Know your learners

Understanding your learners plays a crucial role in designing effective learning experiences. Failing to comprehend their needs and preferences can lead to unfortunate outcomes. Today, we’ll look at ways to evaluate your learners’ needs, abilities, and motivations. (I also suggest you pay close attention, because there will be a quiz at the end!)

So, what kind of information should you gather about your audience? Firstly, consider basic demographic details like age, gender, job, or role. You can acquire this data through surveys or check if your organization already possesses it.

image of different students #1

Additionally, it’s valuable to understand their reading level and technological proficiency, especially if these aspects are relevant to your subject matter. In a corporate setting, speak to the employer to understand the capabilities of their staff. In a school, speak to the teachers or course administrators, and so on.

The key points we need to establish are:

  • What are your learners’ expectations?
  • What level of expertise do they currently possess?
  • What is their motivation for learning?
  • And how do they differ from you?

What do your learners want?

Highly motivated learners will learn regardless of the quality of the learning experience. Similarly, unmotivated learners are a challenge even for the best teachers. But the more you can consider your learners’ attitudes and motivations, the better you can tailor the learning experience.

You want to consider the question of what your learners want from a few different angles. Think about why they are there, what they want to get out of the experience, what they don’t want, and what they like (which may be different from what they want!).

How much do they know?

When dealing with learners, there’s often a mix of novices and experts. Experts can breeze through the material until they encounter something new or challenging, which slows them down a bit. The problem arises when a single learning design is expected to cater to learners of various levels.

Imagine this situation as being stuck in an airport security line. You’re an experienced flyer, all ready to go, but you find yourself behind someone who’s not as familiar with the process and a group of kids with all their gear. Annoying, right?

In the learning world, different learners often get pushed through the same experience due to budget or convenience constraints. If you find yourself in this situation, here are some suggestions to handle it:

  1. Don’t frustrate them. Avoid making every part of the learning experience mandatory for everyone. Offer optional or take-home parts, and allow learners to progress at their own pace in e-learning environments.
  2. Novices might not know what they need, but experts usually do. Trust the experts to find the information they require. Provide easy-to-access resources and reference materials for them to use when necessary.
  3. Utilize their expertise. Experts are smart, so find ways to tap into their knowledge. Can they mentor novices or share their experiences to enrich the learning journey for others?
  4. Embed information smartly. If there’s material for novices, make it discreet. For example, in e-learning, provide vocabulary definitions when learners hover over a word, so it doesn’t slow down the knowledgeable ones.
image of different students #1

What’s their motivation?

Generally speaking, the myriad reasons that result in a person trying to learn a new skill can be broken down in two types: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsically motivated learners are genuinely interested in the topic or have a specific problem they want to solve. On the other hand, extrinsically motivated learners are driven by external rewards or punishments, like when learning is mandatory.

Intrinsic motivation is like a champ compared to extrinsic motivation; it’s more effective and engaging.

Keep in mind that a person can be either type of learner, depending on the subject and situation. For instance, someone might be extrinsically motivated during a mandatory sexual harassment prevention seminar, but later become intrinsically motivated when they need to handle an actual harassment complaint.

Understanding these motivational factors can help tailor learning experiences to better engage learners and foster a more effective learning environment.

Comic illustrating the carrot or the stick

How are they different from you?

As anybody who has ever been a manager in any capacity knows, different people have different attitudes, approaches, and interests. This may seem obvious, but we all subconsciously suffer from the innate bias that the way we perceive the world is generally the same in other people. Newsflash: it isn’t.

In the realm of learning, it’s essential to recognize that not everyone learns in the same way. While the tools and materials at your disposal may be limited, you can still design learning experiences that incorporate a variety of approaches. For instance, try to incorporate quizzes and games in order to test knowledge retention, or images and sounds in addition to paragraphs of text.

By doing so, you not only address different learning preferences but also keep the learning journey interesting and provide a range of memory triggers to enhance retention. Furthermore, offering a diverse set of learning approaches can help combat the phenomenon of habituation, where learners become desensitized to repetitive content.

Despite our individual differences, there are fundamental learning pathways that we all share. Across the board, we can all benefit from visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods (to borrow terminology from the “VAK” model of learning) of learning to fit the situation. Understanding this aspect of our shared learning nature can guide the design of learning experiences that cater to a broader audience.

Pop Quiz!

Check to see how much information you’ve retained so far:


Understanding your learners is crucial; go beyond demographics to grasp their motivation, preferences, and skill levels. Structure learning for newcomers and empower experienced learners. Instead of just providing information, help them construct mental frameworks. Foster two-way interactions to gauge understanding. Immerse yourself in the learners’ world, test designs early and often in order to gain valuable feedback. By applying these principles, we can create engaging, tailored learning experiences that promote effective knowledge acquisition.

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