How Do We Develop Life-Long Learners? Exploring Self-Directed Learning for Pharmacy Curricula

By: Madison Ordonez, PharmD Candidate and Alexander Hoffman, PharmD, MEd, BCPS, CDCES

What characteristics come to mind when evaluating the qualities of learners enrolled in a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) program? According to a study performed by the University of Malta, pharmacy learners often display characteristics such as:

  • Self-motivation 
  • Independence
  • Curiosity
  • Tolerance
  • Trust1

Although the degree of these qualities is variable among individuals, this population of learners has committed to a career that requires life-long learning. Therefore, the question arises: How do we prepare learners to accept the responsibility for their own learning after their program of study is over? In a dynamic  healthcare system, pharmacists continuously update their clinical and practical knowledge. Many pharmacists do this by attending conferences, taking relevant continuing education courses, and joining pharmacy organizations. These opportunities are at the discretion of the individual pharmacist, requiring motivation and time-management.2 By implementing autonomy early in the learning process, there is a significant opportunity to develop pharmacists that excel in problem-solving, scholarly research, and patient-centered care.2 One approach to the successful development of these skills in pharmacy learners is the implementation of self-directed learning into the pharmacy curricula.

What is Self-Directed Learning?

 Self-Directed Learning (SDL) is an educational theory largely attributed to Malcolm Knowles and his work on andragogy and adult education.3 SDL emphasizes that the adult learner is in control of their own success and that the teacher is there to guide the learning process. This theory encourages the autonomy of the learner by allowing them to diagnose their learning needs, set goals, determine resources to aid in learning, implement learning, and self-evaluate the learning process. The main focus of SDL is that learners control the entire learning process, often outside the confines of the classroom.3  

Self-directed learning has a variety of advantages and constraints, detailed in Table 1. 

Table 1. Advantages and Constraints of Self-Directed Learning.4

-Convenience for the learner

-Uses learner’s goals, interests,
and preferred learning methods

-Enhances self-evaluation and
reflection skills

-Can focus learning on a
specific area of interest
-Learner time management

-Identifying reputable sources for learning

-Access to sources

-Ambiguity in learner/teacher roles

-Higher workload for learner & teacher

-Acceptance of change in learning style

SDL and Pharmacy

Although the theory of SDL is widely studied in adult education, research specifically on the implementation of the SDL theory in pharmacy curricula is lacking. However, PharmD candidates may be especially primed to begin SDL. Behar-Horenstein and colleagues explored and validated the self-rating scale of self-directed learning (SRSSDL) in learners enrolled in four colleges of pharmacy in Southern Florida.5 After administration of the scale to 872 learners (P1-P4), the authors determined that pharmacy learners displayed high levels of SDL behavior. These results revealed an increased readiness for SDL based on progression through the curriculum, and P1 learners in their fall semester showed a “higher-than average” level of SDL behavior.5

Initial evidence also suggests that methods that employ self-directed learning may be effective in pharmacy education. A study by Benedict and colleagues evaluated the effectiveness of SDL in a pharmacy curriculum by incorporating virtual patient cases to replace in-class lectures.6 This allowed learners to assess simulated patients and make therapeutic recommendations as many times as needed to understand the content. Final exam scores of the SDL cohort and final exam scores of the cohort who learned content in conventional lectures demonstrated the effectiveness of SDL in pharmacy students. In addition, a survey also assessed student perceptions of the incorporation of self-directed learning.  The authors determined that students found the virtual patient cases to be engaging and valuable to their understanding of the course content, indicating that SDL would be well-accepted by pharmacy learners.6

Examples of SDL in Pharmacy Education

Several methods have been proposed to guide the implementation of SDL into a pharmacy curriculum.

  • Specialization “Tracks”: If a learner is interested in a specific field of pharmacy, the opportunity to pursue further study would be available to them under the supervision of a faculty member with experience in that field. 
  • Learning Contracts: Foster SDL by allowing the  learner and teacher to decide what should be accomplished in a specified amount of time. This method has been proven to empower and motivate learners, while encouraging autonomy in the learning process.1
  • Modular Therapeutics Coursework: Using a team-based approach, learners are presented with a patient case, and must develop learning objectives and strategies to appropriately address the therapeutic needs of the patient.

By using SDL in pharmacy curricula, we can better prepare learners for a career in which learning is part of daily practice, and help them develop skills of adaptability and independence before their career begins. 

What are other examples of ways to incorporate SDL in pharmacy curricula? Help us continue the discussion by commenting and sharing. 


  1. Cordina M, Lauri MA, Lauri J. Patient-oriented personality traits of first-year pharmacy students. Am J Pharm Educ. 2010;74(5):84. doi:10.5688/aj740584
  2. Robinson JD, Persky AM. Developing self-directed learners. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 2019;84(3):847512. doi:10.5688/ajpe847512 
  3. Knowles MS. Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. Charlwood: Granary Press; 1975. 
  4. Bonk, C. J., & Lee, M. M. (n.d.). Motivations, achievements, and challenges of Self-directed Informal Learners in Open Educational Environments and MOOCs. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from
  5. Behar-Horenstein, L. S., Beck, D. E., & Su, Y. (2018). An initial validation study of the self-rating scale of self-directed learning for pharmacy education. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 82(3), 6251.
  6. Benedict N, Schonder K, McGee J. Promotion of self-directed learning using virtual patient cases. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013;77(7):151. doi:10.5688/ajpe777151

Author Bios:

Madison Ordonez is a fourth-year PharmD student at Northeast Ohio Medical University. Education scholarship interests include adult learning, self-directed learning, and behaviorism. In her free time, Madison enjoys spending time with her dog by hiking and traveling to new places. 

Alexander Hoffman is an Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Northeast Ohio Medical University. Educational scholarship interests include critical theory in pharmacy education, experiential education, and the medical humanities. Alexander enjoys reading and hiking the trails of Northeast Ohio and surrounding regions.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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