How to know your learners better than they know themselves

We all know it’s vital to keep the learner at the centre of any learning solution. But, more often than not, this still seems to be ignored. Sidestepping this challenge of really getting to know your learners and putting them at the heart of the learning prevents us from understanding their intrinsic motivations – and from delivering true behavioural change.

However, like most worthwhile challenges, putting the learner first isn’t easy. Everyone comes with their own idea about what they think a person’s job entails, what priorities they might have and what they truly need to do their job better. Add to these preconceptions those of the project sponsor, the SME, and every other person involved in the project, and you can see why the actual learners’ needs can get left by the wayside. Speaking to learners is essential but getting access to them is, for some reason, like getting access to the Queen!

Even if we did get access to them, would they tell us what they think, or would they tell us what they think their managers/or we would want them to say? According to system justification theory, people hold favourable attitudes about themselves and the overarching social structure which they are obligated to. In this kind of structure, the passive ease of supporting the current status quo is highly favoured when compared to speaking out and acting against the norm. This leads to an environment where alternatives are disparaged.

In large organisations and companies, this means that the majority are motivated to justify the status quo and view it as stable and desirable. It’s not always possible to break through the system-justifying motivation of learners, managers or stakeholders. However, one of the ways that we can do so is to speak to their individual needs, not just the needs of the organisation.

So, how can we really get to know our learners to design learning that’s centred around them? Can we ever fully grasp the needs of every individual?

Well, there’s a couple of things we can do to get to know learners better than they know themselves, and to use that information to craft digital experiences that deliver lasting behavioural change.

  1. Start with the right questions

    When I began training to become a classroom teacher, the very first thing I learnt was to ask myself: “who are the learners and what do they bring with them to my classroom?” Getting to know your class is possibly one of the most important considerations for any educator, and every lesson plan, scheme of work, and lesson I taught was informed by my relationship with that class.

    Similarly, with digital learning, it’s vital that we get to know our audience and consider what they already do in the workplace before we begin to design a course. What prior skills and experience do they already bring to the table? What expectations do they have of learning? How motivated are they to progress? Undoubtedly, there will be more that you need to know, but the questions themselves depend on your audience.

    This isn’t a “nice-to-have” activity. Research by Clark and Mayer into the effectiveness of elearning experiences has pointed out that there is frequently a disparity between what is being delivered and what is being perceived by the learner. Additionally, there is often a misalignment between the expectations of the learner and their actual learning experiences. These discrepancies are most apparent in mindless “click-next” learning, the type that leads to demotivated learners who quit courses. To create something meaningful, it’s vital to ask questions up front to assess learners’ needs, and design learning that keeps people motivated and engaged.

    But, asking the right questions means not only what you ask, but how you ask it. “Town hall” focus groups are an effective medium to ask learners questions because they provides an interactive group setting where people feel free to talk, as well as taking people away from their desk and immediate work space. In an award-nominated people management course we recently created, as part of the initial consultancy phase we conducted some of these sessions with representatives from across the organisation. Asking questions about learner’s expectations, reservations, hopes, and fears for their own learning and development in an open setting allowed us to gain an accurate portrait of the international user base. From there, it’s a lot easier to create emotional buy-in and relevant and personal learning.

    You can’t just ask questions of the learners themselves, either. We all make mistakes or confuse what we want with what we need. You need to question the data, interrogate the metrics, and analyse the behaviour of learners in what they do in their roles to inform the experience you are creating.

  2. Create personalised experiences

    Obviously, we don’t have the time or capability to speak to every single individual learner, but we can make learning relevant to their needs through clever course design. We’ve all become consumers of on-demand information, and we expect the same convenience and immediacy from our learning. What’s more, we want learning to be personalised and meaningful. As learning designers, we can achieve this by giving learners the autonomy to devise their own learning journey.

