Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Research review

Are first year undergraduate student nurses prepared for self directed learning?

  • Comment

Self directed learning can give student nurses autonomy and motivation. This study explored their understanding of it and its role in undergraduate nurse education.


Maxine Pryce-Miller,MAEd, PGDip Ed, PGCert, BSc, RSCN, RGN, is senior lecturer in children’s nursing, School of Health and Well Being, University of Wolverhampton.


Pryce-Miller M (2010) Are first year undergraduate student nurses prepared for self directed learning? Nursing Times; 106: 46, early online publication.

Background Changing demands on the nursing workforce have led to considerable changes in undergraduate nurse education. Nurse educators have sought to incorporate self directed learning (SDL) into the curriculum to encourage student nurses to be proactive in their learning needs. 

Aim To identify the experiences and perspectives of self directed learning of first year student nurses, and to determine whether they are prepared for SDL as undergraduate student nurses.

Method The study involved one cohort of pre-registration first year student nurses at the University of Wolverhampton. A questionnaire was used to identify expectations of learners, to understand the reasons for different rates of learner progress, and to identify ways in which students learn best. A literature review was also carried out to explore the research on SDL and gain an understanding of the concept in nurse education.

Results The majority of the study participants had heard of SDL but they lacked understanding of its concept, purpose and nature. Students were also unclear about what their role as a self directed learner would involve, and a lack of clear direction for SDL in the curriculum was identified.  

Conclusion SDL can be used to assist student learning in conjunction with methods that are teacher led. The progression to SDL requires a shift in emphasis from teaching to facilitation, and the views of nurse educators about their role in self directed learning need to be explored in depth. A clear strategy for introducing SDL into the nursing curriculum is required and SDL should be adopted in a systematic manner to address students’ variation of educational attainment at entry.

Keywords: Self directed learning, Education, Student nurse, Nurse educator

  • This article has been double-blind peer reviewed


Practice points

  • Self directed learning (SDL) can benefit student nurses by giving them autonomy, motivation and the skills for lifelong learning.
  • Student nurses need to develop an understanding of SDL and an awareness of what is required to become effective self directed learners.
  • Skills of self direction need to be cultivated and fostered from the start of the course. Nurse educators should assist learners in constructing a personal learning plan, including an educational needs assessment.
  • A clear strategy stating the expectations and skills required from students and teachers is needed to successfully introduce SDL into the nursing curriculum.


The complexities of modern healthcare have led to changing demands on the nursing workforce, and nurse education has changed considerably over the years. Contemporary nurse education requires student nurses to aspire to achieve excellence in patient centred care, and to practice with awareness, compassion and competence to high clinical standards. As qualified nurses, graduates are expected to take initiative for their own development which demands a high level of independent learning skills.

Higher education institutes providing pre-registration nursing education have to ensure students gain the knowledge and skills to operate within a complex modern healthcare system. One of the challenges for universities is the mixed ability of students. Within the School of Health and Well Being student nurses are expected to show commitment to achieving high standards of practice, but it is often difficult to determine whether they are fully aware of the extent and implications of this commitment in terms of their performance as learners.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) recommends undergraduate nurse training include evidence based healthcare, cultural competence and population based skills. Integral to and inherent in this at the undergraduate level is the use of self directed learning (NMC, 2008). Many researchers have explored the concept of self directed learning and its use in education, including Smedley (2007), Yoo et al (2009) and Huang et al (2008). They concluded that self directed learning skills are essential in helping nurses meet the challenges of healthcare today. 

The onus is therefore on nurse educators to inspire and motivate learners to become self directed, and to be proactive in their learning needs. The emergence of the information age, and the advent of technology to support care delivery, mean today’s nurse educators have to devise increasingly innovative education programmes. The curriculum also needs to be developed with a degree of flexibility to accommodate individual learning needs. However, nurse educators need to understand the concept of self directed learning (SDL) themselves if they are to facilitate students to develop these skills effectively.

Literature review

Self directed learning is defined by Hiemstra (1994) as the ability to transfer learning, in terms of both knowledge and study skills, from one situation to another.

According to Long (2005), an effective self directed learner is one who has attributes and skills such as goal setting, information processing, cognitive processing and decision making.

How students learn depends on their prior knowledge and skills, motivation for learning, learning styles and the institutional context in which they learn (Marton, 1997).

A study by Knowles (1983), which compared teaching adults (andragogy) with teaching children (pedagogy), found adult learning is optimum when self directed. This work forms the basis of nurse education’s adoption of adult learning principles in the UK. In undergraduate education students are encouraged to develop self direction, thereby exercising some control and personal autonomy over their learning. Huang et al (2008) conducted a study looking at adaptive learning and the relationship of learning content to learning style. They found that adaptive learning needs to be fostered as an alternative to the traditional approach in order to develop teaching and learning as an optimal learning path.  Additionally,Mayes (2002) said the advent of powerful and persuasive technology such as the internet means major changes in teaching and learning are needed, and students should be encouraged to be active and engage in the learning process.

