The nature of many societies is rooted in the notion that individuals have some commonalities, and that these commonalities, manifest through common values, create social structures of interaction, resulting in “communities.” Communities rely on individuals to interact for virtually every aspect of meeting life needs, and some of these individuals, by necessity, must assume leadership positions in different types of civic organizations (MacCallum, 1970). Some of the leadership opportunities are driven by formal structures, such as city and town councils or associations of business leaders, and others are conceived of and driven entirely by the social interests of community members. The current study addressed the question of how those in leadership positions in community organizations learned about their personal interests through self-directed learning practices.

As Putnam (2000) noted, civic organizations, particularly those that are optional, meaning they respond to individual interests and needs and allow for social interaction and network building, play an important role in the sustaining nature of a community in ensuring a high quality of life. Putnam, along with Murray (2012), have suggested that informal group interactions manifest through social clubs and organizations create and sustain social values, and these values form communities. Derden (2011) went so far as to suggest that these values can impact educational attainment and life expectations. And, despite the importance of these organizations, there is evidence to suggest that they are in decline (Putnam, 2000; Murray, 2012).

A critical element of individual participation in a community structure is engagement with others through social interaction, including interactions that produce both group and individual benefits. The idea of individual benefits from actions can include both the person committing the action, and indirectly, the larger community (such as learning about issues before voting, caring for
one’s home impacting property value, etc.). Other benefits include the support and social structure strengthening important to a community, and this type of engagement can be linked to social organizations, bodies, and clubs.

Individuals choose engagement for many reasons, and multiple theories attempt to explain this (Maehr & Braskamp, 1986; Kim, 2009), and at least one element of this involvement relates to individuals engaging in learning about their interest and organization. To do this, individuals often engage in formal and informal learning, and the subject of the current study explored informal learning driven by the individual, namely, self-directed learning practices. Self-directed learning (SDL) includes practices, sometimes called strategies, that an individual uses to improve knowledge, either for some practical reason or purely for self-interest. SDL has historically been a popular element in the study of adult education (Brookfield, 1984; Stockdale & Brockett, 2011), and plays an important role in individual psychological development (Knowles, 1975).

The purpose for conducting the study was to explore one aspect of community organization leaders, namely, how they continue to learn about their area of interest. Specifically, the study sought to identify the strategies or practices that leaders used to learn about their area of interest, whether a personal hobby or for the enjoyment of learning and self-satisfaction. The importance of this identification is that by determining how leaders go about their self-direction, those providing educational opportunities can better understand how to meet their needs, and for those concerned about community leadership development, how to better or build a society’s contingent of leaders.


The study of community education includes multiple elements, inclusive of personal interaction patterns that are necessary for the creation of a sense of “community.” The concept of a community has changed from a physical space discussion to one reliant on individual interactions, resulting in the creation of “communities” within technologically mediated space (the internet) as well as physically shared locations typically thought of as a town, city, or even neighborhood. How individuals interact and rely on each other is critical to the idea of strengthening communities, and the extent that community members (citizens) engage with each other is vital to understanding how communities exist, evolve, and thrive or survive. The current study relied on two realms of research: community expectation and self-directed learning. By examining these two foundations of literature, the study is situated to possibly inform the discussion of the impact of self-direction as an enabler of community formation, and at the very least, to profile how individuals go about keeping themselves educated by their own desires to learn about their interests.

Community Expectation

Community expectation is the concept that a collective set of beliefs, norms, and actions can create a communal implied thought about what a person should do. This has been examined mostly in the realm of education, asking whether a community’s value of education can create an expectation among individuals to pursue, for example, postsecondary education (Derden, 2011;
Deggs & Miller, 2012). Community expectation also includes accepted thinking about the level of involvement an individual should expect to expend in engaging with fellow citizens, whether in social networking, philanthropic work, or community improvement.

