Self-Directed Learning in Criminal Justice

By Thomas Dworak, Sgt. (Ret.), Virtus Group

Continuing education for criminal justice professionals, formal or informal, is critical to professional development.  Self-directed learning is an important tool for professional growth both inside and outside of the criminal justice arena.  I like to think of time spent in self-directed learning as courageous moments.

Learn More About CJ DegreesCourageous moments occur when there is cognitive dissonance between where you are and where you want to be. In that courageous moment of time we have a choice between the status quo or change. Change will only occur through knowledge. Time lost is lost forever. Even 5 -10 spare minutes can have a return on investment in personal development when used properly. 

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Past articles focused on the benefits of obtaining a criminal justice degree. What happens after earning your degree and finding a job in the criminal justice field? How are you going to increase your knowledge, continue your personal development improve your value to your organization and to the citizens you serve and protect?

Self-directed learning is critical to being a life-long learner. There are many options for busy criminal justice professionals to learn that require minimal time, are low cost and have a high return on investment.


Reading tops the list in self-education. Choices include books, trade journals and blogs. If you only have 10 minutes a day, read something of value.  This article is about 600 words and should take 5 to 10 minutes to read. Over a week that’s 70 minutes, over a year it's about 60 hours.  Many blogs are short, to the point and can easily be read in 10 minutes.

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.” (Socrates)

I read 30-40 books a year and prefer reading them on an Amazon Kindle. My reading list includes books on human performance, decision-making, leadership, emotional intelligence, creativity, adult learning and instructional methodology.

I also read case law in the areas of employment law, use of force and search and seizure. Even though retired, I am an active instructor. I get my legal updates from and Both are great sources of information.

Webinars, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and Twitter

Becoming a life-long learner is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. Creating your own self-directed courageous learning moments provide a large return for the time invested.

There are a many educational resources available via the Internet. Webinars are at the top of the list.  Several law enforcement websites offer free webinars on current trends. The time commitment is 30-50 minutes on average. Many of the webinars are available on demand.

MOOCs are another option. Many websites are offering college level courses. While you do not earn college credits, you do share in the learning experience.  Most MOOCs are free and require a time investment of 2-4 hours per week over 4-8 weeks.

Twitter sessions (or other social media outlets) with others who have questions or ideas, is another way to light the learning fire.  This sometimes creates cognitive dissonance within my own thinking and begins another new chapter in learning.  There are times when after a discussion, I have more questions than answers. Seeking out answers to those new questions create new knowledge.

Becoming a life-long learner is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. Creating your own self-directed courageous learning moments provide a large return for the time invested.  One final quote from Albert Einstein to consider is, “Our present problems cannot be solved at the level of thinking at which they were created.” Today’s issues in criminal justice will only be solved through knowledge.  Stay Safe.

Sgt. Thomas Dworak served the Wilmette, Ill. Police Department for 31 years in a wide variety of assignments. Now retired, Sgt. Dworak is a consultant for The Virtus Group, providing adaptive leadership training to law enforcement and corrections officers through the Growing Courage leadership program.