Self directed versus teacher directed learning

Many researchers have made comparisons between self directed learning and teacher directed learning (White 2006, Bradley et al, 2005). The introduction of SDL into undergraduate curricula has not always been successful (Levett-Jones, 2005). Iwasiw (1987) said preparing students to operate as self directed learners should initially involve a teacher directed model. This could establish facts such as a student’s readiness for SDL and their prior experience of it. Whilst such preparation might be essential, it is of little value if nurse educators do not recognise that student nurses have to be supported in taking responsibility for identifying their learning needs.

Role of the nurse educator

According to Newman (2002), appropriate models of adult education are models that emphasise a facilitative approach, guided reflection, learning from experience and an adult-to-adult relationship between learner and trainer. O’Shea (2003) highlighted the importance of the nurse educator’s role in facilitating student nurses to acquire the skills of self directed learning, and Brown and Libberton (2007) said it is part of the nurse educator’s role to identify personal learning needs and use different teaching methodologies to facilitate learning.

Several educational institutions have developed innovative responses to address self directed preferences in their adult education programme, such as the introduction of a learning readiness scale for nursing education (Fisher and King, 2010).


Motivation is one of the most significant psychological concepts in education (Regan 2003). According to Kenny and Kendall (2001), a wide range of motivators need to be used to inspire students to direct their learning outside the taught session. They highlighted how student centred approaches to teaching and learning are increasingly being adopted in nurse education. There is pressure to deliver programmes with less classroom contact, and motivating student nurses is part of the nurse educators’ role if student centred approaches are to be adapted to teaching and learning.

A study by Regan (2003) also found that a wide range of factors motivate students towards self directed learning, such as a good lecture and group work as motivational factors. Research should acknowledge both individual and collective goals for learning and the effects of new technologies as the concept of SDL continues to evolve.

Student perspectives

Lunyk-Child et al (2005) and Hewitt-Taylor (2001) examined student perspectives of SDL. Both studies found that a lack of specific guidance and feedback was frustrating for students, causing anxiety and distress. The student nurses studied were also frustrated by the inconsistency amongst nurse educators regarding the level of input they were willing to give in relation to SDL.

The study

The University of Wolverhamptonhas three schools of health and all three sites were invited to take part in the study.

The guiding research questions for the study were:

  • Do undergraduate student nurses understand the concept of self directed learning?
  • What are undergraduate student nurses expectations of their role as self directed learners?
  • Is the concept of self directed learning explicit within the nurse education curriculum?


This aim of the study was to identify the experiences and perspectives of SDL of students on the undergraduate nursing programme, and to investigate the extent to which pre-registration student nurses are being developed and facilitated to become self directed and autonomous in their learning.


Students were given questionnaires to complete before their first clinical placement. These were designed to elicit both quantitative and qualitative data by asking set questions relating to self directed learning. To better understand the experiences of student nurses, there was space on the questionnaire for them to make free response comments about the learning process and experience of learning in relation to a set of objectives as laid down through the curriculum that do not necessarily consider differences in academic abilities.

Before data collection, ethical approval was gained from the school of education ethics committee and written consent was gained from the students taking part in the study. Each participant was given an information sheet explaining the purpose of the study. The questionnaires were anonymised to maintain confidentiality and the data collected was only accessible to the researcher.

The questionnaires were coded before analysis. Statistical Package for Social Scientists was used for the analysis of the quantitative data and qualitative data was analysed using thematic analysis.


One cohort of 450 pre-registration student nurses was invited to participate, of which 328 (73%) returned the questionnaires. 

Students were asked about three main areas:

  • The number of hours of independent study undertaken;
  • Their preferred style of learning;
  • Their level of awareness regarding SDL.

Free response sections in the questionnaire allowed students to outline the positive and negative aspects of SDL (Box 1).

Box1. Positive and negative aspects of self directed learning identified by student nurses:


  • Learner centred teaching is beneficial to learning
  • Independent study will enable learning
  • Self directed learning (SDL) will motivate students to learn and encourage reflection
  • SDL encourages students to use their initiative


  • Anxiety caused by uncertainty of not knowing what is expected
  • Little understanding of what self directed learning really means
  • No prior experience of SDL
  • More facilitation of SDL needed from teaching staff
  • More flexibility required by universities to meet different student needs
  • No formal structure at the beginning of the course to clarify what is expected of students

Independent study

The study found the majority of participants spent between two and six hours a week on independent study (Table 1). The majority saw SDL and independent learning as separate entities. This indicated that the concept of SDL was not fully understood. The majority of students thought SDL was a teaching method used alongside other methods, rather than a representation of beliefs about the adult self concept of learning.

A variety of teaching and learning strategies, such as learning contracts, between the student and teacher have been suggested to facilitate self directed learning. Rather than focusing solely on observable teaching and learning methods, control and autonomy in the learning environment need to be explored if SDL is to be understood and implemented (Hewitt-Taylor, 2001).

