What is Self Paced Learning? Definition, Benefits and Tips
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When most people think of learning, images of a scheduled online training or classroom full of learners may come to mind. But learning that involves participants taking classes as a group, or cohort-based learning, is only one learning model – not the only one. And through providing learners with the freedom to choose when, where and sometimes even what they want to learn, both organisations and learners can reap the benefits.
This independent style of learning is known as self paced learning – and it has become a featured model in both education and corporate L&D spheres. So if you’re interested in exploring more about what self paced learning is, its advantages and disadvantages, and self paced learning design tips, this article is for you.
What is self paced learning?
Self paced learning is a style of instruction in which learners progress through the material at their own speed and on their own schedule. In contrast to traditional classroom-based learning or cohort-based learning, self paced learning is directed by the learner, not the instructor.
With self paced learning, learners are able to spend longer or shorter periods of time engaging with particular lessons or course material. This enables a more personalised approach to learning in which the learner can determine their own unique needs and interests.
Advantages of self paced learning
Now that we’ve covered what self paced learning is, let’s dive into the advantages both learners and instructional designers can expect from a self paced learning programme.
Allows learners to progress at their own pace
One of the main advantages of self paced learning is that learners can progress through the material at their own pace. This gives learners a higher chance of success since not all learners learn at the same speed. Having a disability or learning difficulties, or being a carer, parent or full-time worker can all impact learning speed.
But self paced learning doesn’t only benefit learners who may require more time, but also learners who progress through material at a quicker speed as well. These learners don’t have to feel as though they are being held back and can breeze through the material if they so choose.
Improves learner self-regulation and time management
Without deadlines stipulated by an instructor, it can be difficult for some learners to properly manage their time and stay disciplined. And for this reason, self paced learning can be so valuable. Learners can develop the skills to work autonomously and stick to a learning schedule that they create for themselves.
Discipline and time management skills aren’t only beneficial skills for learning. But rather, they are useful life skills and professional skills as well. Many professional jobs require workers to be able to manage their work autonomously and sometimes without fixed deadlines. So having experience with self paced learning can give these workers the skills to succeed outside of the learning environment as well.
Puts less pressure on learners
Studies indicate that approximately 25–40% of students in the United States suffer from test anxiety. And in some cases, this anxiety doesn’t end upon graduation – and could accompany them into their professional lives. So for this reason, self paced learning can be so beneficial in helping to minimise extra pressure on already overwhelmed learners.
Although self paced learning requires learners to motivate themselves, they can avoid added test anxiety or social anxiety. This means they are able to complete assignments when they feel prepared and are in the best position to succeed.
Enables large group enrolment
A further benefit of self paced learning for both students and organisations alike is that it enables larger class sizes. This means that learners are more likely to get a place in the course before it reaches enrolment capacity.
However, not only can a higher number of learners take the course, but it’s also more efficient for organisations. As opposed to holding multiple instructor-led courses with smaller groups, organisations can hold one self paced learning programme that accommodates all learners.
Cuts down on costs for the companies
A further benefit of self paced learning for organisations is that it cuts down on costs. And although training and development has large returns on investment, L&D programmes do come with a cost.
Creating learning programmes often requires specialised instructional designers, instructors, and eLearning software that can come with a hefty price tag. So for this reason, creating self paced learning programmes with larger periods of open enrolment can be more cost-efficient.
Disadvantages of self paced learning
Although there are benefits to self paced learning, it doesn’t mean it is always a suitable mode of instruction – or always beneficial. Below are four disadvantages to self paced learning as well as remedies to overcome them.
Lack of collaboration
In contrast to cohort-based or traditional classroom instruction, self paced learning tends to feature less group work and collaboration. Since learners don’t have a fixed schedule, they progress through the programme independently, without much interaction with other learners.
However, just because self paced learning is more independent, doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate elements of social learning into your programmes. Having asynchronous collaboration opportunities, such as a discussion board, is a great way to enhance opportunities for students to learn from each other.
