Shifting Perspectives on Staff Training: Creating Opportunities for Self-Directed Learning

Adrea L. Jaehnig

The Student Learning Imperative, changing student and institutional needs, computer technology, and other challenges present an increasing need for staff training and education in student affairs. Adrea Jaehnig examines learning theories of adult education and suggests self-directed learning as a formal training technique for student affairs practioners to acquire information and to develop skills and expertise.

The Context for Change

The recent focus on institutional productivity is a clarion call to re-examine the philosophical tenets that guide the professional practice of student affairs and to form partnerships with students, faculty, academic administrators, and others to help all students attain high levels of learning and personal development. (The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs, 1994)

As stated in The Student Learning Imperative, there is a necessity for the student affairs profession to re-examine the philosophical tenet that has served as the main guide over the past thirty years-namely the profession's reliance upon student development theory. Bloland, Stamatakos, and Rogers (1994) recently called on student affairs to redirect its uncritical and wide-spread adoption of student development as an over-arching philosophy and re-emphasize student learning as the cardinal value of higher education. Redefining the profession's mission more centrally under the context of student learning is critical at a time when higher education is seeking ways to cut costs and non-essential services. The Student Learning Imperative calls upon graduate preparation programs in student affairs administration and higher education to prepare the next generation of student affairs professionals by teaching learning theories, intellectual development and psycho-social development. This will have little effect, however, on the 50,000 student affairs professionals already serving the nearly 3,500 United States colleges and universities. Reform only within graduate preparation programs will be inadequate to change the culture in student affairs.

True reform in student affairs, or perhaps survival, requires a paradigm shift not only from student development to student learning, but also a shift in how current student affairs practitioners will learn this new information. This author believes a paradigm shift in staff training from a pedagogical model to an andragogical model will best address the needs of current student affairs practitioners. Adult education theorists advocate the use of an andragogical approach over a traditional pedagogical approach when teaching adults. In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Malcolm Knowles, a leading adult education theorist, initiated the development of a comprehensive theoretical framework labeled \"andragogy.\" Andragogy is defined as "the art and science of helping adults learn" (Knowles, 1986, p. 41). More specifically, current student affairs practitioners need to become highly self-directed learners in order to meet changing student, institutional and technological needs. Creating conditions that encourage and expect student affairs professionals to engage in self-directed learning will yield more competent and resourceful professionals who will ultimately be more effective in helping students attain high levels of learning and personal development.

An Increasing Need for Training

Delworth and Yarris (1978) noted student affairs professionals were spending increasingly more time training others and that staff development programs were becoming an integral part of student services across the country. They believed the increased interest in training and development was the result of several factors:

First, the current "steady state" in higher education signifies the end of an era in which it was easy to change jobs and institutions and agencies could look forward to a regular supply of new professionals armed with the latest ideas and skills from their graduate education. Now, as students' needs change and new patterns of service develop, administrators must retrain existing staff members to meet these needs. Second, the retrenchment process has limited funds for both staff attendance at national conventions and workshops and for bringing experienced consultants and trainers to campus. (pp. 1-2)

These factors appear to be even more relevant today along with some additional challenges. Ironically, the need for continuous training comes at a time when there are fewer resources available to do so. Downsizing has resulted in many vacated positions not being filled and remaining practitioners find themselves assuming additional roles and responsibilities. This creates additional training needs and fewer individuals who have the time or knowledge to carry out these responsibilities. Technology is also creating training needs as the World Wide Web, list-serves, and electronic mail present new opportunities to communicate with students, parents, faculty, and other staff members.

In Reengineering the Corporation, Hammer and Champy (1993) note that in order to meet the needs of a changing and competitive world, individuals within organizations must demonstrate the ability and willingness to learn how to learn.

In an environment of flexibility and change, it is clearly impossible to hire people who already know everything they're ever going to need to know . . . continuing education over the lifetime of a job becomes the norm of a reengineered company. (p. 72)

While most student affairs professionals see themselves as flexible and committed to learning and change, there are few intentional training opportunities that allow or expect them to control their own learning process.