The difficulty in articulating what SDL is may be the reason for it being reduced to more easily defined techniques and methods. However, the time taken to understand the principles and adjust could be beneficial for student nurses. The study found that the concept of SDL is not clearly understood by student nurses. This means that preparing student nurses for SDL use should begin at the onset of their nurse education.

Style of learning 

Students were asked to identify which preferred style of learning would enhance their role as self directed learners (see Table 2). The majority of participants preferred to be directly taught. However, the teaching preferences of some mature students differed from those of younger students. Mature students advocated a variety of teaching methods as a way of facilitating learning.

These findings are consistent with the views of Slotnick et al (2003) who said teaching preferences are not attributable to age but to life experiences.

Eighty per cent of first year students at the university’s school of health are 18 year olds, most of them entering nurse education directly from school.  The assumption made by teaching staff is that as they are 18 years old and classed as adults, they have experiences which are a resource for learning and that they should have a readiness to engage with learning. However, the majority of student nurses enter the course having been in full time further education colleges where teaching is mainly teacher centred. 

Knowledge of SDL

The majority of the students had heard the term self directed learning, but 72 of them had difficulty understanding its nature and purpose (Table 3). This echoed the findings of Hewitt-Taylor (2001) who found that teachers’ and students’ understanding and perceptions of SDL differed greatly. The present study revealed that students were expected to engage in self directed study from the onset of the course. However, the students thought they should be taught the concept of SDL and how to develop SDL skills before actively engaging in the learning process.

The study revealed three main problematic areas around SDL:

  • Understanding the role of a self directed learner;
  • Understanding the concept, purpose and nature of SDL;
  • The lack of clear direction within the curriculum.

Through the free response section of the questionnaire students identified that independent study will enable learning. Some students said they had no prior experience of SDL.One of the consistent themes identified by participants was anxiety at not knowing what was expected of them in their role as self directed learners, and the lack of formal structure within the curriculum. As suggested by Nolan and Nolan (1997), students need support and direction, particularly in the early stages of nurse education. This support can be put in place from the onset and built within the curriculum, instructing students on the SDL process. If they understand the process students are more likely to engage in SDL. Encouraging them to reflect on the learning process can further support and facilitate SDL.  


The study results suggest that self directed learning can be an effective method of helping students to learn, but students they to be aware of the expectations and skills required to become effective self directed learners. According to Clarke (1991), the benefits of SDL in nurse education include preparation for lifelong learning, increased interpersonal skills and increased lateral thinking ability.

Within the university’s School of Health and Well Being, self directed activities appear limited. It is not evident how students can be motivated, developed and facilitated to develop the skills to be effective self directed learners. From the start of the course nurse educators need to introduce and assist learners in constructing a personal learning plan, including self assessment and assessment of their educational needs.

Although it may be difficult to adopt total self direction within nurse education programmes containing statutory competencies, nursing requires specific knowledge and skills and the skills of self direction need to be cultivated and fostered from the beginning.  SDL is vital if the challenges in today’s healthcare environment are to be met and high quality patient care delivered. 

Whether SDL is individual or collective, the biggest misconception is in trying to capture it in a single definition. It is clearly a multifaceted concept that should not be approached through one perspective. Although there may be no single correct way to look at SDL, the issues involved warrant research and debate because they shape educational practices. Nurse educators should embrace SDL which could benefit student nurses by giving them autonomy, motivation and help develop skills for lifelong learning. However, further research is required to identify the conditions in which this could be achieved.

Current nursing practice requires nurses to deal with the rapid changes taking place in healthcare. Part of the remit of the NMC is to ensure student nurses demonstrate fitness for practice before they can register as qualified nurses. The NMC also require nurses to re-register annually, and to demonstrate that they have undertaken continuous professional development lace. This requires some degree of SDL by the individual.

Hewitt-Taylor (2001) argued that, as the whole concept of educating the next generation of nurses is undergoing a radical review, this is the ideal time to evaluate the success of SDL in nurse education.

Conclusion and recommendations

The study was conducted in one university so the findings cannot be generalised. However, SDL appears to be essential in helping student nurses to adapt and respond to the challenges presented in today’s healthcare environment, where knowledge is not only continuously changing but also advancing.

Teaching the progression to SDL requires a shift in emphasis from teaching to facilitation, and SDL will continue to be an important issue in the study and practice of nurse education.

Further research is needed to find suitable ways for nurse educators to facilitate SDL. Nurse educators’ views about their facilitating role in SDL need to be explored in depth. They will have to embrace and facilitate student centred learning to engage students and help them develop the skills for SDL. There has to be agreement among teachers as to what SDL actually means, and a clear strategy for teachers and students explicitly stating the expectations and skills required to successfully introduce it into the nursing curriculum.

As a result of the study, seminar based learning activities were embedded within the curriculum at the university to facilitate SDL among undergraduate student nurses.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.