John Cox on “Self-Directed Learning”

Cox, JohnJohn Cox is president of The Cox Learning Group and a highly-regarded authority on attracting, hiring, and training high-potential workers and then retaining them at a time when competition for talent is greater than ever before. In recent years, he has taught as an adjunct professor at the business schools of the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of North Texas, and the University of Dallas while continuing his research on major workplace issues. Previously, he was corporate manager for training and development at The Southland Corporation and then director of education at ClubCorp. He earned an undergraduate degree at St. Joseph’s University, a masters degree at East Carolina University, and a doctorate at North Carolina State University.

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Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an effective self-directed learner?

Cox: The primary characteristic is they take responsibility for their learning. They are “Adult” learners. They see learning as a way to solve some challenge or need that they are facing. In learning activities they expect to have their experience and knowledge utilized. They seek knowledge they can use immediately. They learn new information most effectively when presented in the context of real life or experience-oriented situations. Motivation becomes increasingly internal. Only when a specific need arises that has intrinsic value or personal payoff is an adult learner motivated to learn.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which self-directed learning is most likely to thrive?

Cox: Self-directed learning will flourish in a workplace when leadership supports and facilitates learning using the following types of policy and supportive behaviors:

Build a framework to guide learning. Identify job competencies, build learning activities and evaluation criteria, and provide essential and useful resources. Then organize into a framework called “Training Guides” that provides direction and at the same time allows learning to be self-directed.

o Make the work environment a learning laboratory. Design the learning system to utilize the people, places and experiences that only exist there.

o Support self-pacing. Learners differ in the way they learn and in the length of time it takes them to learn. Self-pacing accommodated these differences.

o Focus on mastery. Some people need more time to master a skill or competency. Gaining mastery strengthens learner confidence and builds stronger performers.

o Use assessment. Start assessments prior to training. Take advantage of what skills and knowledge people bring with them to the job and eliminate unnecessary training. During training allow learners to by-pass elements of training if they can demonstrate mastery.

o Support a self-managed system. Give employees control of planning their time, scheduling learning activities, selecting resources, and arranging performance evaluation. Allow learners to take responsibility for overcoming various problems, difficulties, and postponements that normally occur in real job environments. In essence, let them practice management skills as they work to complete their training program.

Which seems to be the most self-defeating misconception about self-directed learning? What, in fact, is true?

Cox: Today, the conventional wisdom is, “How do we teach people what we want them to know and do?” This is our mental model for learning. This is self-defeating because it limits the options available to train people. Why not restate the question this way, “How do we help people learn what we want them to know and do?” This opens up multiple options (including self-directed learning) for how people can learn.

Morris: How best to determine which job competencies to improve through self-directed learning?

Cox: After years of designing and implementing competency-based training, I have come to support the research that says how you apply knowledge is linked to how and where that knowledge was acquired. I have found that 90% of job competencies are learnable on the job through guided job based experiences involving observing and working with role models, inquiry, problem solving, analyzing processes, and social and collaborative learning activities. The other 10% of job competencies can be grouped in two ways; behavioral skills that are best learned in a classroom setting or skills difficult to learn on the job due to criteria such as safety or task complexity.

Morris: Which specific activities seem to be most supportive of effective self-directed learning?

Cox: The best way to support a self-directed approach or any learning initiative is to make learning challenging and connected to the real world. By learning on the job and applying acquired skills under workplace conditions a type of challenge is created that’s different from traditional training. The most effective way to insure competencies are transferred to the job is through practice on the job under real workplace conditions. Creating challenge and a connection to the workplace prepare learners for the job before they enter it.

Morris: How best to measure one’s progress during engagement in self-self-directed learning?

Cox: Learning is greatly enhanced by using the learning strategy called “contracting” to measure progress. Learners receive immediate and continuous feedback either positive or constructive from their coach/advisor who documents mastery of learning activities.
Contracting is an effective tool for managing a self-directed framework. It ties together the learning system and serves as a management control for evaluation, feedback, and documentation of each learner’s progress.

Morris: To what extent can technology support self-directed learning initiatives? Please explain.

Cox: Technology serves two roles. It facilitates acquisition of information through ubiquitous tools such as email, Internet, and information sources that support learning efforts. And, it helps manage and document learning results for the learner and the organization.

Specific ways technology supports a self-directed system include:

o Creates a depository for training guides…a place to store and have readily accessible training guides based on multiple jobs across the organization.

o Organizes the assessment process… either before or during training, documents the results of assessments for each learner.

o Tracks learning results… document successful completion of learning activities and competency competition.

o Enables a resource “Library”… a storage place for multiple resources ready to be accessed via links located in training guides when needed by the learner.

o Makes system updating easier… enables periodic updates of all elements of the learning framework for immediate access.

o Distributes training materials… provides access to training materials and resources easily and quickly regardless of workplace location.

o Facilitates feedback… in addition to immediate and continuous coaching that occurs with competency development, technology allows feedback to be personalized via recognition by leadership for individual learner progress.

