Group-Work Aspects in Adolescents´ Self-Directed Learning

Rapid Communication

Austin Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2022; 6(1): 1020.

Group-Work Aspects in Adolescents´ Self-Directed Learning

Uus Õ*, Mettis K and Väljataga T

School of Educational Sciences, Tallinn University, Narva Road 25, 10120, Tallinn, Estonia

*Corresponding author: Õnne Uus, School of Educational Sciences, Tallinn University, Narva Road 25, 10120, Tallinn, Estonia

Received: December 21, 2021; Accepted: January 31, 2022; Published: February 07, 2022


Self-directed learning (SDL) is the major educational aim to cultivate resilient and adaptive lifelong learners of the 21st century [1], where the “self” should be vested so that the student can adjust to new situations in the learning process [2]. This requires (a) specific SDL skills [3], and (b) the heightened capability to manage all the learning elements on one’s own, which, however, creates a severe bottleneck for novice students [4]. Because relating several mental items, while also guiding the learning steps, challenges one’s cognitive activities in making sense of the sub-material quickly enough [2,3]. Yet, the latter is the core of efficiency in SDL: task-relevant information processing in working memory, and memorizing respective results in long-term memory [5]. As this process directly depends on the cognitive load per moment - due to the limitations of human cognitive architecture - there is a high need to avoid the cognitive overload of the learner [5]. The problem is that although higher-order cognitive skills are inevitably needed in SDL to lead the learning, understand the material [3], and to memorize while completing assignments at the same time [6-8]. From the developmental perspective such a multilevel cognitive capability cannot be taken for granted in school age students [9,10]. Learners with weaker cognitive skills get more easily confused, not able to resist distractions, and therefore perform worse at memorizing the task-relevant items [11]. This aspect is important especially in novice students, restricting their as quick as in adults “online” processing [7,12]. Yet, most of the SDL suggestions have been given based on adults, while only few studies have been carried out with school-age students [3]. In spite of that, SDL requires more sophisticated learning strategies to be employed by the learners themselves [13]. This need to combine both: (1) domain information what the learner knows and what he/she needs to know to successfully carry out the learning tasks, and (2) procedural information how-to, in order to adjust if needed [5]. All this creates a remarkably higher cognitive load for learners in SDL compared to conventional learning methods, where the teacher orchestrates most of the operations, and therefore the cognitive load of learners is lower while processing the information pre-organized by the teacher [14]. However, if the cognitive load becomes too high, it directly hampers learning quality and the transfer of knowledge [4,5]. These aspects may impact young learners’ reaching a proper final conclusion [2]. On the other hand, differences have been found also in the cognitive control function between boys and girls [10]. In light that SDL lays the ground for other competencies essential for educational growth and lifelong learning, it is reasonable to research this approach and its different corners [13]. Based on the findings given above, the current work concentrates on adolescence-age students’ SDL outdoors using a small-group learning format that has been suggested to lower one’s own cognitive load [15].

Theoretical background

The SDL definition refers from an external (i.e., teacher) to the individual taking initiative (determining learning goals, defining sources, choosing and using appropriate strategies, also evaluating the outcomes) where the control aspect of the learner is crucial to be able to conceptualize independently [3]. The latter, as the essence for change in understanding [2] requires that learners handle several information items concurrently in the focus of their limited cognitive capacity [11]. Thus, SDL needs extra advanced skills of concentration on only the proper (task-relevant) information in the working memory [16] to reach a proper final conclusion [17]. Because students in SDL may experience difficulties in adjusting their learning in a blended learning situation, which is far more demanding, compared to passive listening to teachers’ transmission of well-organized knowledge [1]. While the SDL method is based on simultaneous demand to keep “excerpted” information items in mind while making other operations [18]. It is therefore also defined as complex learning [17] that can be detrimental to “save” information in long-term memory [19]. Hence, one of the main aspects to reduce learning complexity is that the learner needs a close relationship with others (whom to rely on) to foster individual learning through belonging while learning by doing and experiencing [2]. In that way, one can base on the reciprocal effects of the fulfillment of the basic psychological needs for relatedness and autonomy so as to increase one’s own competency [20]. Competence increases through striving to perform a given task (while the experience of effectance increases a sense of mastery); relatedness is based on the feeling of belonging (amongst others); autonomy expects to be the origin of one’s own actions to govern with the choice one’s own behavior [21]. High cognitive loads, therefore, are especially detrimental to learners with weaker or not yet advanced enough cognitive skills [22-24]. As the high cognitive load severely restricts making sense [19]. As a circle back, if unable to understand, it fuels one’s uncertainty instead to cultivate selfconfidence that relates to self-motivation and willingness to learn [3]. This, as a result, diminishes autonomy to govern the next learning steps [20], so hampering to reach the final conclusion set by the SDL multi component assignment [7]. In other words, complex learning – which requires several mental sub-processes – itself may cause cognitive overload [14], because its essence restricts the maintenance of only the sub-information items in a limited working memory focus [22,25].

