Allen Tough, Learning As it Happens in Most Peoples' Lives

Self Directed Learning

Tough's research is relevant because:

A lot of what we consider when we consider learning involves tutors, the passing of knowledge with only a cursory look at what happens when alone. However, Allen Tough's research showed that this was only the tip of an iceberg, there is a whole lot of learning which is organised and regulated for the induvidual by that very same induvidual. Should we be teaching adult learners the most effective ways of them learning for themselves rather than focusing on the best ways for cramming knowledge into their heads?


Allen Tough wandered about asking people about their learning projects, often they would begin saying that they did not have any, careful attempts were then made to jog their memories and it was found that on average people have about five of these a year and that each will involve about 100 hours of effort. In addition over 70% of these learning projects are self planned and self organised.

The Biggest Problem :

Tough never attempted to measure how effective this form of learning is, only that it exists and that it is super cross population.

If you only read one thing:

Tough, A., (1978). Major learning efforts: Recent research and future directions. Adult Education, 29(4) 250-263.

This paper has a nice overview and is written by Tough himself. it covers some basic definitions, and the variability between populations, which he argues is very little compared to the variability within populations. It also covers what Tough sees as future directions for the area of study

Some Friendly Definitions:

A Learning Episode: any period of your life in which your activity's main aim was to "gain and retain certain knowledge and skill" The activity can be more or less anything, trying something out, reading a book, seeking someone out to ask questions etc, going to a class etc.

A Learning Project: a series of linked learning episodes. According to Tough's instructions the time spent must add up to more than 7 hours (although he admits this number was arbitrarily chosen)

Not included: times when learning is incedental to an activity, a good example of this is the trivia picked up while watching QI or realising that you need to leave a bigger distance between yourself and the car in front when you almost crash into it.

How Tough Found his Information

Because people when asked will tend to say that they have no learning projects Allen Tough developed an interview schedule to help jog participants memories. In order to do this if follows a number of steps

At each of these stages time is taken to note down a title for each learning project. After this the investigator goes through each one of these and asks for more detail, how many hours spent, whether they were still working on it, how much they felt that they had learned, how enthusiastic they are about what they have gained, benefits to anyone else and who planned the learning project.

This method has been used by many people and in many countries and differing populations, for all of them the results are surprisingly similar.

Some Figures

(these are taken from the if you only read one thing paper above)

The exact numbers do vary from population to population but Tough argues there is more variability within populations than there is between them.

Between 70% and 100% of participants had taken part in at least one learning effort over the past year

About 20% of learning projects are planned by a paid instructor, 3% of people it is a friend who plans it, 3% of projects it is a group who plans it and in a staggering 73% of learning projects it is the learner him/herself who plans the learning.

The most common motivation is based on an anticipated use or application in the person's life but you do get people planning learning out of curiosity or just for the sake of knowing the knowledge.

However, self directed learning is not a solitary pursuit, on average 10 or 11 people are involved in each learning project.

Since the 70's

Tough had such big hopes for his research, however, at the end of the 70's he more or less left the field in order to chase aliens about and plan the earths demise (I'm serious!)

Tough's Reflections

He found that there were aspects which people wanted help with when it came to their self directed learning. He found that they would like help with setting goals, planning methods to learn and also help in finding resources. He was dissapointed that this didn't seem to have come from his research. However, in the reference section you will see a number of journal articles which have now begun to implement this, to teach people how to learn.

The Rise of the Internet

Tough is very excited about the rise of the internet in relation to learning. He says that just like the tendancy for people's learning projects to branch out and converge in infnate and intriguing ways the internet has a similar potential with its hyperlinks and search engines. The rise of the internet perhaps casts doubt on Tough's 7 hour rule, it is now much quicker and easier to pick out the particular information wanted, so now a significant learning project may take less time.

What Has Come from Tough's Research

As can be seen in the reference section, there are a number of papers where people have implemented ways of teaching people to learn. In addition it seems to be that in nursing at least encouraging self directed learning has been part of their teaching methods for a while now.

Links with other parts of the Course

I find it useful to link the area that I am studying to the other parts of the course, If you have any thoughts I would love to hear what you have to say, there is a comments box at the bottom of the page.

Johanna-Reflection- When learning alone the only way to know whether what you are doing is effective or not is to reflect upon your actions and work. This area is therefore important when considering self directed study as if reflection is entirely useless then it is unlikely self directed study will be getting very good results either.

Linsay- Chick sexing- This highlights the importance of the availability of good materials. The internet provides a very useful resource for this

Claire- Learning Accross Cultures- There does not seem to be very much difference in the way people choose learn between groups when it comes to Allen Tough's work. However, it was not done with primitive tribes

Laura-Practice never makes Perfect- If being directed into study then it is not your self who decides that you have gotten to an adequate level of knowledge its someone else. This is one of the benefits of self directed learning, you choose when you are at the point that you are satisfied with

Stephanie-Mastery Goals- It seems that self directed learning would map onto mastery goals. However, this page mentions the goal of social interactions, so perhaps there is a similar divide in self organised study as in other study between mastery and performance goals

Lauren-Scaffolding- It would be interesting to see if children who were taught in this style eventually internalized it. This would perhaps increase their efficacy when it came to learning alone.

Cleo-Maslow- Is self directed learning part of self actualisation?

Niamh-Sureness Ratings- do people learning on their own spontaneously give themselves their own sureness ratings? this is a potential future area of study.


If you are interested:

Tough, A., (1978). Major learning efforts: Recent research and future directions. Adult Education, 29(4) 250-263.

Brookfield,S., (1981) The adult learning iceberg: A critical Review of the work of Allen Tough. Adult Education, 54(2), 110-118

Recent implementations of self directed learning

Kicken, W., Brand Gruwel, S., Merrienboer, J.V., Slot, W., (2009) Design and evaluation of a development portfolio: how to improve students self directed learning skills. Instr Sci. 37, 453-473

Timmins, F., (2008) Take time to facilitate self-directed learning. Nurse Education in Practice, 8, 302-305

Silen, C., Uhlin, L., (2008) Self directed learning - A learning issue for students and faculty, Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4) 461-475

If you have a lot of time on your hands:

Tough's book is available Here if you click on 'learning' then @The Adult's learning projects'.

I got really frustrated trying to find any information because the chapters arent labelled and there is no contents page so here is a chapter list

  1. Focusing on Highly deliberate efforts to learn
  2. Episodes and learning projects
  3. How common and important are learning projects
  4. What people learn
  5. Why people learn
  6. Deciding to begin
  7. Choosing the planner
  8. How common & important is each type of planner
  9. Self planned learning
  10. Improving self planned learning
  11. When a nonhuman resource serves as a planner
  12. Learning projects planned by a person in a one to one relationship
  13. A group or its leader as its planner
  14. Practical implications for institutions & instructors
  15. What needs to be done
  16. Postscript: Through the 1970’s

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