Derden (2011) was not able to predict postsecondary pursuit based on selected community expectancy variables, but he was successful in identifying an inventory of possible elements that can comprise community expectation. His categories included wealth distribution (such as average income and poverty rate), quality of life (housing, crime, economic diversity), educational attainment of community members, social and cultural capital (libraries, theaters, museums, parks, etc.), population mobility, religious adherence and membership in other social networks, and employment opportunities (including unemployment rate, self-employment, types of employers, etc.). These elements were primarily either structural (did the community have a library or theater?), or resultant from normal life experiences (home ownership) rather than based on effort. This differentiates Derden from the Deggs and Miller (2012; 2009) work that stressed five elements (home life, formal education bodies, religious affiliations, civic agencies, and informal associations) that included at least two that were theoretically manipulative based on effort (civic agencies and informal associations).

The notion of involvement is critical to community development, and has been categorized into “community action” and “public involvement” (Green & Haines, 2008, p. 13), and is somewhat reliant on the leadership of fellow citizens to muster, direct, and encourage engagement. This type of civic leadership is critical, and is at the heart of the current study. By understanding how community leaders, in the current study, those who have self-reported taking on leadership roles in their community organizations, go about engaging in further themselves, defined in the current study as engaging in further learning about something that interests them, key attributes and practices might be identified that could be either encouraged or supported by different civic organizations.

Self-Directed Learning

The current study focuses on the concept within the field of adult education commonly referred to as self-directed learning (SDL). This conception of how learners control what and how they learn has been reported to be one of the most referenced domains of research in adult education (Butcher & Sumner, 2011; Stockdale & Brockett, 2011; Brookfield, 1984), and has been rooted in virtually every aspect of education, ranging from college student performance (Clinton, & Rieber, 2010), with mature adults learning new skills (Clark, 2003), casual learners (Kim, 2009), basic literacy (Terry, 2006), and from the practical perspective of how to help teachers learn to encourage SDL among learners (Knowles, 1975). Additionally, SDL has been studied from the perspective of how prepared an individual is to engage in self-direction (Long & Agyekum, 1984) and which self-guided instructional tools are used by individuals (Grover & Miller, 2012).

Although there are multiple dimensions within the formal study of self-directed learning (SDL), such as differentiating between instructor-led learning and self-led learning, the intent of SDL is that an individual takes control of a personal desire to learn something and develops a strategy for reaching a particular, self-defined, level of competence. There have been few attempts to catalog the methods of primary use by self-directed learners (Grover & Miller, in press), and this
limited body of research has suggested preferences for media-based, text-based, or social interaction-based learning. The selection of learning strategy is suspected to be based largely on the individual’s preference, and might be driven by convenience, cost, personality, and availability.

Self-directedness can also be an attribute of an individual’s perceptions or motivations for images of self, as well as the result of personal goal setting. The current study is situated around the question of whether or not those who take on community leadership roles have unique or different practices of self-learning, specifically, whether or not community leaders use certain types of self-directed learning strategies more than non-leaders. By identifying if leaders have unique practices, there can implications for education providers, leadership development programs, organizations interested in succession planning, and even in developing curricula and formal programs that can aid organizations struggling with finding leaders.

Research Methods

Data for the current study were collected using a research-team developed survey instrument. The survey instrument was grounded in the literature describing self-directed learning instructional practices and was pilot and field tested. The instrument included basic demographic information to describe those participating in the study, and asked participants to rate the extent to which they used 22 selected self-directed learning strategies using a progressive 1-to-5 Likert-type scale (1=did not use; 5=use frequently).

The survey was administered in the summer and fall of 2012 to community members involved in leisure-based community organizations in one mid-south town of under 100,000. A total of 14 organizations were identified using one of the town’s directory of community organizations. These organizations ranged from a neighborhood motor cycle club to a knitting society, and a total of 219 surveys were returned that were deemed to be usable in the data analysis. These organizations were identified randomly, but voluntarily agreed to participate in the study by administering the survey to their members. A Cronbach alphas administered on the responses to the survey indicated a reliability index of .7000, and this was deemed appropriate for the study.

Data Analysis

As shown in Table 1, the 219 respondents were evenly distributed by gender (47% male, 52% female) and nearly 70% of them indicated that they were “very involved” or “somewhat involved” in community organizations. Of particular importance to the current study, 32% of the respondents (n=72) self-identified that they held a leadership position in some community organization.

