Introduction to Self-Directed Learning for an Online "Introduction to Counseling" Course

What follows is the result of a series of brainstorming sessions, literature reviews, serious reflecting and questioning, all with the purpose of redesigning the structure/format of my online courses. Find the rest of those here: Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV.

Here is the introduction to my new online course that students will get when they log in for the first time.

Counseling Psychology

This is a course on counseling psychology. A counselor is a person who offers guidance or counsel to another person or a group of persons. It is widely believed that one person can be helpful to other persons, even if all this person does is listen or give advice. Counseling psychologists work with people at all stages of life past infancy (though some counselors have claimed to be prenatal analysts) and all demographics and nationalities (though the cultural belief and religion of an area will often dictate how successful counseling will be).

I have always been attracted to counseling theories. This is because I believe that this is as close as we can get to understanding what it means and what it feels like to be a human being. How else could someone help me feel happier or more satisfied with my marriage or job? I have studied these theories as a hobby for over 20 years, beginning with Christian counseling theories in my teens. Today I am not a Christian, and trend towards counseling theories that have evidence and theoretical support. (Note: I am not opposed to Christian counseling theories. Indeed, I believe that a Christian approach to counseling is the best when dealing with Christians who are strong in their belief.)

There are dozens of counseling theories. That is to say, there are many counseling strategies that have been used with success. Most of them differ considerably in how they define problems and what they call for people to do to solve those problems. I am personally familiar with and have studied about 50 of these. (I have even written books and articles about the counseling theories I adore.) Only 20 or so of these theories have made a significant impact on me, so I have only provided resources for these. (But do let me know if you are interested in another counseling technique, such as how to counsel within the framework of your faith, and I will help you find learning resources for it, and I will add these resources to the folder for other students.)

In my opinion, the best way to learn counseling theories is to experience them directly. In other words, reading or listening to information about them will have limited impact unless you apply what you have learned to solving real problems in your own life (or in the life of a person you care about). All that I have learned about counseling has been based on using the techniques and strategies to help me improve emotional stability, stress levels, well-being, quality of life, decision-making, confidence, loneliness, anxiety and depression, sleep, diet and exercise, patience, and listening. Even today I am testing how certain counseling principles are useful when working in a group (such as with my role as a chair of Gen Ed Curriculum Review Committee) or in facilitating an online course. Because I believe counseling theories must be applied in order to be learned, I have organized this online course to be self-directed.

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning means that the learner chooses their learning goals, they choose the resources they will use to achieve their goals, they choose the activities they will complete, and they decide whether or not they have reached their goals.

I can understand that this will be a new experience for many of you. Because of that, this entire first module (25% of the course) is devoted to helping you make this transition.

The most significant goal of self-directed learning is that students will learn how to learn. I did not learn how to learn while in college. What I learned was how to follow directions, which I did just fine while earning a college degree with a 3.5 GPA (I didn’t always follow directions). Learning how to learn occurred much later. I was taking a course in graduate school and realized that there was a topic that I was really interested in. The professor only knew so much about the topic, so I went to the library and sat on the floor for 6 hours next to a shelf devoted to the topic reading everything I could find. This from a guy who hated to read. I was no longer reading or learning to satisfy someone else’s goals for me. I was driven by my own curiosity and interest. I then realized that I was capable of defining learning goals for myself. I no longer trusted others to define learning for me. (That is another reason why I am willing to break with convention that says that students must do as they’re told.) 

I tell this story to try and capture the power of self-directed learning. You will accomplish 10x or 20x more learning when it is directed by your own personal interest and problems that you perceive to be important. But, in order to do so, it is essential that you find within yourself questions or problems of significant importance around which you can organize your learning goals.

Learners choose their own goals and objectives by exploring personal problems and curiosities. In order to develop your personal learning goals, you will have to explore what interests you in the subject, how you would like to use it in your life, or any outstanding questions that you have about the subject. 

Note: I am not telling you what you have to learn. You will have to decide for yourself what is important enough to spend your time and resources on. But I will give you some examples with the hope that by doing so you will develop some of your own ideas.

·      Is there a personal problem that you would like to resolve? (Anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-esteem, decision-making, planning, etc.) If so, then you might e-mail your instructor and ask: “What counseling theory would you recommend for dealing with loneliness?” Or maybe you will pick a counseling theory from the list based on the description I have given it, and then read the topic all the while thinking “How will this help me with my loneliness?” In other words, you are really learning about your own personal loneliness, and trying to make it better (or accept it as part of the human condition).

o   It would be possible to complete three learning plans with one defined personal problem. With loneliness, you might complete the following:

§  I will use Transactional Analysis to work on my problem of loneliness.

