Who are your learners? Audience analysis is the foundation of good instructional design just as knowing your audience is the foundation of great speeches. It is about getting to know your audience well enough that you can design learning experiences that are a good fit for the learners. Of course, many historic approaches to an audience analysis are more about getting to know a representative group of learners and not getting to know the actual individual learners in a given class or learning context. To do that, we need to start talking and thinking about the learner profiles.
People define “learner profile” differently. Some use it to describe the distinct learning styles of each learner. Others use it to mean a collection of student scores on pre-assessments, intended to identify the knowledge and skill of each learner as it relates to one or more content areas. However, I like to think of a learner profile as a rich description of each learner that allows students to better understand themselves and for teachers to better understand how to teach, nurture, coach, and mentor students. In other words, I define a “learner profile” by what it helps us do.
Without learner profiles, it is easy to design lessons and learning experiences that meet the needs of some students but not others. If we want to embrace the possibility of things like differentiated instruction and personalized learning, learner profiles are a great place to start. They give us the background knowledge necessary to personalize and differentiate in meaningful and effective ways.
What should go into a learner profile? I suggest that a helpful way to answer that question is to write out a list of things that would be helpful to know about learners.
- How do they think they learn best?
- How do they actually learn best?
- Does the best way to learn for them vary from one content area to another?
- What is their level of motivation and interest in the different subjects?
- What is their background knowledge and skill regarding the pertinent content areas?
- If they struggle with or dislike a content area, why? Is the struggle tied to lack of confidence, fear of failure?
- Do they have any gaps in one or a few skills in the content area that is holding them back with the rest?
- What are their hobbies, interests, and passions?
- What are they really get at doing?
- What sort of support to they have beyond school?
- What level of readiness do they have for self-directed learning?
- What sort of study skills do they have or lack?
- What is their reading level and reading interest level?
- What is their level of confidence and competence in “academic discourse”, the norms of a school culture?
- What sort of joys, fears, and anxieties impact their learning (things like test anxiety)?
- What goals or aspirations do they have in life?
- What types of intelligences seem to be the strongest for them?
There are plenty of other questions that you might want to add to the list. The next step is to figure out the best way to get this information. For that, there are plenty of options.
- Create simple questionnaires and surveys. See several simple examples at the end of this document.
- Conduct small group and individual interviews.
- Use existing inventories (reading, signature strengths, personality, multiple intelligence, study skills, self-directed learning readiness, etc.).
- Gather data from existing records (report cards, standardized tests, notes on file, etc.)
- Interview parents, previous teachers, and others who have worked with the student.
- Create short exercises where you can observe students at work. Debrief them and take careful notes.
- Use adaptive learning software and related resources that collect ongoing formative data about student strengths, challenges, and progress.
- Use research that indicates common traits of learners from a given age demographic as well, but test it with the rest of the profile.
This is not a short or simple task, but the benefits of having this rich description of each learner are countless. They help teachers develop a more personalized approach to teaching and learning while also being more data driven…driven by both qualitative and quantitative about each student.
- Do you believe that it is more important for leaners to adjust to your style, preferences, believes and convictions; or for your class to adjust to the style, preferences, beliefs and convictions of each learner?
- Who are the winners in your class right now…the ones who tend to do really well?
- Who are the losers in your class right now…the ones who tend to not do well?
- What can you do to increase the number of winners in your classes? How might a learner profile help with this?
- What do you know (not just suspect or believe, but know) about yourself as a learner? Use the list of questions above as a guide and consider picking a specific domain or discipline to focus upon as you answer this question.
- Review the list of learner profile questions above. How much do you currently know about your past or present learners? How did you learn what you did about them?
- Are there some students that you know better than others? Why?
- If you were given a complete learner profile that answers the questions above, how would you use it to adjust your teaching?