ETP - Developing Self-Directed Learners

learning objectives


Self-directed learners are able to “assess the demands of a task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan an approach, monitor progress, and adjust their strategies as needed” (Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett, DiPietro, & Norman, 2010, p. 191). Students who learn to do this are much more likely to apply these same skills to learning beyond the classroom.

Learning Objectives

To help students become self-directed learners, we will discuss practices you can use to:

  • Provide structured assignments and work plans
  • Assign project flowcharts
  • Use examples of prior student work
  • Use checklists and rubrics to facilitate self-and peer assessments
  • Integrate a structured peer review into projects and papers
  • Use exam wrappers or cognitive wrappers to prompt student reflection
  • Use cues to help students build a growth mindset
  • Provide opportunities for students to practice decision-making
  • Use the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) in class or online

Skeletal Outline

Download a skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Lori Ogden, PhD, from West Virginia University; Mika LaVaque-Manty, PhD, from the University of Michigan; John Pollard, PhD, from University of Arizona; and Alison O’Malley, PhD, from Butler University.

Watch additional classroom demonstrations that cover Exam Wrapper activities and the Critical Incident Questionnaire on the following pages.

Download the transcript for this video.

Exam Wrappers

In this short classroom demonstration video, Lori Ogden, PhD, from West Virginia University, and Terri Jett, PhD, from Butler University, take a deep dive into exam wrapper activities.

Download the transcript for this video.

Critical Incident Questionnaire

In this short classroom demonstration video, Lori Ogden, PhD, from West Virginia University, and Alison O’Malley, PhD, from Butler University, present techniques for using the Critical Incident Questionnaire.

Download the transcript for this video.

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear Stephen Brookfield, a scholar in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video.

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with techniques designed to develop self-directed learners. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION : Student beliefs about intelligence and learning are set at an early age, and instructors can do little to change them.


Discussing learning and intelligence with your students can help change their beliefs about a fixed mindset and highlight the impact that effort can have on learning. Helping students set realistic expectations about such things as the amount of time it takes to develop skills can also help students change their beliefs about intelligence (Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett, DiPietro, & Norman, 2010).

“When students and educators have a growth mindset, they understand that intelligence can be developed. Students focus on improvement instead of worrying about how smart they are. They work hard to learn more and get smarter. Based on years of research by Stanford University’s Dr. Carol Dweck, Lisa Blackwell PhD, and their colleagues, we know that students who learn this mindset show greater motivation in school, better grades, and higher test scores” (Dweck, 2007).


You play a key role in helping students develop a growth mindset. Talk about the differences between fixed and growth mindsets in class. Share stories about former students who struggled with your content and thought they may never learn the subject but, with persistence and effort, were successful. Share your own story about mastering a specific skill or content. Talk about what it takes to learn your course material effectively. Set clear expectations for the amount of time students should be putting in outside of class. Break down difficult or complex tasks so students will see their own skills build over time (Dweck, 2007, “Why the Growth Mindset?”).

MISCONCEPTION : College students should know how to study.

Clarification :

Few students have ever been taught how to study (Gardiner, 1998, as cited in Davis, 2009). Teachers who coach students on skills such as note-taking, improving reading comprehension, managing assignments, and participating in class discussions help them become better prepared to learn in this class, in future classes, and in their lives outside of school. 

Suggestions :

Provide students with the tools to study—through structured assignments, work plans, and exam wrappers—to give them much-needed skills that will serve them well throughout their lives ( Ambrose et al., 2010; Bowen, 2013; Brookfield, 2015; Harris, 2014 ). Use structured assignments and work plans to give students a process for analyzing tasks and creating a plan for completing them. Use exam wrappers to encourage students to think about which learning strategies are most effective for them (Ambrose et al., 2010; Bowen, 2013; Brookfield, 2015; Harris, 2014).

CHALLENGE: I give my students plenty of time for each long-term assignment, but many of them rush to complete each one in the few days before they’re due.

Clarification :

Typically, students do not take advantage of long deadlines. Research shows the average student will spend less than 5 weeks on a term paper for a 15-week semester, even if the paper was assigned in the fifth week (Ackerman & Gross, 2005). Students tend to underestimate how long an academic task will take (Davis, 2009). Research shows that students either tend not to plan at all or make plans that are not well matched to the task at hand (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Suggestions :

When giving an assignment, provide examples of prior student work to help students develop a better understanding of the expectations (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 147). By guiding students through creating a work plan that helps them identify the tasks and assigns time requirements for completion, you will not only better prepare them to complete this assignment but will also provide them with an important planning skill to use for future assignments and throughout their lives. You can also require self-and peer feedback on drafts prior to the due date to encourage students to better manage their time (Ambrose et al., 2010, pp. 148–152).

MISCONCEPTION: College students should be able to read an assignment and understand the expectations.

Clarification :

In a study conducted by Carey, Flower, Hayes, Shriver, and Haas  (1989) investigating student difficulties with college writing, the researchers found that half of the students ignored the instructor’s explanation of the assignment and instead used a strategy they had used in high school. This process resulted in them missing the goal or purpose of the assignment. Assessing the task is not always natural; therefore, it is insufficient for the instructor to simply say, “Read the directions.” Students need to learn how to assess the task, and instructors can use a variety of techniques, including structured assignments and work plans, to help them do this effectively (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Suggestions :

To get better results on assignments, provide examples of completed work, structure assignments to describe expectations clearly for individual sections of assignments, and help students create a work plan for completing tasks (Ambrose et al., 2010).