§  I will use Person-Centered Therapy to work on my problem…

§  I will use … etc.

·      Are there specific people that you would like to help? Some people are drawn to becoming helping professionals. They want to learn how to help children with learning disabilities or elderly persons with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. If this is you, then you will probably want to explore the counseling theories that are considered most helpful for your demographic.

·      Maybe, as I have shared above, you are a Christian (or Buddhist) and are interested in how Christianity (or Buddhism) has been combined with counseling theories. So your question might be, “Is there such a thing as Christian Counseling? And, if so, how might I practice that?”

·      Or maybe you would like to learn how to listen to others better and more actively, or you want to learn how to motivate people who are indifferent. 

·      Pretty much anything related to relationships, helping or supporting people, understanding personal problems, and so on.

Learning resources are selected by the learner. I have provided resources for 15 counseling theories (and their criticism). Because I prefer reading, most of the resources I give are written. But I’m sure that there are plenty of nonwritten resources out there for us to find. I am also inviting you to ask me to help you find resources more aligned with your personal interests. Other examples of resources might include:

  • ·      Counseling psychologists (to email or call)
  • ·      Your instructor
  • ·      YouTube videos by college students, counseling psychologists, or scholars of counseling methods
  • ·      Podcasts
  • ·      Periodicals or journals
  • ·      Books at the library
  • ·      Free resources from [our digital scholarly repository]
  • ·      Worksheets and advice from therapists at

Self-directed learning is assessed by the learner. For each learning plan that you create, you will have to assess your own current ability level. For example, if your plan is to help decrease your feelings of loneliness, then you might begin by describing the degree to which you experience loneliness as a problem. For example:

·      Right now I feel lonely most of the time. Even when I am with my friends, I feel alone. It is almost excruciating on the weekends.

·      I occasionally feel lonely, and I worry that I will never find a real and long-lasting relationship.

Then you will follow up this self-assessment with where you would like to be when you finish your learning plan. This is your goal for the plan.

·      Right now I feel lonely most of the time. Even when I am with my friends, I feel alone. It is almost excruciating on the weekends. After my learning plan is complete, I will have strategies for 1) What to do when I feel extremely lonely; and 2) How to feel more connected with friends when I am with them.

·      I occasionally feel lonely, and I worry that I will never find a real and long-lasting relationship. After my learning plan is complete, I will have practiced three strategies for building intimacy with others, and reflect on how they worked.

Evaluation is learner-decided. After each learning plan ends, you will be asked a series of reflection questions. Among them will be a self-evaluation, where you will give yourself a grade for that section of the course (each will be worth 25% of your final grade). If I find that your self-assigned grade is at odds with your learning plan, then I will schedule a time for use to meet and discuss your plan and a fair grade. (In most cases, I find that students assign themselves grades that are much too low. It is unusual for a student to assign themselves a grade that they had not earned.)

Self-directed learning never ends. Once you learn how to learn, you realize that you are never finished learning. It is an ongoing process that improves your quality of life, and restores to you the satisfaction of personal responsibility.

Why Dr. Whitehead Prefers Self-Directed Learning to Instructor-Directed Learning

I already know that you, as college students, can follow my instructions. Therefore I don’t think it is necessary to ask you to memorize names or dates or definitions of words. I also believe that anything that can be tested through a multiple-choice exam represents what I have come to call “insignificant learning.” Insignificant learning does not have any impact on students’ perspective or behaviors. I am not interested in facilitating insignificant learning. 

In my experience, most instructor-directed learning is insignificant. This is because the instructor has decided what is important; the instructor has decided why it is important; the instructor has decided the best way to communicate that importance; and the instructor has decided how to evaluate how well it’s all been learned. There is a small chance that a few of the students will happen to think the same sorts of thoughts as their instructor. But most will see the course as being all about their instructor.

I am only interested in significant learning. This is the kind of learning that has a serious impact on a learner: learners will view the world differently; they will act differently; and they will think of themselves and others differently. 

I do think it is possible to design learning objectives as an instructor, and then invite students to adopt these objectives as their own. I have even written a book about that. But I also think it is much better if an instructor can let their students participate in the development of the students’ own goals for the class. That’s what I do.

But what if I want to be told what to do for this class?

If this question is burning a hole in your stomach, then send me an e-mail (removed). What I’m going to do is ask for you to think about which academic skills you are most interested in developing (such as how to write better, how to read better, how to listen better, etc.). Together we will develop a plan for you to achieve one of these goals. I’m happy to do this with you for each of your objectives. But notice: we will be choosing together.