As shown in Table 2, seven SDL practices were rated between 3.5 and 4.0, meaning that the respondents used these practices between “sometimes” and “frequently.” Nine practices had mean ratings between 3.0 and 3.49, five had mean ratings in the 2.0-2.9 range, and one item had a mean rating under 2.0. The practices with the highest combined rating were “purchased specialized equipment” (mean 3.84) and “used/participated in social media” (mean 3.84). The item with the lowest combined mean rating was “took a class for credit” (mean 1.57).

For the 72 community leaders, the highest mean ratings for learning practices were “attending public lectures” (mean 4.3), “participated-informal group discussions” (mean 4.11), and “participated – formal group discussions” (mean 4.01). The lowest mean ratings were identified for the learning practices of “subscribed to a newsletter” (mean 2.66), “participated in a national conference” (mean 2.46), and “took a class for credit” (mean 1.62). Of the 22 learning practices, four items had mean ratings over 4.0, 14 were had means between 3.0 and 3.9, and three had mean ratings in the 2.0 range, and one practice had a mean rating below 2.0.

The distribution of mean ratings for non-community leaders was similar in that 14 learning practices had mean ratings of use between 3.0 and 4.0 and one practice had a mean rating below 2.0. Different from the community leaders, however, was that these respondents had seven learning practices with mean ratings of use between 2.0 and 3.0. The learning practices used most by non-leaders were “purchased specialized equipment” (mean 3.9) and “visited/studied website” (mean 3.82), and the learning practices with the lowest mean ratings of use were the same as for community leaders, “participated in a national conference” (mean 2.34) and “took a class for credit” (mean 1.55).

Seven significant differences were found between the mean ratings of community leaders and non-leaders. In all seven differences, community leaders had higher mean ratings of learning practices, notably, community leaders had mean ratings in the 4.0 range for four items, and non-leaders had ratings of those same four items in the 2.0 and 3.0 range. For example, leaders used the following learning practices more frequently than non-leaders: “informal group discussions” (mean 4.11 vs. 2.99), “formal group discussion” (mean 4.01 vs. 2.89), “attended public lectures” (mean 4.30 vs. 3.33) and “watched online videos” (mean 4.00 vs. 3.42). Significant differences were also found in the mean ratings of “interviewed others active in my interest area” (mean 3.98 for leaders, 3.33 for non-leaders), and “participated in a formal workshop/seminar” (3.88 for leaders and 3.21 for non-leaders).


As Putnam (2000) noted, communities need investment in their social foundation to be effective, and this investment must include a wide variety of actors and social agencies, ranging from citizens to be involved to inclusive societies that allow and promote social interaction. In this study of community leaders, key habits were identified, namely that community leaders were more likely to use certain selected self-directed learning practices. The next step in this research should be to examine more deeply the relationship and use of these practices with variations in leadership positions. Such research might explore whether those in formal offices, such as city councils or mayoral offices, engage in certain kinds of self-directed learning, and whether these learning practices can be predicted or correlated to leadership engagement or characteristics of leaders.

Of the seven self-directed learning practices where there were significant differences in use by community leaders and non-leaders, five of the practices that had significantly higher mean ratings of use were based on social interactions and exposure. These practices included attending public lectures, interviewing others, attending formal workshops, participating in
formal and informal discussions. The use of these social-interaction based learning practices might suggest a function of leading, that being that leaders may be more likely to engage with others in a situation of communicating ideas or concepts or knowledge. If this is the case, leadership may have a great deal to do with an individual’s ability to relate to others. Concurrent issues of consideration might also include that leaders have low levels of communication apprehension, an interest in building social relationships, and perhaps that leaders have an interest in interacting and learning from others (or conversely, teaching others). A common characteristic for leaders in the current study seems to be a willingness to communicate (this does not imply whether these leaders were good or effective at communicating, only that leaders tended to participate in highly communicative self-directed learning practices).

Although the majority of mean ratings of self-directed learning practices were not significantly different between leaders and non-leaders, the two non-social practices that leaders rated significantly higher were tied to on-demand, on-line technology. Leaders rated watching online videos and reading online newspapers higher than the non-leaders; this difference could suggest that leaders have an interest in getting content when they want it (rather than practices that might be solitary time-based), yet non-leaders and leaders did not differ in the majority of these types of practices (such as reading online blogs and participating in listservs).

