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How Do You Assess Self-Directed Learning?

Bob Little 

January 6, 2017

Google the phrase “self-directed learning” and you’ll find many articles and books explaining why everyone should want to be continuous (lifelong), self-directed learners. Writers including Peter Senge, in The Leader’s New Work, temper this by arguing that “children come fully equipped with an insatiable drive to explore and experiment. Unfortunately, the primary institutions of our society are oriented toward predominately controlling rather than learning, rewarding individuals for performing for others rather than cultivating their natural curiosity and impulse to learn.”

As the amount and availability of learning materials have proliferated in recent years, more people than ever can engage in self-directed learning.

According to the University of Waterloo, there are four key stages to being a successful self-directed learner:

1. Being ready to learn Successful independent study demands various skills and attitudes toward learning. Learners’ signs of readiness for self-directed learning include being autonomous, organized, self-disciplined, communicating effectively, being able to accept constructive feedback, and engaging in self-evaluation and self­-reflection.

2. Setting learning goals Communicating learning goals between a learner and an authority figure – an L&D professional, coach or mentor, perhaps – is key. Establish a learning contract to define:

  • The learning goals.
  • Learning activities’ structure and sequence, and a timeline for their completion.
  • Details of the resource materials required for each goal.
  • Details of what constitutes “learning success” and how it is measured.
  • Evaluation as each goal is completed.
  • A schedule for regular meetings with the “authority figure.”
  • Policies to deal with issues such as how to treat work that’s turned in late.

3. Engaging in the learning process – Self-directed learners must understand ideas and be able to apply knowledge to new situations. They must generate their own connections and be their own motivators. So they must understand their preferred learning style and the instructional methods that they respond to best. They must take a “deep approach to learning that involves transforming (understanding ideas, applying knowledge to new situations, and using novel examples to explain a concept).

4. Evaluating learning learners must engage in self-reflection, evaluate their learning goals, and seek feedback from relevant people. They must consult regularly with their “authority figure.” Self-evaluation involves answering such questions as: how do I know I’ve learned? Am I flexible in adapting and applying knowledge? Am I confident in explaining material?

Nick Hindley, Associate Director, Performance Improvement and Innovation (RSMM and AIM), at global contract research organization PPD, observes, Updating any training material is critical. I maintain the currency and validity of training materials, exercises and so on by a regime of constant detailed feedback from attendees, along with ongoing evaluation – using the Jim Kirkpatrick approach – to assess attendeessuccess in applying their learning.

Creating and using evaluation is, to me, key for both trainer and attendees. It’s important to allow for time to prepare and distribute the right questions, allow the attendees time to complete the evaluation properly, and analyze and communicate the results.”

It’s this area – assessing/evaluating self-directed learning’s effectiveness – that’s the most contentious of the four stages to being a successful self-directed learner. The problem – especially for L&D professionals responsible for monitoring self-directed learning at work – is how you evaluate these activities and assess the resulting learning objectively.

For one thing, how do you know that the same person who – remotely – undertook a learning program is the same person who took any accompanying assessment? This is especially important in preventing fraud where compliance and regulatory learning is concerned.

Hindley is wary of online proctoring, also known as remote invigilation. He says, “My experience of this is limited but, if there’s no chance of a trusted person being with the person being assessed, the only way I see that this could happen is by using fingerprint/iris recognition technology.”

David Patterson, of UK-based e-learning consultancy and market analyst Learning Light, says, “The global computer-based assessment market is worth an estimated $42bn. It’s forecast to grow strongly due to the increasing internationalization of education, increasing MOOC usage, and the demand for certification and re-certification.

“We believe that the market in online proctoring live, online identification and monitoring of a candidate taking a test – will be worth some $10bn by 2026.

“As this market develops, you could say it’s bringing about the transition from continuing professional development to demonstrating actual competence. This is exciting because paper-based assessment costs are now out of proportion to training delivery costs.”

Pearson Vue provides the most prominent example of a computer-based testing service. Created in 2003 and now delivering 13m tests in the U.S. alone, Pearson Vue manages and delivers certifications for more than 500 organizations around the world. Says Patterson, In 2015, Pearson Vue administered 14.2m tests and, in 2014, Versant PTE delivered 1.05m. These are tests in the professional market, not in the education sector.

Other key players in this market include Education Testing Services (ETS) (with a reported turnover of $1.1bn in 2013), Prometric (part of ETS), Canada-based Yardstick, and, in the UK, Pearson Vue, LearnDirect and QuestionMark.

Remote proctoring (invigilation) is well-established in the U.S., where the market leaders are Software Secure, Kryterion, Proctor Cam (bought by Pearson in 2015), Examnity, and ProctorU. In the EU, the leaders are Comprobo, Smowl and TestReach.

MOOCs are likely to encourage CBA solutions as universities and their platform partners, such as Udacity and Coursera, seek to monetize the uMOOC offer with certificates of completion, participation and, increasingly, learning achievement.

After recent fraudulent activities around qualifications, a robust method of assessment and invigilation is needed to give the MOOC-testing process validity and security. Online proctoring can provide this validity and authenticity. Remote proctoring could even enable MOOC providers to leverage well-established brands, such as those of universities, to add further value to their courses.”

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