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John H. Cox, Ed.D, CPLP, is president of the Cox Learning Group. Throughout his career, he has developed high-impact learner-guided systems for numerous organizations across sales, supervisory, management, customer service, and multiple front-line roles. John cordially invites you to contact him at his email address by clicking here or LinkedIn link.

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  1. Leonard Gallion on June 5, 2014 at 9:18 am

    I had the pleasure of working with John Cox for several years and have to say that he is extremely knowledgeable in building self directed learning systems, thanks for sharing more of John’s wisdom here.

  2. MaryAnn Markowitz on June 9, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    John has been a gracious speaker for our HR Catalyst in Dallas and The Dallas Fort Worth Chapter for The Institute of Management Accountants. He’s always well received and we’ve invite him back a number of times. Great presenter and relevant topics.

  3. Tom Schafer on June 10, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I have created over 110 learning courses, workshops and programs, facilitating 82%. Two which I recall most clearly are self directed learning programs. One was during a Procter & Gamble start-up, where busy leaders from traditional/unionized work cultures could increase their knowledge and understanding on P&G’s new High Commitment Cultures. It was soon shared by executives in our headquarters in Cincinnati around the world to P&G leaders who desired to learn about this upcoming culture change.

    The second self-directed learning program I developed and so clearly recall was part of a competency model – learning roadways – resource listing effort. Supervisors/ managers of people could use the information to coach learners, and learners could use the same combination of resources to plan and execute their own learning. This latter utilization was extremely helpful, as the “Head” felt leaders were born and not made; thus, there was almost zero time/money/effort put forth in that 25 site company on Learning & Development.

    I think that these two programs are special to me because they were a tool by which motivated learners could grow themselves. They could do so even if their manager did not value learning/coaching or they did not have the knowledge to do so. Utilization could be aligned with time available in busy schedules (over a month to over six months). Also, they could be tailored to build learning where desired, while skipping over training modules/topics where the learner had good knowledge. These self-directed leaning programs were very helpful in these and other situations, when time from the organization was limited during a start-up or the “if we hire right, we don’t need to train” or “my manager doesn’t coach” situations.

    I think that John Cox has shared outstanding responses to each of the questions Bob Morris posed to him. John’s insights cover a wide range of guidance, probably the best I’ve seen in my career-to-date. Thanks Bob for interviewing and sharing John’s expertise and wealth of experience in self-directed learning!

    Thanks, fellas! Excellent!

    Tom Schafer

  4. Bobby Feisee on June 13, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I am small business owner (we have 4 attorneys and 1 full time support team member and 1 part time). We have begun Monday team training sessions. I believe our office is just the type of environment where this type of self-directed learning can pay dividends. I would love to learn more John!

  5. Phil Willis on June 16, 2014 at 9:22 am

    I continue to use the training methods I learned from John while John developed Star training at Club Corp.

    Thank you John Cox.


  6. Ali Feisee on June 23, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I own and operate a medical spa in the DC metro area. Prior to this I was an executive at an e-learning dot com and had the pleasure of sharing and learning new methods for finding and keeping high quality talent from John. He has an uncanny ability to identify pain points across the entire organization with respect to training and hiring deficiencies and draws from his vast experience in these areas to apply practical and effective solutions that actually raise the bar of talent across the organization. I find John to be an excellent listener and thoughtful individual that genuinely has the best interest of anyone he comes across.

  7. John A. Henschke on July 14, 2014 at 3:00 pm


    This is an interesting read. John Cox and Bob Morris, I am certain that both of you are much more wealthy financially than I am. However, after having worked, written and published in 21 countries around the globe including the USA in the field of Adult Learning and Human Resource Development around the globe since 1970, I have come to the thoughtful, personally considered,and studied conclusion that “training” is for dogs, rats, and pigeons; and, “adult learning/education and human resource development with individuals and organizations” is for human beings. All of this is based in my experience of dealing with and encouraging the reciprocity among 23 elements of empathy, trust, and sensitivity in the relationships between employers and employees, educators and learners, as well as corporations and customers.

    Keep up your good work in our fields with adults.

    Kindest Regards,

    John A. Henschke

    • bobmorris on July 14, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      First of all, thank you for your comments. They are greatly appreciated. Re “training” and “learning,” I understand the distinction you make while presuming to suggest that training and education are not species-specific. I have trained young men with football and basketball drills (including conditioning) and I have also trained a series of dogs who were family pets. The West Highland terrier is the sharpest of them all. The repetitive drills were essential. (I have never had any success trying to train cats.) Opinions are divided as to how rational (if at all) animals are but I can say that for almost three decades I have been a classroom teacher who used both repetitive drills to strengthen skills and a Socratic approach to content that (I hope) enabled my students to learn through interaction with the content as well as with their teacher and — of greater importance — with each other. Again, thank you for your comments.

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