

Does your teacher want you to memorize terms or does she want you to understand concepts? 

Do you know the context of the material you need to learn? Have you asked yourself how you can use it today or in the future? 

The last thing you want is to waste valuable time and resources acting on a task you have no thorough understanding of. 

Evaluate your own knowledge and skills

According to the book, those who have an inaccurate assessment of their skills tend to perform poorly.

It’s okay if you’re not skilled enough yet, but admitting your shortcomings gives you a good starting point. Just like a GPS, you can’t get to your destination unless you also know your current location. 

Accepting your lack of skills but working towards improvement is better than the alternative – thinking you’re well-equipped when you’re not. Refer back to the first student above. 

Plan your approach 

One study pitted novices and experts against each other to solve some physics problems. 

Not surprisingly, the experts solved the problems quicker with more accuracy. 

The not so surprising aspect? They spent more time planning while the students took the “shoot from the hip” approach.

Monitor your progress

I once worked at a job where we spent $10,000 to $15,000 on a recurring project.

We did the same thing every month with minimal changes to the process and without learning from our mistakes.

It was a total waste of time and resource. 

Do you want to be doing the same thing over and over again without knowing whether your efforts are fruitful or not? 

Depending on the skill you’re learning, use some sort of a measurement tool to track your progress. 

Taking videos or photos, writing on your journal, or using metrics work well. 

Adjust your strategies as needed

If your current approach isn’t working, stop.

Abandoning the strategy when it isn’t working is difficult to do especially when precious time and resources were spent planning for it. 

But, continuing on the same path is a bad idea for obvious reasons. So, move on, plan another campaign, and then execute to see if it works. 

Adapt a Good Belief System

If the self-directed learning is a super fast car, belief, is the nitro boost that will accelerate everything further. 

Before I share the beliefs that will help you learn effectively, it’s worth mentioning the ethos that will keep you from doing so. It’s called the fixed mindset. Here are some of the things people who carry this belief say:

“I’m old so I can’t learn new technology.” 

“I’m not smart so I can’t get high grades.” 

“You can’t fix stupid.”

“I’m not charming so I can’t make people laugh.”  

As difficult as it is to overcome these beliefs, it’s necessary to do so because continuing to live with it is detrimental to your success. 

So, adapt a… 

Growth mindset

Carol Dweck, the author of the Book, Growth Mindset, brought this idea to light. 

Our intelligence, character, and other abilities can be developed. A self-directed learner truly believes he can achieve the outcome he wants by being relentless.

We don’t have to settle for mediocrity due to an old belief system. 

There’s another principle that is paired well with the growth mindset. It’s rooted in stoic philosophy which teaches you to… 

Control the Controllables

Let’s say you’re in a difficult course taught by the worst professor on campus.

Complaining about how hard the projects are or how unhelpful the instructor is won’t change your situation. 

Do the following instead: 

  • Watch Youtube videos for alternative explanations.
  • Ask help from former students.
  • Find practice exams online. 
  • Take breaks to minimize brain fatigue. 
  • Eat healthy and workout to increase your energy for studying.

The activities listed above and many more are all within your control. Focus on the levers that produce the outcome you want. The rest? Let go of them because that’s all you can do anyway. 


Becoming a self-directed learner will give you an edge to set you apart in the world. It’s also a skill which means it is obtainable through practice.

Apply the principles these to your learning ventures so you can have the chops to make learning obtainable and meaningful.


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