Overall, study findings do suggest that community organization leaders do make use of self-directed learning practices that are different from non-leaders, and that these practices are predominantly social in nature. If Putnam is accurate in describing a less socially connected society, findings are important in promoting leadership and changing the self-directed, isolationist trend he suggested. Self-directedness is a key attribute of an advanced society, and these findings are an important step in better understanding the kinds of uses adults have of different instructional strategies.


Brookfield, S. (1984). Self-directed learning: A critical paradigm. Adult Education Quarterly 35, 59-71.

Butcher, K. & Sumner, T. (2011). Self-directed learning and the sensemaking Paradox. Human-Computer Interaction 26, 123-159.

Clark, K. (2003). Using self-directed learning communities to bridge the digital divide.” British Journal of Educational Technology 34(5), 663-665.

Clinton, G. & Rieber, L. R. (2010). The studio experience at the University of Georgia: An example of construtionist learning for adults. Education Technology Research and Development 58, 755-780.

Deggs, D., & Miller, M. T. (2012). Beliefs and values among rural citizens: Shared expectations for educational attainment. Planning and Changing, 42 (3/4), 302-315.

Deggs, D., & Miller, M. T. (2009, October). Entrenched expectations of rural communities: Impediments for college attendance? The Delta: Poverty, Education, and Economic Development, A Forum on the Future of the Delta Region, Helena, AR.

Derden, M. W. (2011). Community expectations of college attendance and completion. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Green, G. P., & Haines, A. (2008). Asset building and community development (2nd ed). Los Angeles: Sage.

Grover, K. S., & Miller, M. T. (2012, November). Self-directed learning practices and motivations among community engaged adults. Presentation at the American Association of Adult and Continuing Education National Conference, Las Vegas, NV.

Kim, K. J. (2009). Motivational challenges of adult learners in self-directed e-learning. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 20(3), 317-335.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for teachers and learners. NY: Association Press.

Maehr, M. L., & Braskamp, L. A. (1986). The motivation factor: A theory of personal investment. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

McCallum, S. H. (1970). The art of community. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies.

Murray, C. (2012). Coming apart: The state of white America, 1960-2010. New York: Crown Forum.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Stockdale, S. L., & Brockett, R. G. (2011). Development of the PRO-SDLS: A measure of self-direction in learning based on the personal responsibility orientation model. Adult Education Quarterly, 61(2), 161-180.

Terry, M. (2006). Self-directed learning by undereducated adults. Educational Research Quarterly, 29(4), 28-38.

Table 1.
Characteristics of Survey Respondents

N Percentage

Male 105 47.90%
Female 114 52.05

Community Involvement Level
Very involved 19 8.60
Somewhat involved 134 61.18
Not involved 66 30.13

Held Leadership position in community organization
Yes 72 32.80
No 147 67.12


Table 2.
Self-Directed Learning Practices Among Community Member Respondents

Comm Leader Overall
Yes No Mean*
n=72 n=147

Purchased specialized equipment 3.75 3.90 3.84
Used/participated in social media 3.99 3.77 3.84
Visited/studied websites 3.52 3.82 3.71
Attended public lectures 4.30 3.33 3.64*
Purchased books to read 3.80 3.55 3.62
Watched online videos 4.00 3.42 3.60*
Subscribed to a magazine 3.51 3.59 3.56
Interviewed others active in my interest area 3.98 3.19 3.44*
Participated in a formal workshop/seminar 3.88 3.21 3.42*
Participated – informal group discussions 4.11 2.99 3.35*
Read online newspapers 3.86 3.04 3.31*
Subscribed to a listserv 3.51 3.10 3.30
Participated – formal group discussions 4.01 2.89 3.26*
Read newspaper articles 3.25 3.18 3.20
Participated in a local conference 3.79 2.88 3.17
Read online blog posts 3.10 3.04 3.05
Watched related television program 3.01 2.98 2.99
Read books from the library 3.00 2.89 2.92
Subscribed to a newsletter 2.66 3.00 2.88
Purchased educational video 2.77 2.50 2.58
Participated in a national conference 2.46 2.34 2.37
Took a class for credit 1.62 1.55 1.57

*denotes a significant difference at the .05 level.


you might also like