Adolescents and Self-Directed Career Development

by Jane Pilling-Cormick

Self-Directed Learning
Self-directed learning (SDL) is a "process in which individuals determine their priorities and choose from various resources available. They play an active role in developing a system of meanings to interpret events, ideas or circumstances. In other words, they direct their learning in some way" (Pilling-Cormick, 1996). Many researchers highlight the benefits of using a self-directed approach to learning. Gibbons (2002) claims that "students must know how to learn - how to take independent initiative when opportunity disappears". In other words, SDL prepares students for the new world in which the active learner survives best. Using a self-directed approach with adolescents is beneficial because a "one fits all", standard, textbook based approach to career options provides little incentive for students to take ownership of their career plans. We believe introducing elements of self-direction in career education will help students to:

  • Play an active role in the career planning process
  • Place more value on career plans
  • Achieve better grades
  • More likely complete the course
  • Experience less indecision about future plans
  • Develop individual, realistic plans

In Ontario, Canada, 10th grade students are required to complete a half-credit Career Studies course. A goal of this course is for students to develop goals and choose a career route which meets their needs. To be active learners in career education, students must be able to ask questions, investigate, experiment and relate, with a first step of determining priorities. We wanted to discover what level of self-direction already exists in our career courses and practical suggestions on how to increase support for students taking increased responsibility for their learning.

What We Did
At Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School in Hamilton, Ontario, we administered a questionnaire called the Self-Directed Learning Perception Scale to 112 students at the end of their mandatory half-credit career course. This tool monitors the support of the learning environment for SDL, takes approximately 15 minutes to complete and provides both numerical results for tracking purposes and easy-to-understand suggestions for building our career program.

What We Found
Scores from the inventory were in the moderate range, suggesting we provide some opportunities for self-direction, but indicated that there is room for more. Possibilities include:

  • Encouraging learners to begin by reviewing what they already know. When they initially choose a career, we can actively promote that they begin by considering what they already know, finding specific gaps, and taking steps to narrow those gaps.
  • Giving feedback throughout the course, so that students can accurately plan their next moves in their individual career searches.
  • Increasing instructor availability for individual discussion about learning

There are some limitations to SDL, and not every student will be able to utilize this approach to the fullest. However, we believe that students will be even more successful in class and ultimately in life, if we move away from a strictly standard, textbook approach.

Your Invitation to Become Part of Our Exciting Project
As we continue to build more self-directed approaches into our career courses, we will be tracking outcomes using additional SDLPS scores and exploring the relationships between the level of support and specific benefits of a self-directed approach to career education. Our study provides a starting point for studying the career studies activities of young adolescents in a formal, career-related course. Our aim is to build the most effective career education programs possible for adolescents. We need to hear what others are doing, explore what works and learn how we can continue building supportive, self-directed career approaches within formal career-related programs. We would like to bring others together who focus on career development in order to find out what:

  • Programs exist that include self-directed approaches to career development;
  • Supports these programs have in place;
  • Trends students report as happening in their career development programs;
  • Challenges teachers face when using a self-directed approach to career education.


Gibbons, M. (2002). The self-directed learning handbook: Challenging adolescent students to excel. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Pilling-Cormick, J. (1996). Development of the Self-Directed Learning Perception Scale (Doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto).

Jane Pilling-Cormick, Ph.D., is a researcher and secondary school teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. She currently teaches 10th grade Career Studies for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Jane developed the Self-Directed Learning Perception Scale while at the University of Toronto and is actively involved with various research projects promoting self-directed learning in secondary and post-secondary institutions. She has published on topics concerning instrumentation and self-directed learning in several edited books along with presentations at international conferences on self-directed learning. To find out more about these studies, send an e-mail message to info@prolt.com or visit www.prolt.com

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