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Sink or Swim: How Not to Approach Self-Directed Learning

Imagine a non-swimmer signing up for swimming lessons and being plunged into a deep pool without instructions on how to swim. Anyone capable of rational thought at that moment might be thinking it would be nice if the instructor had given them some instructions on how to swim before pushing him in. Assuming the student survives his “lesson”; can you imagine the instructor evaluation form he would fill out? Students new to expectations for self-directed and life-long learning can feel as though they’ve been pushed into deep water with no swimming skills. Discussing why self-directed and life-long learning are critical 21st Century skills and explaining the processes required in self-directed learning (see below) helps to create shared expectations of the learning environment.

LCME ED 6.3 (2015-2016 Connections): The faculty of a medical school ensure that the medical curriculum includes self-directed learning experiences and time for independent study to allow medical students to develop the skills of lifelong learning. Self-directed learning involves medical students’ self-assessment of learning needs; independent identification, analysis, and synthesis of relevant information; and appraisal of the credibility of information sources.

Schools are required to describe the learning activities and courses in which they occur where students engage in all of the components of self-directed learning as a unified sequence:

  1. Identify, analyze, and synthesize information relevant to their learning needs
  2. Assess the credibility of information sources
  3. Share the information with peers and supervisors
  4. Receive feedback on their information-seeking skills


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Melissa Alexaner

Bio coming soon.