IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Can Students Hone Self-Directed Learning Skills?

The Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative, launched last year by SRI Education and Columbia University, aims to study best practices for educators to help online students succeed.

Two years after colleges and universities made the drastic shift to full remote learning during COVID-19, students are accustomed to the flexibility afforded by online courses. With growing expectations and demand for online courses likely to remain in a post-pandemic environment, researchers are working to determine best instructional practices to guide self-directed learning and approach virtual instruction in the years ahead.

Enter the Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative, an initiative launched last year by the research organization SRI Education and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, intended to help professors adapt their teaching methods to foster self-directed learning skills in their students and make the most of new ed-tech tools in today’s growing digital learning market.

According to SRI's senior principal education researcher Rebecca Griffiths, the aim of the initiative is to improve instruction methodology in online courses, which often lack the same level of one-on-one guidance typically found in traditional in-person learning.

Griffiths said the collaborative is focused on studying institutional practices in higher education and developing an instructional model with which faculty can help students strengthen their self-directed learning skills, or their ability to take the initiative and study effectively without guardrails and oversight. Among other goals, the collaborative hopes to increase awareness of the importance of self-directed learning, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related courses.

“The broad goal of the collaborative is to advance effective uses of technology in teaching. We’re specifically focused on supporting use of technology tools to help students develop and apply self-directed learning skills in online STEM courses,” she said. “Bringing people together and creating space for conversations between researchers, practitioners and the technology providers is an important part of the goal of the collaborative. ... In our first year, we're laying the infrastructure for the kind of impact we want to have, but haven’t been doing as much outward-facing activity just yet.”

With little research on how to boost self-directed learning skills, such as self-evaluation and time management, she said, faculty need more evidence-based guidance to adapt their teaching to online environments — a major focus of recent professional development for professors using new ed-tech tools during the pandemic.

“We’re focused on how students manage their learning processes, how they manage their emotional or motivational states and how they manage their processes for setting their goals for getting their assignments done, for managing their time, for reflecting on what's going well and not going well or seeking help when they need it,” she said. “We’re learning about how institutions, faculty and students think about self-directed learning skills, how they talk about them, and what steps they currently take to support students in developing and applying those skills, and we’ve been doing a lot of research involving our institutional partners to understand current policies around support for self-directed learning.”

According to the collaborative’s website, faculty now have a plethora of new technologies to leverage in these aims, such as learning management systems and adaptive homework systems.

Noting the radical changes that took place in education during COVID-19, Griffiths said researchers want to provide additional insights for education technology developers and educators regarding what combination of tech and instructional strategies could make students more self-sufficient.

“We really wanted to focus on helping students to strengthen those skills in online courses, because they're even more important for successful online courses than traditional face-to-face ones which provide more structure,” Griffiths said.

While colleges and universities have made progress since they were first forced into online learning on such a large scale, she said, many will need to place more focus on creating a sense of belonging among online students and guiding them through challenging coursework remotely.

“I think we've made a huge amount of progress in terms of understanding what a quality online course looks like,” she said. “We've seen that there are certain instructional strategies they can use that help students to manage their time to reflect on their learning, to prompt students to seek help when they run into challenges and to make adjustments to their learning processes as they go.”

According to Griffiths, the collaborative’s first study on online learning will be released in multiple installments, most likely in the fall or winter of this year. She said details on this first study and exact release date remain pending as of this week.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.