The Case for Andragogy versus Pedagogy

In the traditional pedagogical approach, the teacher or trainer decides what should be learned, how it should be learned, when it should be learned, and finally, whether or not it has been learned. In the andragogical approach, the teacher or trainer designs a self-directed learning process to assist the learner in identifying learning needs and a process to acquire the content necessary to meet those needs (Knowles, 1986). Knowles (1975) describes the process 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. (p. 18)

Prior to Knowles, John Dewey (1938) also embraced the notion that the learner be directly involved in "the formation of the purposes which direct his [sic.] activities in the learning process" (p. 67).

Using the andragogical approach, the learning facilitator might ask: "What do you want to learn? What things puzzle you? What are you curious about? What issues concern you? What problems do you wish to solve?" (Rogers, 1983, p. 137). Posing these questions to student affairs professionals, and providing the necessary resources to allow them to answer these questions themselves, would allow practitioners to identify problems and issues true to their experiences and relevant to their lives.

Knowles and others find the andragogical model based on two common assumptions about the unique needs of adult learners. Adult learner motivation and retention is increased when the information is relevant and the learning is carried out in a self-directing fashion. Additionally, an effective learning process for adults takes into account the learners' personal experiences and the need to organize their learning around life tasks or problems.

Determining Readiness for Self-Directed Learning

Not everyone is accustomed to, or ready to be a fully self-directed learner. The freedom to control one's own learning is often novel and potentially confusing. Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) point out that learning is based on a preference for taking individual responsibility and learners will vary in their readiness for self-directed learning. Student affairs organizations can use the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale to help practitioners become aware of their self-directed learning preference. The Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale was developed by Guglielmino (1977) to measure an individual's potential for self-directed learning. There are 58 statements describing the way the learner approaches different learning tasks. Respondents are asked to rate their responses on a five-point Likert-like scale. Individuals with high scores tend to determine their own learning needs and prefer implementing their own learning. Although Field (1989) criticized the validity and reliability of this instrument, there is a substantial amount of research and support of its continued use (Guglielmino, Long, & McCune, 1989; Long, 1989; Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991).

Highly self-directed learners tend to be effective and productive employees. The relationship between high scores and solid job performance is even stronger in jobs that involve a high degree of creativity, problem-solving ability, and adaptation to change. Highly self-directed learners are confident, ask questions, analyze problems, and willingly develop new ideas to replace systems or processes that become obsolete. Helping professionals improve their own individual self-directed learning readiness would result in continuous improvement and problem-solving with regard to student affairs services and functions.

Practical Application of Self-Directed Learning: The Use of Learning Contracts

Self-directed learning through the use of learning contracts can be broken down into four distinct phases of the training process. These phases consist of a design, orientation, implementation, and evaluation phase. Although the learner controls the methods to accomplish learning objectives, it is the learning facilitator who is responsible for the design and orientation phase of the learning experience. A mentor can additionally serve as a content and resource guide for the learner during the implementation and evaluation phase. The learning facilitator and the mentor may or may not be the same person. Below is a brief description of the four phases involved in designing a self-directed training process, as well as, who is responsible for each phase.

I. DESIGN PHASE: Learning Facilitator

A. Learning facilitator determines start and end date for the projects.

B. Learning facilitator identifies competencies or requirements to be gained by the learners.

C. Learning facilitator constructs self-diagnostic assessment tool based on intended competencies or requirements to be gained. The project facilitator could also utilize a pre-packaged assessment tool if one is available.

D. Learning facilitator identifies, compiles, and designs resources to support learning.

E. Learning facilitator establishes clear roles and expectations of mentor/learner.

II. ORIENTATION PHASE: Learning Facilitator and Participants

A. Learning Facilitator provides overview of the self-directed learning process to participants. This could include an assessment of participants' learning preference.

B. Participants complete a self-diagnostic form based on competencies and learning objectives.

C. Based on the results of the self-diagnostic form, participants develop a learning contract identifying concrete skills or specific information they wish to gain.

