Instructor-led vs. self-paced learning: What’s more effective?

Instructor-led vs. self-paced learning: What's more effective?

Both instructor-led and self-paced learning are common workplace training practices. And both have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s see two examples to get a better idea of what they look like in real life.

In a busy office, a new software was about to be introduced. The company wanted employees to learn how to use it effectively. They decided to have an instructor come in and teach the employees in person. On training day, employees gathered in a room, and the instructor stood in front of them, ready to teach. This approach has some good points. For example, employees were able to ask questions at that moment and practice using the software with help from the instructor. On the other hand, the training was expensive and hard to organize. Plus, some employees felt the training was too fast for them while others found it too slow.

Meanwhile, another company offered an online training course on digital marketing that people could take at their own pace. Employees from all over the world could log in whenever they wanted to learn. There were lots of different materials to use, like videos and quizzes. But this type of training came with its own challenges. There was no instructor to help, so sometimes employees had questions that were left unanswered. Some found it hard to stay motivated and complete the course. Even if this way of learning was flexible and cost-effective, it also lacked the interaction and support that ILT could provide.

So, neither instructor-led nor self-paced learning is ideal for all situations. In fact, there’s no “right” choice between instructor-led vs. self-paced learning. So, before selecting which type of learning fits your organizational needs, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of each one.

Exploring instructor-led training (ILT)


Instructor-led training has a number of advantages to offer, such as:

  • Real-time interaction: ILT enables immediate interaction between learners and instructors. Instructors can answer questions, offer clarifications, and provide instant feedback, thus helping learners better comprehend the training material.
  • Hands-on learning: Learners can engage in practical activities, simulations, and group activities. As a result, active learning and skill development are enhanced.
  • Social interaction: Instructor-led training fosters social connections among participants. It encourages collaboration, networking, and a natural exchange of knowledge and experiences.
  • Structured learning: ILT ensures that all learners receive consistent and comprehensive training, as it provides a structured and guided learning experience.


On the other hand, instructor-led training comes with certain challenges. For example:

  • Logistical complexity: Planning ILT sessions can be logistically challenging. It involves venue booking, scheduling, and material preparation.
  • High costs: Instructor-led training often incurs significant costs. These include instructor fees, venue rentals, travel expenses, and printed materials.
  • Limited flexibility: In ILT, schedules are fixed. These may not accommodate learner availability or remote training participants.
  • Dependent on instructor quality: The effectiveness of ILT greatly depends on the quality and expertise of the instructor. Which can significantly vary.

When is ILT best to apply?

Instructor-led training is ideal for training on complex topics, where in-person interaction is helpful. For instance, hands-on technical training or sensitive interpersonal skills development. Also, ILT is a preferred method of training when there’s a need for immediate feedback and real-time problem-solving. And last, when there’s a cohesive group of learners who can benefit from networking and peer learning.

Let’s see some examples where ILT is a great fit:

  • Medical training: In medical schools, instructor-led training is crucial for teaching surgical techniques and patient care. These topics require hands-on practice and immediate guidance from experienced instructors.
  • Corporate leadership workshops: Companies often organize instructor-led workshops for leadership and management development. During these, executives can engage in interactive discussions and case studies while being guided by experts.
  • Language courses: During language learning, instructors lead classes to provide students with real-time pronunciation correction and conversation practice. Which greatly facilitate language acquisition and fluency.

Exploring self-paced learning


Self-paced learning offers a number of benefits, such as:

  • Flexibility: Individuals can choose when and where to study, accommodating varying schedules and learning styles.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Self-paced learning brings fewer expenses compared to traditional instructor-led training. For example, there are no travel costs or venue fees.
  • Customization: Learners can personalize their learning journey. They can focus on topics that are most relevant to their needs by skipping or fast-forwarding material they already know.
  • Accessibility: Self-paced courses can be accessed by a global audience, breaking down geographical barriers to development.


But self-paced learning comes with its own set of challenges, like:

  • Lack of interaction: During self-paced learning, there’s a lack of real-time interaction with instructors and peers. This can result in unanswered questions and feelings of isolation.
  • Self-motivation is required: Learners must be self-motivated and disciplined to stay on track and complete the course. This can be very challenging for certain individuals.
  • Limited accountability: Without deadlines or structured training schedules, certain learners might struggle to finish their course. Or find it difficult to achieve their learning goals.
  • Absence of knowledge sharing: Sharing ideas is essential for boosting knowledge. When people learn together in real time, they can learn from each other’s questions and experiences.

