The Glue That Holds It All Together


When I was a teenager, I learned to build balsa wood model airplanes. The photo above isn’t one of my own creations, but that’s one of the planes I built. It was a very rewarding activity as it allowed me to exercise my structural and concrete thinking skills, along with my problem solving skills (no model ever goes together as planned), as well as my creative skills (helpful for problem solving and final painting and accessorizing the models). The finished products were beautiful to look at and each represented hundreds of hours of time at the worktable in my bedroom.

The materials on the outside of these models, what was visible (paint, and sometimes a little plastic, wood, or metal, on tissue paper), were not the most important parts of the model. The most important parts were the underlying structure and the glue that held it all together. What is the “glue” that holds learning together?

In every endeavor that I can think of, there is some form of “glue that holds it together.” For sports teams this is usually one of the athletes. In healthy families, it is often a set of values and beliefs. In offices, there might be a person, or a value that serves as that glue. In recipes, it might be a sauce. For an outfit of clothes, it might be a color or pattern. For a movie, it might be a location or a song or one of the characters that is the proverbial glue.

What about learning? What is the glue that ties together all the elements of How Learning Works1 that we’ve been exploring in these articles?

Chapter 7 of Ambrose et al. (2010) is called “How do students become self-directed learners?” For adults, how people become self-directed in their learning endeavors is the glue that holds all of learning together. Being self-directed in learning is a cyclical process, which if learned and understood can supercharge all learning efforts.

Let’s take a look at the process of being a self-directed learner.

Ambrose et al. (2010) described five phases in this cycle:2

  1. Assess the task,
  2. Evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses,
  3. Make a plan,
  4. Act and monitor progress,
  5. Reflect and adjust…and repeat the cycle as needed.

Very importantly, Ambrose et al. (2010) pointed out that what students believe about intelligence and learning is critical in the effectiveness of this cycle. Does the student believe that intelligence is fixed or fluid? What does the student believe about their own intelligence capacity? Does the student think that learning is hard or easy? What does the student think about the effort/payoff ratio? And so on.

While the phases in the cycle above are fairly self-explanatory, here is a little closer look at each.

Assess the task. In my work as both a leadership coach and a university professor, I frequently see the impact of improper task assessment. It’s easy for an individual to assume an understanding of the task and to move forward without confirmation. That can be a costly error.

Evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses. Intuitively, we understand that an individual’s given strengths and weaknesses related to that task will impact their learning and performance related to the task. However, self-directed learners take the time to consciously assess this element, accurately, and use it to inform their plan.

Make a plan. The plan for a task is very important, not only because it has a direct impact on the outcome, but because plans have wildly different levels of effectiveness depending on whether the person is a novice or an expert. Novices need resources provided by experts, or direct expert help to develop effective plans.

Act and monitor progress. Naturally, after a plan is established, the next step is to act. Most of us do well with that. However, self-directed learners also make effort to monitor their progress related to the goals of the task and their own performance and learning.

Reflect and adjust. As the monitoring is conducted, reflection of that “data” then directs adjustments in the plan. For self-directed learners, openness to new plans and strategies for accomplishing the task fuels their continued learning.
There is a lot of discussion today regarding life-long learners. (Here are a few posts on this subject.) We all want life-long learners on our teams. Self-directed learning is a foundational element of life-long learning. Life-long learners are always self-directed learners.

Think about the people in your office who are self-directed learners. Assess them on these five phases. Better yet, ask them to assess themselves. (That’s more in the spirit of self-directed learning.) Then, have a discussion about how to support their self-directed learning habits at work. You will all be glad you did for the impact it will have on your organization.


Other Articles In This Series

Learn. Grow. Change.
How Does Learning Work?
Assess What You Know
Knowledge Webs
Why Learn?
Why Learn? (Part II)
4 Tips for Skill Mastery
4 Tips for Skill Mastery (Part II)
The Practice Feedback Goals Link
A Biblical View of Human Development

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo “Model Airplane Skeleton” by Jason Short. Available at

1: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Marsha C. Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Thinking (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
2: Ambrose et al. (2010), pp. 192-193.

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