CHALLENGE: My students continue to use a learning strategy even if it doesn’t seem to be working for them.


Research has shown that good problem solvers will try new strategies if their current strategy isn’t working; poor problem solvers will continue to use a strategy even after it isn’t successful (National Research Council, 2001, as cited in Ambrose et al., 2010). Students who have developed a growth mindset believe that they are capable of mastering the content or completing the task with hard work and perseverance. Students with a fixed mindset, who fail at a task or find mastering new content a challenge, do not believe that a new strategy will have an impact. They often believe there is no benefit to trying a new strategy.

Suggestions :

Use exam wrappers to support students in monitoring their own learning and identifying which strategies work best for them (Ambrose et al., 2010; Bowen, 2013; Brookfield, 2015; Harris, 2014).

MISCONCEPTION: There is little I can do to help online students stay on track other than remind them of due dates.


Students who are new to online learning may not be prepared for the time and self-motivation needed to complete assignments on time. Just as online learners need to take increased responsibility for their learning, so too do instructors need to assume greater responsibility for providing guidance and support (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011). Many students who take online courses are nontraditional learners with full time jobs and/or families. Although they may be used to juggling many responsibilities, they may not have anticipated the choices they must make to integrate online learning into their daily lives, which is what they need to do to keep on track (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016).

Suggestions :

Provide students with time management tools and suggestions to help them think through and schedule when and where they will complete coursework and specific assignments. It’s also important to keep in mind that mobile devices greatly expand the possibilities for how, when, and where learners can engage with their online courses (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011).

Observe & Analyze

In the Observe & Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video.

Download the transcript for this video.

Implementation Resources

  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module.

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resources to practice our techniques for developing self-directed learners:

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

Help students plan their approach to assignments

Help students develop a structured work plan

To support online students in appropriately managing their time to complete longer length assignments have them develop a detailed work plan (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). The plan must include where they will work, the amount of time they will work, and the specific tasks they will complete in order to meet the due dates for each section of the assignment as well as the final assignment due date.

Download directions as well as an example and template of a structured work plan.

Provide students with opportunities to self-assess their work and process
Integrate a structured peer-review process into online projects

Peer-review activities help students develop their analytical skills and deepen their understanding of assignment requirements as well as their awareness of the quality of their own work. Peer-review activities also foster community building, allowing students opportunities to support each other’s learning and growth.

Download a step-by-step process for effectively integrating peer-review activities into your online course assignments and activities.

Use cognitive wrappers to prompt student reflection about online coursework

Cognitive Wrappers are a variation of the exam wrapper used to support students’ reflection on the processes they use to complete a discussion post, essay, and/or project.

Download directions for assigning cognitive wrappers for students to reflect on their processes for (a) writing a discussion post, (b) writing an essay, and (c) completing a project.

Establish course expectations and relevance

Use an online version of the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) to help students reflect on their learning preferences

In a face-to-face course, you would assign a CIQ at the end of a single class session or the end of a week to prompt students to reflect on their learning. In online courses, the CIQ is used to prompt learners to reflect on an entire module or unit.

Download recommendations for using an online CIQ


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Kirsten Heinz
Instructor of Communication
University of Arkansas, Pulaski Technical College

Randyl Rohm, MS
Supervisor, Office of Instructional Technology
Purdue University Northwest

Vondra Armstrong
Business Instructor
University of Arkansas, Pulaski Technical College

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Video Resource

  • José Bowen: Using Cognitive Wrappers

Resources for Further Reading

Consult a comprehensive list of references for this module.

Community Connections


Alison (Ali) O’Malley, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
Butler University

John Pollard, PhD
Associate Professor of Practice
Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
University of Arizona

Lori Ogden, PhD
Teaching Assistant Professor
Department of Mathematics
West Virginia University

Mika LaVaque-Manty PhD
Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Michigan

Robert Onorato, MBA
Professor, Business

Stephen Brookfield, PhD
John Ireland Endowed Chair
University of St. Thomas, Minnesota

Terri Jett, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
Butler University

Abdullah, M. H. (2001).
Self-directed learning Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED459458)

Ackerman, D. S., & Gross, B. L. (2005).
My instructor made me do it: Task characteristics of procrastination. Journal of Marketing Education, 27, 5–13.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010).
How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016).
The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bowen, J. (2013, August 22).
Cognitive wrappers: Using metacognition and reflection to improve learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Brookfield, S. D. (2015).
The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Carey, L. J., Flower, L., Hayes, J., Shriver, K.A., & Haas, C. (1989).
Differences in writers’ initial task representations (Technical Report No. 34). Center for the Study of Writing at University of California at Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University.

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001).
Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Connor, C. (2004).
Developing self-directed learners. Retrieved from

Cornell University, Center for Teaching Innovation. (n.d.).
Assessing prior knowledge. Retrieved from

Conrad, R.-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011).
Engaging the online learner, updated: activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. G. (2009).
Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

DeLong, M., & Winter, D. (2002).
Learning to teach and teaching to learn mathematics: Resources for professional development. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Dweck, C. S. (2007). 
Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Fayetteville State University. (n.d.).
Create engaging assignments and clear assignment sheets. Retrieved from (link no longer active)

Harris, C. (2014, June 6).
Teaching from the test: Exam wrappers [Blog post]. Retrieved from (link no longer active)

Shannon, S. V. (2008). 
Using metacognitive strategies and learning styles to create self-directed learners. Institute for Learning Styles Research Journal, 1, 14–28.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Walker Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.).
Classroom assessment strategies. Retrieved from