    This isn’t a new concept. In the work of many well-known learning theorists, such as Vygotsky and Bruner, their cognitive theories are largely constructivist, encapsulating the idea that learners should be active constructors of their own learning, rather than passive recipients. Bruner’s scaffolding theory was first introduced in the late 1950s and was heavily influenced by Vygotsky’s concept that the best way to learn is when an expert assists and guides a novice, providing structured support.

    Scaffolding is necessary in classrooms and digital courses alike because the volume and complexity of learning often leaves learners bewildered, intimidated and standing on the threshold, rather than stepping out of their comfort zone to a path of progression. It’s easy to underestimate this problem of liminality for adult learners, the sense of discomfort we feel when we don’t quite understand the rules or context of a new situation – otherwise known as the threshold concept. In these moments, we need someone to lead us. We need a scaffolded, personalised approach to help us cross that threshold.

    To successfully scaffold the learning journey, we need to build on concepts and skills gradually throughout the learning. The end goal is to be able to gradually remove this support when learners become more confident and autonomous. But we can go one step further and give learners the tools to scaffold for themselves! Endowing learners with the means to actively create their own learning path is a powerful thing because it provides scaffolding in a personalised way to promote a deeper level of understanding and adoption of desired behaviours.

    Start with a diagnostic so learners can assess their strengths and weaknesses and choose from modules specific to their needs. Give them a choice, make them feel more trusted and valued. Allow them to learn things they actually need to, instead of being disengaged by a broad range of topics that might not be relevant to them. Even if you have to include something for, say, compliance purposes, you can still give the learner a choice in how it’s delivered.

    Having something to take away from a training session is standard practice, but these are often nothing more than an aide memoire that gets put in a desk drawer and forgotten about. Instead, give learners the chance to put something together themselves. It could be some questions they’d like to ask their colleague in their review meeting, their own list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ put together after each unit, or their own key takeaways at the end of the course. This design leverages what’s known as the IKEA effect, the proven hypothesis that we value things more that we’ve created ourselves.

    How powerful is that effect? Well, in a mental resilience course we made for TfL, we encouraged learners to develop their own resilience “basket” during the course: hints and tips on how they can improve their mental resilience at work and at home, tailored specifically for them, and available as a takeaway guide. This tailored action kit was the key to the course’s success in changing long term behaviours – 76% applied the suggestions and techniques they’d developed in the course, and a year after launch, over 70% of users were still using the tips day-to-day.

  3. Embed assessment into learning

    There are already way too many mediocre click-next-to-continue courses around, boring their audiences to tears. That’s not going to be solved by flashy graphics or turning courses into resources. By getting back to basics and thinking about learning theory, we can apply the pedagogic principles of Assessment for Learning (AFL) in the solutions we create to truly add value and change behaviours.

    The act of being assessed conjures up all sorts of feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. We’re easily reminded of the exam-hall-memory-tests of our school days and switch off. Assessment isn’t a simple or innocent term; it often leads to confusion – or dread. Assessment for learning (AFL), on the other hand, allows the learner to receive feedback whilst still engaged in the learning process.

    Many of us are already including this in our course design, but again, the power of this technique is in the assessment itself. The feedback itself has to be learning – whether the choices made are right or wrong. This both motivates learners to continue and gives them the power to adjust their decision making as the learning is taking place.

    We can go one step further by giving learners a full, easily accessible progress overview. This can be something as simple as a personalised progress page that learners can refer back to, or hot trigger messages built in to the course design that leverage the “endowed progress effect”, a phenomenon that increases motivation as people feel they’re nearing a goal. We can amplify this even further by adding social aspects to our learning, comparative feedback that stokes learners’ intrinsic competitive motivators.

So, though we may not be able to talk to our learners in person, we can still get to know them through asking the right questions. More importantly, by applying some of these ideas suggested above to our learning design, we can really speak to them to allow them to get to know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to change their behaviour for the better.

About the author

Aisling Murphy - Instructional designer
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