Self-Discovery Learning

From E-Learning Faculty Modules

Self-discovery learning refers to learning by independent learners who set up their own learning goals and decide their own learning paths. These are learners who have mastered self-regulatory behaviors and are able to engage the larger environment to allow their own learning. They may set their own schedules, follow through on their learning commitments, assess their progress, and encourage themselves even in the face of learning difficulties. They engage in problem-based and inquiry-based learning. They may ally with others to achieve their work. Informal self-discovery learners



Learners will...

  • Review what self-discovery learning is
  • Consider who self-discovery learners are and what their varying needs may be in a self-learning context
  • Reflect on ways to enhance the learning that may be achieved by self-discovery learners through the design of online assignments and learning spaces
  • List some possible theorists, researchers, and practitioners who have contributed to self-discovery learning
  • View some graphical analyses of sites that offer self-discovery features

Module Pretest

1. What is self-discovery learning?

2. Who are self-discovery learners, and what are their varying needs in a self-learning context?

3. What are ways to enhance the learning that self-discovery learners may achieve through the design of online assignments and learning spaces?

4. Who are some theorists, researchers, and practitioners who have contributed to self-discovery learning?

5. What are some features to current learning sites that support self-discovery learning?

Main Contents

This module focuses on the phenomena of self-discovery learning, given the wide informal practice of self-discovery learning as well as the work of more expert self-discovery learners.

What is self-discovery learning?

Self-discovery learning (autodidaxy) is a kind of autonomous and learner-directed learning. This sort of learning often occurs outside formal education (or only taps lightly into formal education). People engage in self-discovery learning when they pursue informal problem-based or inquiry-based learning—by seeking out information or learning opportunities themselves. There are individuals who are even more practiced in self-discovery learning who are capable of acquiring and nurturing high-level expertise.

For people, self-discovery learning may enhance learning in a number of ways.

In higher education, self-discovery learning may…:

  • Enhance and supplement the formal learning through deeper explorations
  • Result in transferable “credit for prior experiential learning” (if the self-discovery learning may be appropriately documented and demonstrated and shown to relate to academic credits—depending on the standards and policies of the college or university)
  • Help learners explore different vocational and professional career paths

In workplace professional development, self-discovery learning may…:

  • Introduce a new software program
  • Train employees in a new policy or regulation
  • Head off skills decay
  • Enhance employability

In personal improvement, self-discovery learning may…:

  • Learn a new hobby
  • Acquire a new light skill
  • Learn a new software program

Pure and Guided Self-Discovery Learning. There are two general types of self-discovery learning: pure and guided. Pure self-discovery learning is where the learner is learning without any assistance or support from others. Guided self-discovery learning may refer to either a facilitated sort of self-discovery learning or some sort of structured automated learning.

The Affordances of the WWW and Internet. Given the affordances of the World Wide Web and Internet, self-discovery learning has attracted more attention of late because the broad creation of informational spaces designed for a variety of self-discovery users.

Who are self-discovery learners, and what are their varying needs in a self-learning context?

Self-discovery learners tend to have low dependency needs. They are self-driven, self-directed, self-regulatory, and generally self-disciplined. According to Malcolm Knowles (andragogy), adult learners tend to become more self-directed in their learning as they mature (1970, 1980, as cited in Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 289). The skills needed for actualize long-term self-directed learning will require a wide range of complex skills and activities (Davydov, 1988, as cited in Stary & Totter, n.d., p. 41).

Online Assignments

Online assignments need to be built to suit the needs of the particular learner at the particular time in his / her learning sequence which best aligns with his / her needs.

For example, early learning may be much more convergent to a set of known facts. There may be rote memorization used to memorize terminology through digital flashcards.

As they progress further, they may benefit from short case studies.

As learners become more sophisticated, they may benefit from story problems or problem-solutions or more complex case studies.

Higher level learning may involve deeper analysis and research. Learners may also create their own user-created objects like research papers or slideshows or videos. They may design projects. In this stage, learners are engaging in divergent learning—which requires much more creativity.

Online Learning Spaces

In a self-learning context, such self-driven learners benefit from some of the following tools in online spaces:

  • opt-in help tools to enhance their ability to navigate an informational or socio-technical system;
  • meta-cognition tools to help self-learners know what is going on in their minds as they’re proceeding;
  • information to support learner empowerment and decision-making;
  • detailed feedback loops to let self-discovery learners know where they are in terms of their learning;
  • self-assessments, so learners become more self-aware;
  • online learning experiences and simulations;
  • opportunities to connect with other learners;
  • opportunities to interact and collaborate with subject matter experts in a high-trust environment, and others.

