Published on 2012/06/11

Know Your Learners

Adult learners are happy to tell you what they’re looking for and it’s important to listen to them when designing a program aimed towards them. Photo by Paul Hudson.

The mantra in my graduate instructional design courses has always been: “Know your learners.” Experience has taught me that an effective instructional designer needs to understand a variety of learning styles and learner motivation. The ever-increasing surge of online courses is demanding further considerations as generational differences add another layer of complexity.

The opportunity to learn online in a just-in-time anywhere-in-place setting is attracting a rich diversity of non-traditional students to our cyber classrooms. I’ve observed that many of these students are prompted by critical events. Those events might be the loss of a spouse, children leaving home, the result of job downsizing, or a need to increase marketable skills in an increasingly difficult economy. Whatever the reason, these students come to class with a determination and dedication for self-betterment that is often missing in younger people (who may be using higher education as a place holder until they begin their real lives.)

For our older non-traditional students, it is their real lives and experiences that need to be considered as invaluable resources as we design our courses and facilitate student interactions. Creating a learning environment where returning students have a chance to mentor others through shared stories and knowledge adds richness for all class members. The more these voices are heard, the greater the group engagement, as theory is supported by the voice of authentic and practical experience.

There are some basic concepts that need to be remembered when designing a multigenerational class. Students prefer completing tasks collaboratively, as long as group assignments are carefully introduced and grading is equitable. They want tasks to be authentic and to be tied to identified personal goals. Timely feedback from the instructor and peers is critical and should be informational; this is not the time for “Nice job, Bob”. Again, the adult learner wants to share her or his own experiences and to be part of the decision-making process on assigned tasks.

The non-traditional student often finds the online experience to be transformative. The students leave the course very different individuals than when they began. Transformational learning has been defined as “…dramatic, fundamental change in the way we see ourselves and the world in which we live” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner 2007, p. 130). One student likened this transformational process to planting seeds in a garden and waiting for them to bloom and thrive.

Over the years I have found some key elements that create a nurturing environment for this transformation:

  • Ask students to identify personal learning goals. Ask them to identify why they are returning to the classroom and to explain expectations for when they finish the course or even the program. Keeping their eyes on the prize sometimes helps them to get through the rough times.
  • Create a safe collaborative learning environment. Encourage dialogue and risk taking, Students need to understand that failure is part of learning and that venturing into the unknown can be celebrated.
  • Identify authentic applications of content. There need to be repeated bridges to authentic applications of the course content. Keep discussing ways that the concepts learned can be applied in future situations.
  • Discuss authentic applications in alternative contexts. Discuss the possible transference of course learning to alternative settings that the students may face in the future.
  • Provide reflective activities. It is critical that many of the assigned activities encourage self-reflection on the student’s experience. The final question is “how do you see yourself changed from the first day of class?” (Refer to the sample activity provided)

There is much that can be learned from the returning adult students if we, as instructors, take the time to listen.  They bring life experiences that enhance our discussions and force us to view the concepts with new perspectives. Sometimes the best that can be said of a class is that we learned more than we taught. Those are the classroom experiences that I treasure. The idea of transformative reflection can apply to us, in our roles as teachers.

Knowing the motivations, generational learning styles, and life experiences of our non-traditional learners is critical for success in the online setting. Creating an instructional setting that encourages transformation empowers the learners beyond defined course outcomes. By allowing our students to integrate the transformative aspects of learning into their everyday lives, we are teaching life lessons far beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

Reflective Activity – Lessons Learned (Conrad, Donaldson 2012)

During our shared learning experience this semester, many concepts were introduced and discussed. It is time to reflect on what this has meant to you personally and how you will take these lessons beyond this class. Post to the discussion thread the following responses to these questions:

  • What were the new concepts or ideas that you learned in this course?
  • How will you apply the concepts learned in future opportunities?
  • How will you interact with others in future courses as a result of how you have collaborated in this course?

– – – –


Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J.A. (2012). Continuing to Engage the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S.,, & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Readers Comments

Daniela Thomas 2012/06/13 at 10:34 am

It’s interesting how this concept keeps coming up; ask students what they want in order to learn how to better serve them.

I wonder why we, as an industry, must constantly be told to listen to our major stakeholders?

Are we letting quantitative analysis overtake qualitative?

Stephen Gotti 2012/06/16 at 3:45 pm

Daniela — I’ve noticed this as well, and I think we do overuse quantitative metrics.

We have our end-of-term surveys on student satisfaction and I think we leave that as the be-all and end-all of student feedback.

Perhaps at the beginning and end of courses, instructors should engage their classes in a live dialogue on their expectations and impressions of the course, along the lines of what Ana has suggested. That way there are defined areas of success and improvement based on direct feedback, rather than an extended survey process that leads to neutral outcomes.

Ana Donaldson 2012/06/18 at 11:40 am

Daniela and Stephen,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree that trying to define learning assessment limited to numeric representation has always provided a skewed perspective. My concern is that the newly defined Learning Analytics will most likely be the repeated mantra for some time to come.
There are several ways that I have incorporated assessment and feedback from my students throughout a course. One of my favorites is to ask the students, as part of their final class reflection, to write a letter to future students. When several of the chosen letters are provided the first week of class to the new students, the advice has had a meaningful impact and helped students to understand expectations and requirements based on a peer perspective. My other idea is an activity called “How’s my Driving?” I ask for anonymous feedback from my students mid-point in the class as to how things are going with suggestions for improvement. It is critical that I implement the suggestions within 24 hours (or provide justification for why they can’t be implemented). My favorite was from a class that gave me a “speeding ticket” but also had some great suggestions.
Again, we have so much to learn from our students. It is critical that we be the model for transformative reflection in our own classrooms. How is our understanding changing how we approach learning and instruction? Thanks again for sharing your thoughts,
– Ana

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