Self-directed learning: stepping out on your own

This entry is part 19 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

Chapter 15 of Ten Steps to Complex Learning looks at self-directed learning.  Van Merriënboer and Kirschner’s ten steps are part of a blueprint for programs for learning–a way to structure learning for complex real-world tasks.  Since the Ten Steps include things like dynamic selection of learning tasks based on the learner’s interest and abilities, there’s a natural fit with self-directed learning.

Successful self-directed learning requires skills like:

  • Monitoring progress (possibly in too much detail)Orienting: What do I want to learn?  Where could I learn it?  How can I use it?
  • Planning: What should I do?  How much time and effort do I need?
  • Monitoring: Have I learned enough from this task?  Am I paying attention to context?
  • Adjusting: Do I need to make changes?  Do I need some help?
  • Assessing: Have I reached my goal?  What do I need to work on next?

These skills are beyond the scope of the Ten Steps, but many principles contained in the steps support the skills in action.

vM&K see three levels of self-directed learning.  Independent part-task practice is the simplest.  Within an overall program, a learner can choose practice items.  That’s because part-task practice applies best to well-defined items that fit well into individual practice and benefit from such things as automated drill-and-practice.

Just-in-time open education goes beyond the procedural aspects of part-task practice.  Think of it as resource-based learning that includes supportive information–in other words, this level of self-directed learning includes problem-solving and reasoning aspects of the learning tasks.

With on-demand education, learners decide not only on the resources but on the learning tasks as well.  Challenges for the learner include:

  • How to choose an appropriate level of difficulty
  • How to obtain an appropriate level of support and guidance
  • How to get enough variability (so that learning tasks vary as much as they do in the real world)

Reading those points reminded me of my own experience with Head First HTML with CSS, a book that teaches you, well, HTML and CSS (my post about the book).  Head First absolutely worked for me–I liked the presentation, I liked the level of detail, I learned lots of stuff.  But it might not work for everyone.  The authors themselves say the book’s not for you if you’re completely new to computers, or if you’re a skilled web developer looking for a reference book, or if you’re afraid to try something different.

(Though you’ll find this on page xxvi:
Note from marketing: this book is for anyone with a credit card.

How’m I doing with self-directed learning?

This chapter has a highly detailed discussion about assessing performance in self-directed learning.  Keep in mind that the Ten Steps assume that performance standards remain constant throughout a learning program.  What differs from level to level is the complexity of the task and thus the relevant portion of the standards.

On-the-job assessment

A program for trauma specialists would have highly detailed standards for diagnosis, for example.  A subset of those skills might be “take vital signs,” which make up one aspect of the much larger skill.

Assessment methods with a high reliability (e.g., multiple choice tests) have, in general, a relatively low external validity, and, vice-versa, assessment methods with a high external validity (e.g., on the job performance) have a relatively low reliability.  Therefore, the Ten Steps recommend using a rich mix of assessment methods….A mix of assessors should also be used.

vM&K say that the most important assessor in self-directed learning is the learner herself.  Next come peer assessments from fellow learners or colleagues.  Finally, assessors can include teachers, instructors, experts, customers, and others who engage with the learner.

Vertical and horizontal assessment

This chapter ends with a concept that confused me for quite a while.  The authors talk about “protocol portfolio scoring,” a complicated tool for standards, assessment results, and “vertical and horizontal assessment.”  Here’s what I think they’re talking about:

The Ten Steps is all about learning whole tasks.  It’s also about learning through task classes: clusters of learning tasks with similar overall difficulty but variations that reflect the real world.

Imagine that there were eight aspects (or facets) that could apply to the tasks in a class, even if each task didn’t have each aspect.  A vertical assessment looks at one aspect for all the tasks, while a horizontal assessment looks at all aspects for one task.

You can see an example in this Google Books search of Ten Steps (opens in a new window).  Look at the chart on page 236.  The center columns show “vertical standards” for eight aspects that apply to the six tasks that make up class 1.  Not every aspect applies–for example, only five aspects apply to task 1.1.

If you’re training hairstylists, class 1 might involve simple kinds of haircuts.   You could have several basic skills in class 1, with some tasks involving curly hair and some straight.

As I understand the explanation that follows, vertical scoring is cumulative–so I could miss one or two curly-hair aspects but achieve competence in this aspect over the entire class.  The horizontal scoring for each task deals with all its aspects.

I thought this was wildly and needlessly complicated until I read that the horizontal scores reflect adaptation.  Without going into too much detail, because the learner failed the horizontal score for task 1.1 (scored 3.0 when the standard was 3.74), task 1.2 provided more support.  The learner missed that one, too, so task 1.3 provided even more support.

At the same time, the vertical scores reflect emphasis.  If overall I don’t do well on, say, doing a basic trim, the vertical score can tell me that I’m falling short on scissor use and on working with curly hair.   I’m doing fine on asking the customer what he wants and on choosing where to cut.

Support and guidance for self-directed learning

More learner control isn’t always a good idea.  Low-ability learners can’t always make wise choices.  If you’ve never used HTML, you can’t make good decisions about whether to use CSS.  How do you decide the number of tasks to choose, and how do you select the specific tasks?

One approach is what vM&K call the intelligent agent–a person or a smart tool.  I’ve recently had experience with the latter–built-in advice from the Wii Fit.  The program has built-in assessments, offers a selection of activities (exercises), and monitors progress.  Probably not at the same level as a personal trainer, but suited to my not-quite-Olympic level of fitness.

“Support” in Ten Steps terms refers to procedural skills–so an intelligent agent is a bit like a Consumer Reports article, discussing various facts that you apply to your own situation.  “Guidance” refers to cognitive strategies and rules of thumb.

An unanswered question is who puts all this stuff together?  I have some thoughts I’m still mulling over.  The short-term answer might be, “What do you mean by who?”  For some complex skills, and for some contexts for those skills, you might have a fairly permanent body, like a medical school or a pilot-training program.  For others, “who” and “this stuff” may vary according to the skills and the performers.

CC-licensed images:
Graffiti report card by bbaunach.
“Loading” (from actual software) by me.

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2 thoughts on “Self-directed learning: stepping out on your own

  1. Dave,

    I’ve followed this series. It’s a pretty excellent assessment and summary of something that, sadly, I wouldn’t have the attention span to wade through myself. I’m still processing much of it, integrating perspective, and organizing where some of the ideas might apply for my own work. It is all valuable, no doubt, whether or not it ties directly to work contexts I’m able to apply.

    Good stuff – thanks for this.


  2. Steve, thanks very much for your comment. It’s a bit disconcerting to have written 20 posts about 15 chapters of a book, especially since I have at least two more to go: one on the concluding chapter, and one for my own integrating and perspective.

    As I said at the outside, I’d read an article about the predecessor to the Ten Steps, 4C/ID (four component instructional design). Despite the intensely academic language, I thought the article had value, which is why I took the plow-through-it approach I have here. It’s kind of the anti-tweet approach: 140 sentences, maybe, rather than 140 characters, per post.

    I think the crucial part for me is what you ended with–tying the Ten Steps directly to work contexts. Otherwise, it’s an academic exercise (pun intended). I wonder whether this approach might topple under its own weight. At the same time, the four main components highlight elements missing from many attempts to aid complex learning.

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