Inquiry Learning

10 Essential Self-Directed Learning Questions Every Learner Can Use

Asking essential questions yields powerful learners.

In any kind of learning, asking the best questions possible yields both vital knowledge discovery and powerful personal insights for the learner. When we consider what it means to ask the right self-directed learning questions, we’re talking about questions that help nurture us as lifelong learners and global citizens committed to bettering ourselves and the world.

Self-directed learners come in all ages, cultures, and levels of capability. Malcolm Knowles, known for postulating the theory of andragogy, defined the concept of self-directed learning as follows:

“In its broadest meaning, self-directed learning describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (from

Self-directed learning can theoretically be initiated by putting two different factors into place: a readiness to learn and a willingness to learn.

Readiness to Learn

This means a learner has all the logical tools and circumstances for being a prepared and capable learner in place. It can include things like basic skills (such as literacy, numeracy, and the like), research and information skills (Information Fluency), cognitive skills, critical thinking skills, life skills, communication and collaboration skills, and more. It can also mean having an actual problem to solve or a challenge to face—in essence, a purpose for the learning to happen. This is the toolbox that enables learning to take place.

Willingness to Learn

This is all about the desire to learn. It means having a real love of discovery and development and being curious and open to learning from failure. It’s a willingness to dig in and get messy with learning and make new realizations along the way. Here we also show an interest in the expertise and wisdom of others and see everyone and everything as a potential source of meaningful learning. These are things that make our learning appealing, relevant, useful, and rewarding.

Ultimately our goal in education is to equip our learners to think for themselves in order to build successful and prosperous lives beyond school. Knowing some essential self-directed learning questions like the ones below are a step in the right direction. 

A Framework for 10 Self-Directed Learning Questions

The framework below features 10 essential self-directed learning questions broken down into further key points for consideration. This is by no means a complete framework but is intended as a basic guideline for further exploration and development. Have learners use these points to examine the value of each question as they consider how to apply it to their own self-directed learning pursuits.



1. What Do I Want to Learn/Need to Learn?

  • What is important or necessary
    • a specific problem to be solved
    • a challenge that must be faced
    • information that will construct something of value to me/others
  • What is interesting or relevant
    • a hobby or skill
    • personal knowledge development
    • learning for a job or a career

2. Why Is This Important?

  • What has motivated me to seek this knowledge?
  • What circumstances have led me to want to learn this?
  • Why is this meaningful to me or to others?
  • What would happen if I don’t find out what I need to?
  • How will this knowledge change things?

3. How Do I Intend to Use This Knowledge?

  • personal development
  • problem-solving
  • general interest
  • developing other learning challenges
  • responding to a question(s)

4. What Do I Know and What Do I Need to Find Out?

  • Current knowledge
    • exploration of assumptions
    • personal experience
    • knowledge gained from others
  • Missing knowledge
    • who, what, where, when, why, how
    • the history of the problem or challenge
    • what others have missed in the past

5. What Are My Capabilities/Limitations?

  • What do I know or what can I do now that will help me?
  • What can’t I do? Can I learn how to do it? (considering time frame, budget, etc.)

6. Where Can I Find out What I Need to Know?

  • Traditional sources
    • books
    • articles
    • film
    • art and design
    • conversation/collaboration
    • courses
    • hands-on workshops
    • seminars
    • mentoring/practicums
  • Online sources
    • websites
    • blogs
    • wikis
    • videos
    • podcasts
    • online learning/MOOCs

7. Who Can I Ask for Help?

  • Family, friends, and teachers
  • Other professionals and experienced enthusiasts
  • Those who have failed to solve the problem and gained insights from that

8. How Will I Apply and Share My Knowledge?

  • Production and Delivery
    • developing and giving a presentation
    • writing/publishing a book
    • building and publishing a website or wiki
    • starting a blog
    • filming and hosting a video tutorial
    • recording and hosting a podcast

9. How Will I Know My Learning Was Successful?

  • What were the results of my efforts?
  • How did I succeed or fall short of accomplishing my goal?
  • What went well, and what didn’t?
  • How can I improve my efforts, processes, and outcomes in the future?
  • Where/when/how else can I use what I’ve learned?

10. Where/When/How Else Can I Use What I’ve Learned?

  • Parts of learning (or the whole) can potentially be applied to other future problems of a similar nature
  • We can find other ways to share our learning (e.g. teaching it to others
  • Knowledge retention and reuse can effectively exercise overall positive cognitive development