Executive functions

Executive functions that facilitate direct and coordinate other cognitive processes, encompass a large range of top-down processes: planning, attentional control, and the regulation of action [26]. However, besides to managing skills of one’s own learning required in SDL [6], it also necessitates shifting from one subtask to another (i.e., switching between the learning elements and/or strategies) to constantly update information in working memory [26-29]. This requires “putting on hold” some parts of the information while acting with other sub-tasks at the same time [7]. To be able to do that, the human cognitive capacity limits allowing to process only about 3-4 elements per time [30] become especially evident [23]. As learners with more advanced executive skills are more efficient at resisting distractions (by irrelevant items), they are more efficient in solving the relevant elements [17]. However, learners with lower executive skills are less able to resist distractions (that “conquer” their already limited cognitive space), thus they are also weaker in the processing of the relevant information [31]. This severely constrains weaker students in their sequential online operations and as a consequence their overall SDL progress [24]. Cognitive executive functions (as a controller of working memory in human mental “note-pad”) are therefore needed for two purposes: (a) until processing the right (relevant) response, one needs (b) to resist/inhibit the wrong (irrelevant) ones [28]. This kind of capability is fundamentally important to solve complex tasks [32]. Yet, for school-age students (who are in the stage of human cognition’s prolonged maturity), the SDL approach (that needs the processing of several info-pieces concurrently) sets a considerably higher cognitive demand than conventional learning methods [23]. This can cause their cognitive overload [14], which can lead to inappropriate learning gain because when the working memory is occupied with too many items, it cannot be used at the same time for efficient memorization into the long-term memory [19]. Although some of the cognitive abilities develop earlier, executive functions in particular (the working memory, inhibition, and switching), enabling us to act on the basis of proper choice, not on impulse [28], do not reach their maturity until early adulthood [18]. Those aspects are important especially in SDL, in light that the cognitive abilities do not mature with equal spurts in all children [12]. Prior work, therefore, highlights the need for empirical research on SDL, especially in the context of school-age children, because initial conceptualization of the SDL is focused on adult learners [10], who by their advanced cognitive maturity have also higher readiness for the SDL method compared to young learners [9,26].

Small-group learning

It has been found by Schweder & Raufelder [10] that the group “as a teacher” helps to structure the SDL process - in that way fostering more efficient learning, more active engagement in the learning process, and usage of negotiating [15]. However, the group-work essence is not only talking but making reasoning explicit to others by justifications, explanations, and giving arguments [33,34]. On the other hand, it has been also found that this kind of multitasking can interrupt one’s own processing, and when seeking help it can distract fellow students, which therefore may complicate the whole group’s learning [34]. Especially when the group includes students with different abilities (e.g., some group-mates need more help, extra time, or repeated explanations to understand the topic), when asking for help from fellows, it can disturb the concentration of both more skilled students and those with lower capability [35].

Gender aspects in SDL

The hormonal changes accompanying the adolescence period can be related to individually different developmental dynamics in girls and boys to direct oneself [8]. It has been shown that adolescent girls (compared to boys of the same age) through their greater willingness put more effort into their learning; while boys have been shown to implement lower control strategies than girls [10]. This seems to give an advantage to girls to learn more efficiently, based on the findings that girls generally monitor their own learning more thoroughly using steadier control skills compared to boys [10]. The latter can be related to the aspect that in adolescence the normal maturation rhythm of cognitive control sophistication generally lasts longer in boys compared to girls [36]. Another finding is that girls prefer learning settings that are familiar to them, that is, practiced earlier in terms of not challenging them (repeated and therefore “secure” methods); while boys, in turn, enjoy challenges (to explore around and discover new things hands-on) and thus also keep going to learning settings not practiced before [37]. Boys, therefore, may also like autonomous SDL more compared to girls.

Current work

Involving SDL phases such as planning, gathering evidence, synthesizing, and making final conclusions (Figure 1), we designed the SDL outdoor scenario. The current experiment was organized as a part of a more extensive research study on innovative approaches to learning and teaching outside the classroom supported by technology.