Self-managed learning, also sometimes referred to as SML, is a type of approach to learning that was developed by Ian Cunningham in 1978 (Krakauer et al.). Cunningham drew on his experiences with groups and the types of learning that people participated in within these groups. The theory, according to Cunningham, was that that people needed less help learning particular facts or ideas, and more help learning how to learn. Self-managed learning has two major parts: there is the Learning Agreement and the Learning Group. Each part of the self-managed learning process is important; without cooperation between the two main elements, there can be no self-managed learning. Understanding these two main parts of the process of self-managed learning is very important to understanding the theory of self-managed learning as a whole.
The learning agreement is the first part of the process. With the Learning Agreement, the student proposes that he or she will undertake a certain path towards certain learning goals, and the group-- which will be discussed more in depth in the “learning group” section-- endeavors to support them in this goal of learning (Krakauer et al.). The learning that the individual member may be doing could be anything from an incredibly varied and complex list of topics; the important thing is not so much what the individual is learning, but the agreement that the individual makes with the group (Krakauer et al.).
When the individual makes a learning agreement with the group, he or she asks him or herself five major questions, which will then comprise the basic form of the learning agreement. The questions are as follows:
- Where have I been?
- Where am I now?
- Where do I want to go?
- How will I get there?
- How will I know when I’ve arrived at my goal? (Krakauer et al.)
While these questions may seem straightforward, it can actually be quite complex to deal with these types of issues within a learning group (Krakauer et al.). The answers that the individual determines for each of these questions comprise the meat of the learning agreement within the group setting. The function of these questions is to force the individual to investigate his or her past actions, especially how they relate to his or her current and future learning endeavors and actions (Krakauer et al.).
In addition, these five questions function extremely well for goal-setting for the individual. Without knowledge about the past and what actions the individual has taken in the past, it is difficult for the learning group to properly support the individual in his or her future endeavors. However, with positive, proper, forward thinking and backwards examination, the learning group and learning agreement can be a strongly positive force in the individual students’ lives (Sankey).
One thing that is commonly assumed when discussing the idea of self-managed learning is the idea that the students in the learning group are entirely self-sufficient. However, this is rarely the case. Learning groups, at their most effective, are comprised of a number of students that are roughly the same age and mental capacity, and are led by an adult instructor (Sankey). While the group is largely self-led, it is also led by an instructor that takes responsibility for guiding the group when it becomes off-track. Sankey writes:
The learning group adviser is not a subject expert, their expertise is in learning. Their role within the group, over and above that of any other group member, is to ensure that the structure of the learning group meetings is adhered to and that the focus on learning is maintained. The body of the learning group meeting is where each student has their ‘individual time’The student is able to decide how they will use their time. Frequently, they will be reporting activities undertaken toward one or more of their goals and the next steps they are contemplating. The other group members will be questioning them on what they have done, what went well, what didn’t, how they might approach the matter differently and what they have learnt from their experiences (Sankey).
Much of the time in the self-managed learning group, then, is spent with the individual considering his or her own path forward. The group is there to help the individual design and create their future path-- not to solve problems for the individual, but to help the individual whenever he or she comes up against a problem that he or she cannot solve (Krakauer et al.). In addition, if the individual fails to see a problem in a potential solution that he or she is proposing, this is also something that the group will help the individual foresee (Krakauer et al.).
The group provides the individual with feedback on their performance, and with feedback regarding how the individual student is faring in their journey towards their goals. Without this feedback, it is easy for the individual to get lost in potential outcomes, or bogged down in minor issues regarding their goals; with the group, however, the dedicated time that is spent on each member of the group means that the individual has little to worry about in the way of problems and solutions (Krakauer et al.). Each problem will be met with not one but many solutions, and each group member brings something different and unique to the table insofar as solution-oriented planning is concerned (Krakauer et al.).
One issue in grouping students is that all the students must be engaged in the process for the process to be effective (Sankey). If the students are not grouped properly, and some of the students are not engaged in the process, members of the group will be unable to get the personalized attention they need to solve their problems within the group environment, and the structure of the self-managed learning system can break down. This is especially true if the adult leader of the group is ineffective as a leader, as discussed in the next section (Krakauer et al.).