When is self-paced learning best to apply?

Self-paced learning is perfect for individuals who require flexibility due to busy schedules, job commitments, or family responsibilities. Plus, it’s ideal for those who work in remote or hybrid environments. Also, self-paced learning can come in handy when the training content is well-structured and can be easily divided into manageable modules and units. Last, but not least, it’s a great fit for learners who are self-motivated and can hold themselves accountable for their progress.
Let’s explore some examples where self-paced learning does wonders:

  • Online coding courses: Some platforms offer self-paced coding courses where learners can practice coding skills at their own speed. This way, learners can focus on building specific programming skills anytime, anywhere.
  • Health and wellness courses: Organizations that want to help employees improve their physical and mental well-being can offer self-paced learning. These courses cover a wide range of topics, and individuals learn how to prioritize their health on their own schedules.
  • Upskilling/reskilling: Learners can reskill themselves or get training that can help them grow professionally. Even if it’s not necessarily tied to their current job tasks. For example, a salesperson can get a marketing training course at their own pace. Then transition to the organization’s marketing team when there’s an opportunity.

Instructor-led vs. self-paced learning: What's more effective?

It’s not necessarily “either…or”

To create a meaningful and effective learning experience, organizations should combine the best of both worlds. It’s not all about instructor-led vs. self-paced learning, but instructor-led and self-paced learning blended together.

Here are some strategies for doing so:

Host real-time online sessions with instructors

Schedule live, online sessions with instructors to address questions, provide clarifications, and facilitate discussions. This brings the benefits of traditional in-class interaction and guidance in online settings. So, the need for physical presence is eliminated. Plus, these sessions can be recorded and made available for those who couldn’t attend. This boosts flexibility for learners with different schedules or time zones.

Opt for blended learning

Combine self-paced learning courses with occasional instructor-led training sessions. This blended learning approach is valuable for complex subjects or skill acquisition. To achieve that, use online training on an LMS for learners to build foundational knowledge and basic skills. At the same time, host instructor-led sessions for hands-on practice, group activities, and advanced discussions.

Encourage peer interaction and collaboration

Learners can connect with peers through online discussion boards, forums, or virtual group projects. This fosters social interaction, networking, and peer learning, even in self-paced courses. Organizations can also plan virtual meetups or study groups to facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing among learners.

Offer personalized learning paths

Allow learners to choose their own learning paths. These can start with self-paced learning modules, then seek instructor-led sessions when needed. Or switch between approaches based on their progress and preferences. Self-assessment quizzes and surveys can also help learners identify areas for improvement and ask for additional support.

Evaluate and provide feedback

Training is valuable if learners understand the material and retain the information in it. Whether self-paced or instructor-led training, ask for people’s feedback. And test their knowledge.

If, for example, you find out they want more live sessions, include more of them in your training mix. Or, if you discover they have knowledge gaps after completing a self-paced course, schedule a follow-up instructor-led session. Post-training assignments and surveys will indicate areas for improvement when it comes to the training formats you choose.

Use adaptive learning technologies

Adaptive learning platforms can personalize the learning experience. They analyze a learner’s progress and adapt the content and difficulty level accordingly. Adaptive systems identify areas where learners are struggling and suggest additional resources or live sessions for targeted support.

Have a variety of resources

Resources in both self-paced learning and ILT should be diverse. Use videos, interactive simulations, written materials, PowerPoint presentations, and more. This accommodates different learning styles and boosts learner engagement and motivation.

Gather feedback for continuous improvement

To understand what works best for learners, it’s essential to gather learner feedback and adjust learning accordingly. Make sure to regularly update and refine the learning materials. Also find the right balance between instructor-led vs. self-paced learning, based on learner feedback.

Tailoring training methods: Learning knows no boundaries

Choosing a training method should always align with an organization’s specific needs and limitations. It’s not about picking one between instructor-led vs. self-paced learning. The ultimate goal remains one: learning.

Take this, for example. If your team is widely dispersed, self-paced courses can offer the flexibility your teams want. But it’s crucial, at the same time, to ensure learners remain engaged and are able to transfer this knowledge into practice. Likewise, ILT offers immediate feedback, but it’s not always feasible to schedule.

So, regardless of the training format, the key lies in adapting the chosen method to cater to your organization’s needs. Learning is an active, dynamic process that takes into account learner objectives, the nature of the material, and the individuals involved.

The ultimate measure of success is not the format itself. It’s the effectiveness of the learning experience and the application of acquired knowledge.

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