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What is Learner Autonomy and Why is it Vital for Organizational Success?

The idea that individuals learn differently is not new or novel, especially to learning and development (L&D) teams. So while it’s important to incorporate different modalities to boost learner engagement and retention, organizations can also leverage the power of autonomous learning.

Incorporating learner autonomy into your L&D strategy empowers employees to choose their own path and drive their own learning and development. 

Learner autonomy is a vital ingredient of a successful L&D strategy—but what does that involve on a practical level, and how can organizations embrace it? 

Discover more about autonomous learning, how it can benefit your organization, and practical strategies to promote learner autonomy in the workplace. 

What is learner autonomy? 

You already know what a learner is, but what about learner autonomy? 

According to LinkedIn, The term learner autonomy was first coined in 1981 by Henri Holec, the father of learner autonomy. 

In the broadest sense, autonomy is the ability to self-govern, act independently, and take charge of decisions. As such, the meaning of autonomy can shift depending on the context it’s used in. 

For example, in a medical context, autonomy might mean having the right to choose one’s own treatment. 

In the context of workplace training, an autonomous learner can steer their own learning strategy and forge their own path of discovery. 

For this reason, autonomous learning is sometimes described using terms like independent learning, self-guided learning, or self-regulated learning. 

In a nutshell, learner autonomy can be summarized as a self-directed approach to learning where an individual has the authority and independence to make their own choices about various aspects of their education or development. 

That includes the freedom for learners to manage their own schedule and set their own pace, define and pursue their own goals, and/or explore the content that interests them most, to provide just a few examples. 

Online tools, like learning management systems (LMSs), make it easier for individuals to exercise autonomy and achieve better learning outcomes. 

That’s because LMSs: 

  • Enable flexible, self-directed learning
  • Provide tools for self-assessment and progress-tracking  
  • Offer the ability to design personalized learning paths 
  • Make it easy for learners to find and access relevant, up-to-date information 

We’ll explore how learning management systems support autonomous learning, but first, let’s review some different ways that organizations can benefit by encouraging and enabling greater learner autonomy. 

Benefits of learner autonomy 

According to research by Zippia, 45 percent of workers would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development. Additionally, Companies with comprehensive training programs have a 24 percent higher profit margin. 

Statistics like these demonstrate why L&D has become such a point of focus for businesses in recent years, with 86 percent of HR managers agreeing that training is beneficial to retaining talent.

With so many organizations focused on optimizing employee development and training, more and more leaders are looking toward autonomous learning as part of their L&D strategies. 

Read more: 7 Learning and Development Statistics You Should Know

It’s easy to understand why so many businesses are embracing autonomous learning when you understand the benefits it provides. Autonomous learning is one of the best strategies for ensuring employees understand and absorb learning material, so they can put their new knowledge and skills into practice when working with customers and colleagues.

That leads to improved performance and efficiency, boosts employees’ satisfaction and morale, and shows employees that you’re invested in their learning goals and professional growth and development. 

Autonomous learning also offers other benefits, both for learners and employers. For example, according to Zippia’s research, 87 percent of Millennials say that professional development and career growth are important to them. In addition, Businesses with strong learning cultures have an increased retention rate of 30 to 50 percent.

By providing opportunities for employees to learn in a way that appeals to them, you can boost employee retention rates and attract talented candidates who value professional growth. 

Read more: What is Multimodal Learning?

These are just some of the reasons why L&D is a critical investment—and why autonomous learning should play a role within it.

 Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of incorporating autonomous learning into your L&D programs. 

Learner autonomy boosts employee engagement and motivation 

Giving learners more autonomy increases engagement by encouraging them to play a more active role in their own learning. The importance and value of learner engagement can’t be overemphasized, with studies linking heightened engagement to outcomes like “improve[d] student performance” and “enhance[d] student motivation to learn.” 

When learners are engaged with the material, their drive to learn and excel increases—and when your teams feel motivated, their productivity and performance improve. That means your organization becomes more competitive, and your team members develop skills that help them grow their careers. 

Read more: How to Future-Proof Your Organization to Thrive in an Ever-Changing World

According to a study, engagement is the key to learner autonomy. This refers to the learners’ ability to stay engaged in the learning process, acquire knowledge, and build critical thinking. 

Discover strategies you can use to help keep learners engaged in your L&D programs or try implementing some of these tips for boosting employee engagement.   

Giving learners more autonomy encourages active learning 

Learning can be active or passive in nature. According to Johns Hopkins University, passive learning is instructor-centered, which can lead to a surface-level understanding of the key concepts instead of real comprehension. 

In contrast, active learning is a student-centered approach where learners internalize the material through hands-on and interactive engagement. This could include teaching the material to someone else.