One of the main disadvantages of self paced learning is its lack of structure compared to cohort-based learning. While cohort-based learning tends to have a fixed schedule in which all learners progress through the programme, self paced learning has a more loose schedule.
While the lack of structure may not pose a challenge for learners with advanced organisational and time management skills, other learners may struggle. So for this reason, it can be helpful to provide learners with a guideline for how to structure their work. For example, you could advise learners that they should endeavour to complete one module per week.
Reduced networking opportunities
Although not directly related to the coursework, an incidental perk of taking a course or completing a training programme is the opportunity to network with other course participants. For example, through taking a professional development course at work, you may meet colleagues in other departments or levels.
However, due to the independent nature of self paced learning, it becomes more difficult to network. Learners are often not in the same place at the same time, and have less collaboration opportunities. But one way to overcome this is to have participants volunteer to share their LinkedIn profile or email addresses. This way, they can reach out to each other outside of the programme.
Increased challenges with maintaining learner motivation
A further disadvantage of self paced learning has to do with learner motivation. Without external motivators, such as mandatory attendance or social pressure, learners are at an increased risk of becoming demotivated and disengaged. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.
Even without the drivers that accompany cohort-based learning, self paced learning can still be highly motivating for learners. The key is to make the course stimulating and engaging. In the next section, we share how you can incorporate engaging elements, like microlearning and gamification, to motivate learners.
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Self paced learning design tips
If you’re interested in designing a self paced learning programme, there are some considerations you’ll want to keep in mind. Below are five tips to help you design an engaging and effective self paced learning programme.
Microlearning is the latest buzzword in eLearning and instructional design circles. And there is good reason for its rise to prominence. Microlearning comes with an array of benefits, like increased retention rates, higher levels of learner engagement and affordability.
So if you’re planning on developing a self paced learning programme, why not incorporate some microlearning elements into it? Some examples of microlearning features you can incorporate into your self paced learning programme are bite-sized videos, short quizzes or games, or infographics.
Maintain overview of learner progress
Although the learning is self paced, this doesn’t mean that instructors can’t keep track of learners’ progress and provide support where needed. By periodically checking learners’ progress, you can spot if any learners are falling behind and more quickly intervene.
One effective way to motivate and support learners is to send nudges based on learner activity. For example, if a learner has been inactive for over a week, an email can be sent out to encourage them to continue, and provide them resources for support.
Feedback is an integral component of effective learning. Feedback can guide learners, and help them better understand how to improve and what they are doing well. It can also motivate learners and enable them to feel more supported.
Since feedback is so important for an effective learning experience, even self paced learning programmes should ideally incorporate some feedback. If giving personalised feedback isn’t possible due to time or resource constraints, creating automated responses to assessments can contribute to students feeling supported and guided throughout the programme.
Self paced learning programmes lack motivating factors, like social pressure and deadlines, that are facets of instructor-led or cohort-based programmes. Because of this, it’s vital to find other methods to keep learners engaged and motivated. And gamification can be a great way to do just that.
Gamification involves incorporating game-like elements into an eLearning course. Some examples of gamification elements in an eLearning context include leaderboards, learning badges, scenario-based activities or simulations.
Repetition is an invaluable aspect of effective learning. Without repeated exposure to information, it cannot be deeply stored in our brain. This means the information will be harder to retrieve at a later time. So since repetition is vital to learning, it should also be incorporated into self paced learning programmes.
While cohort-based learning includes group discussions or lectures in which information is repeated, self paced learning typically does not include these opportunities for repetition. Therefore, you should try to present the same information in different ways, such as a lecture followed by a video or podcast. Spaced repetition rather than consecutive repetition is also a more effective strategy.
Final thoughts on self-paced learning
It is no longer the case that learners are always expected to adapt their schedule, learning speed and interests around a course. With self paced learning, the power is in the learners hands to decide how to fit learning into their life – and how little or much time they need or want to spend on learning.
Like all learning models, there are both pros and cons of self paced learning. However, through understanding your learner personas, learning objectives, and budget and time constraints, you can decide if self paced learning is the right model for you and your learners.