• Vol. 34 No. 8, 515–519
  • 15 September 2005

Definitions and Goals of “Self-directed Learning” in Contemporary Medical Education Literature



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Introduction: Self-directed learning (SDL) has been an essential issue in medical education due to the expansion of knowledge, accessibility to information and greater emphasis on reflection. If SDL in educational research lacks a clear definition, terminological confusion may hinder the application of the results to practice. The aim of this study was to review and categorise the various forms of SDL described in the contemporary literature. Methods: A search of Medline was conducted usingthe key word “self-directed learning”. Articles published between 2000 and 2004 were extracted. Review articles, letters and articles from health profession education other than medical education, were excluded. Sixty-three articles were analysed in 2 stages: first, whether the definition of SDL is explicitly described was investigated and next, contents in the articles on SDL were qualitatively analysed using a framework approach. The concept of a compassionate-empathic physician, as developed by Carmel and Glick (1996), was used as the framework. Results: Only 5 articles (8.0%) had an explicit and concrete definition of SDL. Content analysis showed that 26 (50.0%) of the 52 articles dealt with SDL only in the scientific-technical dimension, 3 (5.8%) dealt with that only in the socio-emotional dimension and 23 (44.2%) did so in both dimensions. Conclusion: Although many researchers use the term “self-directed learning”, only a few clearly defined it to avoid semantic confusion. Scientific-technical goals tended to be discussed more frequently in SDL. From a patient-centred viewpoint, socioemotional goals should be stressed more.

Self-directed learning (SDL) has been one of the predominant issues in the study and practice of medical education in the last 4 decades. The impetus for the growing trend of SDL, in undergraduate as well as postgraduate education, results from the rapid advancement of science.1 In this educational trend, the term “self-directed learning” is often used along with a variety of educational concepts such as lifelong learning, continuous medical education, active/independent learning, student-centred education, etc.

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