Giving learners more autonomy encourages them to take an active role in their own training, which produces outcomes like better knowledge retention and higher engagement. 

Autonomous learning helps create more confident employees

Technologies like AI and automation are bringing rapid changes to every industry imaginable. 

In this fast-evolving climate, businesses must be nimble and innovative to compete. That means fostering a culture of continuous learning where employees can be creative and contribute their ideas. 

By empowering learners to make more of their own decisions, autonomous learning helps employees gain confidence in their knowledge and skills, which empowers them to innovate, lead, and think outside the box. 

Autonomous learning boosts employee satisfaction 

Statistics clearly show that employees want opportunities for learning and professional development—and that there are rewards for companies who provide those opportunities. 

For example, one LinkedIn study revealed that 94 percent of employees say they would stay at a company longer if the company invested in their learning and development.

But that doesn’t mean employees want just any type of training—they want training that’s relevant, engaging, and prepares them with skills for the future. 

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), more than half of employees—55 percent—say they need additional training to perform better in their roles. Meanwhile, only 68 percent of employees feel their training is sufficient for their role and career development.

In other words, there’s room for improvement when it comes to the training that most organizations are currently delivering. By incorporating more opportunities for autonomous learning into their L&D programs, businesses can create lessons and courses that are more enjoyable, useful, and practical for learners. 

The bottom line? If you want to improve your L&D strategy and achieve better results from your employee training programs, it’s crucial to create space within those programs for more learner autonomy—and the first step is helping your team members cultivate skills that will help them succeed. 

5 top skills of autonomous learners 

Autonomous learning offers a broad range of benefits for businesses and individuals, making it an effective approach to employee training, reskilling, and upskilling. However, because of its self-directed nature, autonomous learning can also pose a challenge unless learners are equipped with specific skills. 

To get the most out of your training programs and prepare your employees for success, it’s essential to identify and promote the skills that will help your team members learn autonomously. 

Here are five examples of skills that are needed for successful autonomous learning: 

  1. The ability to identify and set goals 
  2. Insight into which learning strategies work best for them
  3. Being able to reflect on their progress, strengths, and challenges 
  4. Collaboration and being a team player 
  5. Being highly organized and having exceptional time management skills  

1. Setting and identifying clear goals

Research has shown that individuals who excel at self-directed learning often have a tendency to be goal-oriented. That includes having both strong goal-directedness and goal maintenance. 

  • Goal-directedness is defined as “the ability of a learner to set long- and short-term goals, measure growth against those goals, and revise goals as needed.” 
  • Goal maintenance is defined as “the ability of the learner to set goals that engage and motivate them to learn and to revise goals that are ineffective in accomplishing their learning projects.” 

2. Understanding learning strategies 

Whether it takes place in a traditional setting or online via an LMS, there are numerous approaches to employee learning and skill development.

 For example, some strategies for learning include synchronous and asynchronous learning, formal and informal learning, or even microlearning.  

Another way to think about learning strategies is to break them down into three broad categories: 

  • Cognitive learning strategies
  • Metacognitive learning strategies
  • Socio-affective learning strategies 

While cognitive learning deals with acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to complete tasks, metacognitive learning involves self-reflection or assessing the learner’s own challenges, strengths, and opportunities for improvement. 

Socio-affective learning involves acquiring knowledge or strategies employees can use to help overcome and manage difficult emotions like stress and anxiety.

Read more: How to Develop Emotional Intelligence & Why You Need it in the Workplace

When employees understand what sorts of learning strategies are most helpful for them, they can achieve better results and are more likely to remain engaged. 

3. Discovering personal support needs

Learners need to go a step beyond knowing what learning strategies are (and aren’t) working for them—they also need to know how they can assess and monitor their learning progress. This is one of the many areas where an LMS can help optimize learning. 

By providing learners with easy-to-use assessment tools, such as questionnaires and quizzes, an LMS helps employees take control of their own learning and focus on the most relevant content for their needs. 

4. Working and communicating well with others 

Autonomy means having independence—not working alone without support or feedback. In fact, the opposite is true: collaboration and teamwork are essential components of autonomous learning, which makes it important for learners to develop strong communication skills. 

Consider, for example, the 70-20-10 model of learning, which suggests that up to one-fifth of all employee learning—the “20” in “70-20-10″—occurs through conversations with peers and other social interactions. 

You can improve learning outcomes by giving learners more tools to communicate and share knowledge, along with incorporating more social learning into your L&D strategy. 

5. Being organized and having strong time management skills 

Being organized is vital for any professional role—but it’s especially critical when employees are put in control of pacing and managing their own learning. 

Without solid organization and time management skills, self-directed learners risk falling behind.