D. The learner provides a draft of the learning contract to the learning facilitator. The learning facilitator should provide written comments and meet with the learner to agree on a final contract.

III. IMPLEMENTATION: Participants, Mentors, and Learning Facilitator

A. The learner engages in learning activities and projects.

B. The learning facilitator and the participant should meet individually at least five times over a 5-week period.

C. The mentor should be available to the learner in a supportive role.

D. The learning facilitator should schedule opportunities for learners to share their projects with other participants. Ideally, this should occur at the midway point and as a final phase of the product.

IV. EVALUATION: Participants, Mentors, and Learning Facilitator

A. All involved should describe the benefits of completing the learning contract.

B. All involved should describe any difficulties encountered in completing the learning contract.

C. All involved should present opinions on the use of learning contracts as means of learners achieving stated objectives.

One outcome of the andragogical model is the use of learning contracts and is defined as follows:

Contract learning is, in essence, an alternative way of structuring a learning experience: it replaces a content plan with a process plan. Instead of specifying how a body of content will be transmitted (content plan), it specifies how a body of content will be acquired by the learner (process plan). (Knowles, 1975, pp. 39-40)

Contract learning allows the learner to be involved in all phases of the staff training process including planning, implementation and evaluation. While there are many ways to structure learning contracts, there are some characteristics found to be most successful.

Individuals who use contract learning often state they may not be aware of what they need to know, creating a level of frustration in developing a learning contract. It is, in fact, the role of the learning facilitator to define the learning objectives, much like in the pedagogical approach where the instructor would define broad course objectives. Once the learning objectives are defined, the learner describes a process plan as to how this knowledge will be acquired. The use of learning projects in achieving the learning objectives proves to be quite successful. Learning projects should encompass a minimum of seven hours of work on the part of the learner. Learning projects are most successful when there is "some anticipated use or immediate application on one's efforts" (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991). The result of the learning project could be a paper, journal article, presentation, videotape, transcripts from interviews, etc. This would be evidence of the learner achieving the intended learning objectives. An example of a learning contract is found in Appendix A.

Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Exploration

The Student Learning Imperative highlights a need for student affairs professionals to shift their focus from an isolated and separate concept of student development to a more central concept of learning as the primary mission of higher education. In order to meet this need, a shift in continuing education and training is needed. Opportunities that encourage and require practicing student affairs professionals to engage in a self-directed learning process is necessary. Through the use of learning contracts, student affairs professionals can develop skills, acquire information, and develop expertise in instructional and learning theories as they relate to student needs in and outside of the classroom. Self-directed learning activities will cause student affairs professionals to utilize a variety of resources such as peers, other people at the institution/community, field experiences, library, interviews, etc. As a result, learners' self-esteem and confidence levels will be boosted and professionals will become increasingly more empowered to be responsible for their own professional growth and development.


ACPA Student Learning Project. (1994). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. (Available from the American College Personnel Association, One Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036-1110)

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Guglielmino, L. M. (1977). Development of the self-directed learning readiness scale (Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, 1977). Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467A.

Guglielmino, L. M. (1989). Guglielmino responds to Field's investigation. Adult Education Quarterly, 39, 235-240.

Hammer, M., & Champy, J. (1993). Reengineering the corporation. New York: Harper Collins.

Hiemstra, R., & Sisco, B. (1990). Individualizing instruction for adult learners: Making learning personal, powerful and successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company.

Knowles, M. S. (1986). Using learning contracts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Long, H. B. (1989). Some additional criticisms of Field's investigation. Adult Education Quarterly, 39, 240-243.

McCune, S. K. (1989). A statistical critique of Field's investigation. Adult Education Quarterly, 39, 243-246.

Rogers, C. (1983). Freedom to learn for the 80s. Columbus: Merill.

Adrea L. Jaehnig is a 1990 graduate of the Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration program at The University of Vermont. She is presently the Assistant Director of Residence Life at Syracuse University and pursuing a doctorate in Higher Education with a minor in Instructional Design, Development, and Evaluation.