Social interactions among fellow self-discovery learners may enhance the learning for all the participants. Here, learners interact through dialogue, socializing, shared projects, shared problem-solving, mutual emotional support, and shared design. Their level of interactions depend on the types of learning and on the individual desires of the various learners.

Online learning spaces are socio-technical spaces that bring people together around information, shared projects, and social interactions. These spaces may be online virtual work spaces. Or they may be digital repositories of data with social interactivity elements. Or they could be virtual worlds. They may be educational labs with guided inquiry learning (Armstrong & Perez, 2001).

Who are some theorists, researchers, and practitioners who have contributed to self-discovery learning?

The following consists of a brief list of some theories that may contribute to the understanding of self-discovery learning (which is also known as self-regulated learning, autodidaxy, inquiry-based learning, and even lifelong informal learning)

Theorist Theory

Jean Piaget (1967) Constructivism

Malcolm Knowles (1968) Andragogy

David A. Kolb (1976) Experiential Learning Cycle

Howard Gardner(1983) Multiple Intelligences

John Sweller (1988) Cognitive Load Theory

Albert Bandura (1989) Social Cognitive Theory

T.M. Duffy and D.H. Jonassen (1992) Authentic or Situated Learning

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) Communities of Practice

An integration of the above theories may be synthesized and applied to the design of self-discovery learning spaces. The following image first appeared in an article in 2008 in MERLOT's JOLT, which is cited below.


What are some features in current learning sites that support self-discovery learning?

Current online sites that support self-discovery learning tend to have a mixture of the following features described below.


For more on the research, please see the Extra Resources area below.


Some examples of designed sites follow with annotated pullouts to highlight the design features. The images are loaded directly here for greater clarity than if they were uploaded via a slideshow.






How To

First, it would help to analyze the learning situation that you’re trying to create with assignments and the online learning space. Who are the learners? What are their needs? What level of prior learning do they have? What specific language issues are they facing? What particular learning challenges will they face at each phase of the learning?

Based on the technologies and constraints to the online learning situation, what elements do you need to build?

What sorts of opt-in help will be important to build?

What are the developmental learning sequences that the learners will go through? How can you offer those step-by-step types-of-learning?

Generally, people will prototype the learning. They will conduct some alpha testing (of the technologies to make sure it all works) and then some beta testing (with live learners) to assess the efficacy of the learning. Other times, people will just simply go live with the learning site without worrying about the testing, in order to “live-test” the site and the learning.

After there is some initial information gathered about the learning contents, it helps to make the necessary revisions.

Possible Pitfalls

Self-discovery learning is an acquired skill that may take years to hone. While individual learners may dabble in some self-discovery learning occasionally, this may not be the default method of consistent learning. There are different levels of expertise with discovery learning. There are also different individual learning preferences that may affect the effectiveness of autodidaxy in using a particular source.

There are more opportunities for mistakes and learning inaccuracies in this context. Naïve mental modeling may occur without the guidance of a subject matter expert. Independent individualistic learning is sometimes seen as a product of non-communal and individualistic societies (Leathwood, 2006).

Module Post-Test

1. What is self-discovery learning?

2. Who are self-discovery learners, and what are their varying needs in a self-learning context?

3. What are ways to enhance the learning that self-discovery learners may achieve through the design of online assignments and learning spaces?

4. Who are some theorists, researchers, and practitioners who have contributed to self-discovery learning?

5. What are some features to current learning sites that support self-discovery learning?


Armstrong, B., & Perez, R. (2001). Controls laboratory program with an accent on discovery learning. IEEE Control Systems Magazine. 14 – 20.

Hai-Jew, S. (2008). Scaffolding discovery learning spaces. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching: 4(4). Retrieved Jan. 10, 2010, from

Leathwood, C. (2006). Gender, equity and the discourse of the independent learner in higher education. Higher Education: No. 52. 611-633.

Merriam, S.B., & Caffarella, R.S. (1999). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers. 36, 289, 293 and 296.

Stary, C. & Totter, A. (n.d.) On learner control in e-learning. Trust and Control in Complex Socio-Technical Systems. 41 – 48.

Extra Resources

“Scaffolding Discovery Learning Spaces” (MERLOT’s Journal of Online Learning and Teaching):

Web version

and .pdf version