Integrating a coaching or mentorship program into employee training can help address this issue and keep learners on target with motivation and support from their peers. 

Read more: How to Create a Coaching Culture

6 strategies for promoting learner autonomy 

Autonomous learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum—there need to be opportunities for it to occur in a way that feels natural and intuitive for employees. 

Despite their independent and goal-focused nature, autonomous learners are still ultimately dependent upon teachers to create and maintain learning environments that support the development of learner autonomy.

So how can employers create and maintain supportive learning environments? 

You can create more opportunities for autonomous learning by following a few tips, such as making content engaging and providing the right tools to learners. 

Here are six strategies to help you get started.  

  1. Make eLearning courses available and accessible to employees
  2. Incorporate relevant, entertaining material into your educational content
  3. Let your employees set their own pace for learning 
  4. Harness the power of user-generated content to enhance learning outcomes 
  5. Build a culture of learning in the workplace 
  6. Use the right LMS to provide eLearning content for employees 

Make eLearning courses available and accessible

With workforces going remote and digital nomads trekking the globe, it’s critical to provide eLearning content that’s accessible to everyone on your team—regardless of what time zone they’re in or what device they’re using. 

With a cloud-based LMS like the Learning Cloud, all of your team members can access the info and content they need on demand without any geographical barriers. 

In addition to being mobile-friendly and available online, your educational content also needs to be inclusive of different team members’ learning needs.

 Learn how the Learning Cloud helps businesses build inclusive and accessible training content, or explore tips on creating inclusive L&D programs for employees

Incorporate relevant and entertaining material into courses

We’ve already covered some of the benefits of learner engagement, such as increased motivation and boosted performance. The question for business leaders is, what can be done to help boost engagement? 

One answer is to provide a personalized learning experience that’s relevant to the employee’s role and aspirations. The learning experience should also be as entertaining as possible. 

When eLearning content is relevant and entertaining, learners stay more focused and interested. That means employees absorb more information and can perform better in their roles, with less need to repeat lessons. 

Read more: Make eLearning Engaging in 7 Steps

With personalized learning paths, gamification features, role-specific content, and more, the Learning Cloud is designed to create and curate engaging, effective training content. 

Allow employees to self-pace their learning 

All of your team members learn at a different pace—not to mention from different time zones. To accommodate the broadest spectrum of learners with minimal disruption to productivity, it’s important to implement training programs that provide options for self-paced learning. 

When employees are empowered to pace themselves instead of following rigid schedules, learner autonomy increases—and so does engagement with the material. That aids with knowledge retention, which means learners will be better prepared to apply their new skills in the real business world. 

Leverage user-generated content

Your employees are more than just learners—they can also become great teachers. 

By providing opportunities for learners to share their knowledge, such as building their own courses, you can tap into the power of user-generated content to help everyone on your team learn more effectively. 

With the Learning Cloud, employees can access ready-to-go LMS content, training courses, and learning resources from subject matter experts. This saves you time versus building eLearning materials from scratch and lets your employees learn from industry experts. 

Build and maintain a culture of learning 

No matter what types of goals you want to achieve with your L&D programs, you’ll be more successful if you start with a strong foundation. That means you need to build a robust culture of learning.

By creating a work environment that values, supports, and encourages lifelong learning for employees, you’ll also create a strong framework for autonomous learning—not to mention gaining other benefits for your business. 

Choose the best LMS for your employee training and L&D needs

Employees won’t engage with your programs if your platform is sluggish, outdated, or glitchy—or if the content isn’t relevant to their roles and needs. Choose a learning platform that makes it simple and streamlined to launch top-notch eLearning courses. 

With the Learning Cloud—a secure and intuitive learning management system (LMS) designed for small and large businesses—it’s fast and easy to design, deliver, and track training programs customized to your needs. 

Whether you want to reskill your teams to work with AI, launch a new-and-improved employee onboarding program, or train the future generation of company leaders, the Learning Cloud helps you create and maintain an organized, accessible learning center of excellence for eLearning content that scales. 

Help your employees become autonomous learners 

There are many ways your organization can benefit from autonomous learning. 

Learner autonomy promotes a higher degree of employee engagement with training materials, which is linked to other positive outcomes like higher productivity and better knowledge retention.

 By embracing and finding ways to support autonomous learning, your business can reduce employee training costs, upskill and reskill more efficiently, and motivate and retain top talent

Discover how the Learning Cloud can turbo-charge your L&D strategy and help you get better ROI from your employee training programs. Contact us to schedule a free, personalized demo. 


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Emily Homrok

WorkRamp Contributor
Emily Homrok is a freelance copywriter with over eight years of writing experience. She graduated from Drexel University in 2011.

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