Self Directed Learning in Clinical Nursing Builds Competencies

Knowles (1975) describes self-directed learning (SDL) as a process in which the individual takes the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning need, formulating learning goals, identifying human material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies and evaluation those learning outcomes” Merriam and Bierema (2014) p 63.

It is impossible to imagine a nursing school that is able to expose each student to all of the complexities and variables that are found in today’s health care environment. Key to the theory of SDL is that it is a process, aimed at building competencies and self-reflective practice that is led by an instructor who is there to facilitate the learning.

The SDL model, through the use of competencies assists the nurse to move from “Novice to Expert” as outlined by P. Benner (1982) while gaining life long learning skills.

McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario approaches SDL through a proposal of six competencies.

  1. Assessment of learning gaps
    1. Novice nurses are unaware of what they do not know. Key here is the establishment of goals for competencies and skills.
    2. As the nurse moves from novice to expert she becomes independent at identifying personal gaps in knowledge.
    3. As the learner becomes more independent less instructor involvement is required. This is highly dependant on the life experiences that the student brings with them to the learning environment. A narrow field of experience results in higher instructor involvement.
  2. Evaluation of self and others
    1. This is highly discomforting to students. This is where the instructor needs to establish expectations for the evaluation of each other. (Bit of a learning contract?)
  3. Reflection
    1. Building self-reflection skills is paramount in nursing. Self-reflective journals assist the learner to describe the event and what were the influences at work. This competency enables the nurse to build on prior learning and feedback received.
  4. Information management
    1. This competency is focused on searching resources and creating databases. Nurses need to have the ability to store information making it readily available the next time.
  5. Critical thinking
    1. Nursing is evidence based best practice. Nurses make judgements based on scientific evidence and the application of principles.
    2. Significant instructor facilitation is needed to create the environment conducive to the development of critical thinking skills. A novice nurse has only rudimentary skills in critical thinking; rarely do they question a process. An expert nurse will reflect on prior experiences, question the process, use their critical thinking skills to assess and make suggestions to the physician as a patient advocate.
  6. Critical appraisal.
    1. This is the competency focussed on critically appraising the nursing research available. As imagined novice nurses need significant instructor involvement whereas the expert nurse is able to evaluate practices.

SDL is only one of many valuable learning environments aimed at building capacity in student and new nurses as they grow personally and professionally. I am surprised that the nursing model does not have a learning contract per say however there is significant instructor facilitation in the model described here.

The challenge with nurses learning in a SDL environment is that as a student nurse, or a novice nurse, they are unaware of their learning needs and it is only through the development of SDL skills that the student nurse or new nurse is able to build competencies aimed at developing life long learning.

Benner, P., (1982) ‘From novice to expert’, American Journal of Nursing, March pp.402-7.

Merriam, S., & Bierema, L., (2013), Adult Learning; Linking Theory and Practice,

San Francisco, Jossey-Bass

Patterson, C., Crooks, D., & Lunyk-Child, O. (2002). A new perspective on competencies for self-directed learning. Journal of Nursing Education41(1), 25-31.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.






One thought on “Self Directed Learning in Clinical Nursing Builds Competencies

  1. Indeed self-directed learning is important for student nurses and novice nurses. I would add that even expert nurses need to engage self-directed learning. With exponential increases in information, no professional can expect to learn all that they will need while in school. This is also true in my discipline in Economics. We need to constantly look for knowledge gaps and plan to fill these gaps. I like how your article reminds me that our fields, while very different, face similar challenges.


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