It is important to note that the self-managed learning system approach may seem unstructured, but it is not an unstructured approach. It allows freedom of movement for the students and individuals involved in the process, but it does not allow complete freedom by any means (Sankey). The function of the group leader is to ensure that the group is following a prescribed path towards a set goal-- although the goals of the individuals within the group may be discrete and different, the goals of the group as a whole must be well-defined by the group leader, and steps taken within the group must further these goals as a whole in the long run (Krakauer et al.). In self-managed learning systems, students are allowed to choose how they use their time in the individual learning setting; however, each must have goals and each must be moving forward in an attempt to meet these goals. It is the job of the group and the group leader to ensure that the self-managed learning system is moving the group as a whole in forward momentum towards the end goal that the students and the group set (Krakauer et al.).
Obviously, students in higher education have a very different set of requirements and needs from younger students. Students in elementary and secondary school must be guided much more heavily through the learning process. This is not to say that they cannot effectively use self-managed learning techniques in their lives-- but what it does indicate is that there are a number of checks and balances that must be put into place for younger students, especially insofar as motivation is concerned (Krakauer et al.).
Post-secondary school students, on the other hand, have a variety of different ways to execute self-managed learning techniques. Because these students are generally older and much more self-driven, they have an easier time effectively utilizing techniques and managing their time within the group (Krakauer et al.). Self-managed learning depends very heavily upon the motivation of the student and his or her interactions with the group; with poor group chemistry or poor motivation, the group cannot function as it is designed to (Krakauer et al.).
The leadership role in self-managed learning programs is similarly important insofar as the success of the program is concerned. As previously stated, school-age children need leadership that is much more strict, and much more willing to interfere with the actions of the group if the individual members of the group are unwilling or unable to behave in a manner that is conducive to group learning (Sankey). However, with the older students, the problem is different: the group leader must maintain an active role in the group without becoming overbearing and overwhelming for those individuals participating in the self-managed learning process (Sankey).
Many organizations have maintained an approach to self managed learning that is entirely too passive to be effective in the long run, according to Sankey. Passivity should not be the ultimate goal of the leader in the self-managed learning process; instead the leader should focus on being available to all students, and help move them forward along their respective paths towards their goals (Sankey).
The most effective self managed learning processes teach a number of fundamental strategies to the individual student. First, there is the issue of goal-setting in and of itself; learning effective goal-setting techniques is one of the most important things that a student can learn in a self managed learning environment (Sankey). Setting effective short and long-term goals-- and learning how to achieve those goals-- are skills that are important for life and cannot be overstated in terms of importance. Even if the self-managed learning process is focused on one particular realm of academia, the process is still teaching the student goal-setting and different methods for achieving his or her goals in the long run (Sankey).
Self managed learning also reduces dependence on instructors. Outside of the academic environment, there is very little in the way of instructor-based learning for individuals; in the workforce, new employees may get basic training on how to perform their necessary functions, but overall, their work is going to be almost entirely self-motivated and driven (Sankey). Sankey notes that self managed learning systems prepare students for these types of environments, and that these types of environments are dependent upon individuals who have minimal passivity and maximum self-reliance (Sankey).
Overall, self-managed learning systems are fundamentally important for the success of individuals and of groups. Learning how to manage one’s own learning is something that many students never learn to do-- students who cannot manage to handle this type of learning often suffer in the long run. In addition, students who cannot work properly in groups frequently have problems in work situations later in their lives, because they have difficulty linking their personal goals with the overarching goals of the group and the organization (Sankey).
Overall, the fundamental goal for the self managed learning process is for the student to synthesize the learning process itself. The student’s goals may be important-- perhaps even fundamental to the student’s academic success-- but the long-term goal of learning how to learn is much more important. Without the knowledge of how to learn, the student cannot succeed in the business world. The integration between goal-oriented, self-managed learning, group-oriented learning, and leader-oriented learning makes the self-managed learning process extremely effective for academics of all stripes.
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Lizzio, Alf, and Keithia Wilson. 'Self-Managed Learning Groups In Higher Education: Students' Perceptions Of Process And Outcomes'. British Journal of Educational Psychology 75.3 (2005): 373--390. Print.
Sankey, Nicola. 'THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE OF SELF MANAGED LEARNING (SML): EVIDENCE FROM RESEARCH'. (2008): n. pag. Print.