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Learner Personas

In traditional classes, especially in larger lecture settings, we oftentimes do not have time to understand the people that are in front of us, our learners. The smaller group settings allow more of that, but the economic pressures do not always allow that luxury.
At the same time, ask yourself, even in smaller settings, how do you know your learners?

Lesson goals and objectives

This module will:

  • Help you understand your learners better by using proven concept from User Experience field, “user persona”, or in our case, “learner persona”.

How Does It Support Learning

Simple. When we understand who our learners are, what is their world, we can design learning that taps their internal motivation.

Examples

  • Let me share a story. Author of this module is in the adult teaching profession for 20 years now (yes, he started when he was very young). After teaching on multiple levels, from vocational to university, in national language and in English, local students and foreign students, more theoretical and more applied courses, I got some comfort level with the process. I felt I know what the students will react to, how to design a class that is enjoyable for me and the students. I interacted with the students before and after the class, guiding them through thesis process or writing recommendations for further study. In short, the author was in contact with students for decades. Yet after reading on User Experience topics I realized I do not really know the students well.
  • Similarly regularly I have heard complaints of colleagues about students. These reportedly are not as motivated, do not work so hard, have shorter attention span and so on. On one hand this resonated with me (why can’t they be more like me?), on the other it felt like complaints that we know from recorded history (see https://www.historyhustle.com/2500-years-of-people-complaining-about-the-younger-generation/ for an example). A useful insight for me was that these students are indeed different from me and my generation. Now the schools accept far larger proportion of the age cohort (in the massification of education). So possibly I am not seeing the best students anymore (as they go to best ranked schools overseas). Many of the students I am teaching now would (in previous decades) not go to university at all. I realized I need to use different techniques and approaches to understand them and to make my teaching speak to them.
  • What examples are you using in your class? As the age gap between me and my students grows, the culture references get dated. Events that formed me (e.g. Cold war, the 2 superpowers) will feel as ancient as WWII felt to me. In some courses it – on the surface does not matter – you can teach STEM fields without referring to current culture – but your students will understand better if the examples resonate with them. When you refer to Beverly Hills 90210, your students have possibly seen only the reboot. When you refer to “Dirty Dancing”, it is a movie with actors from another era possibly as current as “Singin’ in the Rain” used to be for you (do not get me wrong, I enjoyed all of these examples at some moment). “Simpsons” might work as they seem to never end. While there is a fine line between embarrassing yourself (there are number of movies around the topic of older people pretending to be younger) and being relevant, you can expose yourself to what students are listening to. Ask them for movie recommendations (maybe you discover you watch the same TV shows on Netflix or Amazon). So in my classes I play music during the breaks; typically music from different cultures exposing the students to novelty. At some moment I suggest that they can take over. Similarly I ask them for movie recommendations (recommended TV show “Paatal Lok” was a gem indeed with multiple awards that I would have missed otherwise).

Top Tips

  • You can use inspiration from “user personas”, a well established concept from the field of user research/user experience.
  • Learner personas should be based on your research into real people, your learners. Use quotes. Use interviews, observations, take notes.
  • Observe your learners when learning. Go sit in a class of a colleague.
  • Sit in the back of the class. What can your learners see, hear? What are they doing during class?
  • Who are your learners outside class? What are their passions, what drives them?
  • Ask them to share what they are listening to, watching. Ask students to show their favourite songs during class break.

Resources