What’s so good about self-paced learning?

It's here, it's there, it's everywhere – in modern training development, self-paced learning is quickly becoming the goto method of learning. 

Also known as "self-directed learning", it's wonderfully versatile – most of the deployments we see are used to provide ongoing training to employees or to make it easier to for organizations to effectively organize learning management as part of a deployment (think Jira, Salesforce etc). 

Self-paced learning allows for users to work online or with standard physical materials to learn on their terms, and in a way which suits their learning style. 

Continue reading to discover what self-paced learning involves, and what makes it different from instructor-led courses, the best ways of becoming an active, self-directed learner and why self-paced learning benefits all involved.

What is a self-paced course?

The specifics of self-paced learning can differ from institution to institution, but in general, "self-paced" education or training is defined by the ability of learners to decide on the pace and timing of their learning experience. 

Learning in this way, the user is given optimal flexibility to incorporate their training into their different lives and schedules – which in our hectic world, is increasingly important and valued by the workforce. 

A self-paced course sometimes involves an instructor who provides feedback and marks tests but more often, it's a fully automated experience supplied via an online e-learning platform or website. 

Importantly, it usually taps a mixture of methods and practices, including online tests, presentations, events, informational videos, diagrams, literature, and video talks. 

It can also form a central component of a blended learning program which incorporates both traditional face-to-face learning with a variety of online and digital methods (more on this below).

Self-paced courses do not generally follow a particular schedule, but instead allow users to set their own pace by choosing from the various projects, course materials and training methods on offer. 

Assessment-wise, graded work will typically be computerized and rely on pre-mandated answers, but in some cases, a tutor or instructor will be able to mark a piece of work when it is submitted during the course.

What is an instructor-led course and why is it different?

Instructor-led courses usually come in one of two forms. The first type involves traditional face-to-face educational sessions; these are the most familiar kind of learning and are offered at most universities, high schools, workplaces. 

A teacher or an instructor will come into the school/workplace and provide lessons and direct feedback to students or employees. 

In large organizations, this can be a costly exercise (unless you have in-house staff trainers), as you will have to find and hire someone specialized in a particular area of expertise.

The second type of instructor-led course is the online variety. Tutors will provide course materials in a scheduled manner generally by way of digitized lectures and video presentations or talks. Sometimes these talks are held live via webcam, and students will be able to ask questions directly receiving a response immediately.

The most critical distinction between self-paced courses and those which are instructor-led is that the latter does not allow for students or employees to proceed at a faster or slower pace depending upon their learning style and abilities. 

Scheduled tutor-led training requires learners to proceed at the same pace, leaving little room for flexibility or individuality – it also means that employees, learners, and students must be available at the same time for them to attend the training or learning events.

Tutor-led training can be problematic for large organizations or those where employees do shift work. In these circumstances, an organization will usually have to hire multiple tutors or pay for the face-to-face (physical or digital) presentations to be repeated with various employee/student groups over a given period.

However, all is not lost – depending on the standards required and the level of training to be completed, businesses can often benefit from the use of blended learning

This usually involves a mixture of tutor/instructor-led events/talks, and a significant amount of self-paced learning, especially when it comes to assessment. 

With blended learning, companies can address the question of how best to maximize efficiency while also keeping costs down.

The benefits of self-paced learning

Self-paced learning is a fantastic way for learners to study on their terms and at their own pace. Self-paced learning allows people to access course materials at their speed, meaning that they can focus on things that they find challenging and breeze past things that they already know. 

This minimizes wasted time and promotes greater efficiency. Self-directed learning also ensures increased performance, as the learner can manage their education in a way which encourages independent thought and critical thinking.

The way most of us learned geography or history at high school is not necessarily the best way for adults to learn about and retain new information. 

In Eduard C. Lindeman’s 1926 book ‘The Meaning of Adult Education’ he claimed that adult learning is fundamentally different from educational approaches directed at children. Lindeman argued that for adult learning techniques to be successful, they need to be based on the interests and needs of the people that are being educated. 

Essentially, Lindeman claimed that adults work best when their education relates to their own life experience and that most adults have a ‘deep need’ to be self-directing. Therefore, using self-paced learning techniques in the workplace can directly tap into the fundamental need for humans to direct their learning, which will help adults keep in touch with their individual needs, experiences, and preferences. This helps to create a positive learning experience for all involved and helps organizations keep pace with the latest industry developments in a fun and innovative way. 

Enhancing performance

Studies have shown that self-paced learning can lead to a significant improvement in memory performance and knowledge retention. Research conducted by Jonathan G. Tullis and Aaron S. Benjamin found that self-paced learners outperform those who spend precisely the same amount of time studying the same course materials. Their research (published in the Journal of Memory of Language) posited that this is because self-paced learning allows learners to distribute their time in a manner best suited to themselves and not to the class average.

Meeting workplace standards has never been easier since self-directed learning takes the pressure off performance and provides learners with a safe, supportive and individualized setting to learn on their terms. Self-paced learning uses technology to create an environment which encourages continuous learning at every stage of a person’s professional life. It increases workplace morale by keeping staff trained through means which suit their learning style (rather than forcing learners to adopt the same methods).

How do you become a self-directed learner?

Being a self-directed learner is a skill in itself! It’s not suitable for everyone, especially those who have a lack of self-motivation and are prone to procrastination. 

However, most people can benefit from elements of self-paced learning in both their employment and education and in fact, the self-paced learning experience can help increase independent thinking and time management skills.

To become a talented, self-directed learner, you need first to identify your learning needs and the kind of learning style which suits you best. 

Depending on the course, it may be possible to choose between videos, presentations, talks, podcasts, written material, books, quizzes or games. If you are a visual learner, then choosing visual tools such as videos and games will help you to understand the course material better. Whereas if you learn best by reading and rereading the material, then obviously you will benefit most from studying books and written presentations.

If you want to be successful self-paced learner, time management should become a top priority – depending upon the amount of material you will be expected to learn about, you will need to develop a timetable for making sure that you are progressing through the course efficiently. 

Being able to organize your learning management requires discipline, self-motivation, and independent thinking skills, but with a bit of effort, you'll be picking up new skills in no time!