Who Are Your Learners?

Photo of a student studying at a deskOn this page we look at who our learners are and offer ideas, practical strategies and signposts to other university support which will help you make your teaching accessible and relevant to all your students.

When preparing for teaching next academic year it is important to consider the student perspective. This resource from the FutureLearn course “How to Teach Online,” is useful in identifying the challenges your students might face in accessing the work so that you can address these in the design and delivery of your teaching.

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Student transitions to Higher Education

The transition to HE can be challenging for all sorts of reasons, but transitioning remotely to the University's learning environment poses a number of additional challenges:

  • Accessing key course information: the amount of information to take in at the start of a university course can be overwhelming at the best of times. Ensuring that key information, processes, dates and requirements are organised together in an easily accessible way will help students to stay on top of their admin. A transitions timeline setting out what will happen when can be a helpful way to map this out visually for students.
  • Meeting tutors and course mates: Getting to know staff and other students is an important first step towards feeling like part of a learning cohort. Complementing initial Google Meet meetings with tutors conducting small group meetings in tutor groups can help to widen student networks. Students may also wish to consider using social media tools like Facebook or WhatsApp to stay connected to one another.

As teachers we can support the development of a sense of belonging and ease the transition to HE by building an online community with your learners.

Understanding student approaches to learning

Students will approach learning in different ways, often influenced by their educational background and what they are familiar with. This does not always mean they are the most effective strategies, so a key part of teaching is supporting students to take a metacognitive approach by encouraging them to reflect on how they learn best, and to identify approaches which are useful. Equally, teachers can help to identify approaches that are not effective, and should be changed or stopped.

To support students in this, teachers can consider incorporating activities into their teaching, either synchronously or asynchronously to promote metacognition. For example:

  • Encourage students to keep a learning journal.
  • Ask students to submit their answers to reflective questions about how they approached tasks which can then be shared and compared with others.
  • Ask students what they found most difficult/ least useful in the session and why.
  • Get students to identify how the skills from the given task can be applied in different contexts.
  • Vary the activities to suit different learning preferences.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share strategies they have identified as being helpful in their learning.

When introducing tasks consider:

  • Explaining or having a discussion about the purpose of the task. How will it benefit students? What does it link to? Will it be useful for assessment or employability?
  • Model the activity first. This is done as a matter of course in practical subjects. Demonstrations are done first and then students imitate in the first step to mastery. This technique can also be for theory. Demonstrate how to analyse a text. Talk the students through what you are doing as you analyse a section and then ask them to do the same. Bloom’s Psychomotor Domain is helpful in understanding the route to mastery of practical skills.
  • Scaffolding questions and activities. Think about the stepping stones the students need to be able to access the task. Often we lose students when we jump too quickly between levels of difficulty. The scaffold could take the form of a graphic organiser, sentence starters, time to discuss with another person. These sorts of tasks allow the students to organise and clarify their thoughts and understanding before you introduce new material.
  • Using reading prompts to help them engage with pre reading tasks and support them to access and engage with academic texts.
  • Making your expectations clear. Give them timings and an idea of what you are expecting them to produce. If it is a discussion, do they need to reach a consensus? Will they have to feed back to the rest of the group? What do they need to do in order to be successful?

Managing challenges to student learning and engagement

The blended approach to learning and teaching has the potential to introduce some challenges for our learners that may not ordinarily affect our face to face courses.

Specifically, access to technology, geographical location, personal circumstances and varying levels of digital literacy will affect learners in different ways.


Many of us will have experienced poor internet connections at some point, particularly when using residential networks that are shared by a number of people in the household.

Learners might be accessing your course from across the world, and the quality, and stability of their internet access will vary. Try to use a mix of asynchronous learning activities that won’t require much bandwidth, such as discussion boards, text based resources and short videos.

High bandwidth activities, such as synchronous Blackboard Collaborate sessions may be challenging for some students to fully participate in. Lower - tech methods can be used by students to participate in Collaborate sessions where interest access is limited, such as dialling in via a telephone. It is important to consider the mix of learning activities when designing your course to ensure you are not excluding learners.


Learners might be participating in your course from a variety of geographical locations and time zones. Whilst this can provide a great opportunity to allow different viewpoints, traditions and lived experiences to be shared by students, it can present a real challenge in scheduling synchronous activities.

Be mindful of the difference in time zones, particularly with regards to office hours or consultation sessions, are they at a reasonable time for your learners?

Learners based in China are ordinarily unable to access certain web based resources, such as the Google suite (Google Drive, YouTube, Google Docs etc) western news media sites and Dropbox, amongst others. Take care to avoid using these resources for students based in China. Use Kaltura to deliver media content in Blackboard, as this is accessible within China.

Digital Capabilities & Employability

Learners come to university with differing levels of digital literacy - the 'capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society.'

Learners will be exposed to a wide variety of digital services and tools throughout their programme of study, and it is important to ensure effective support mechanisms are in place. Using institutionally supported tools will enable staff and students to access central support from the Digital Learning Team, and resources such as LinkedIn learning are available to all. A study from the Sociological Department has found that students appreciate the value of increasing their digital literacy, and would like this to be signposted to them in their programmes.

Now more than ever, learners will have to respond with agility over their lifetimes to shifting labour market requirements and fast-changing developments in technology. Find out how institutions have embedded digital capabilities into programmes.

Personal Circumstances

Learners may have conflicting responsibilities that limit the amount of time and space they have to engage with their course. These are likely to be amplified by the move to blended learning. These might include, but are not limited to:

  • Caring responsibilities
  • Lack of suitable IT hardware
  • Lack of a quiet study space
  • Health or accessibility issues

Staff should be aware of, and signpost relevant University services to support learners.

Student motivation

Student motivation for learning is likely to be shaped by a range of background characteristics (including cultural background, age, gender, confidence and familiarity with the style of learning). Finding out more about who your learners are (see above), why they are here and what they want to get out of their course will help to anticipate potential challenges that they may face in the online learning environment.

Learner motivation is also shaped by the learning environment itself, and the design of learning activities, modules and programmes can help to promote and sustain motivation. Important things to consider include:

  • Reinforcement of learning: Providing incentives for learning, for example: grades; instructor feedback; peer feedback; strategic use of comments; and access to technical support if required.
  • Sustaining interest: Encouraging learners to engage with challenging, urgent topics, arousing curiosity and providing opportunities for creativity, for example by posing open or controversial questions; fostering synchronous or asynchronous debate or discussion; or facilitating student-led learning.
  • Encouraging self-efficacy: Students who feel confident in their ability to meet the demands of a learning activity tend to persist with and perform better at that activity than those who do not (Pintrich and De Groot, 1990; Salili et al., 2001). Self-efficacy in an online learning environment can be influenced by providing clear guidance and support on technical aspects of the course; embedding skills development into teaching; and providing an accessible way to ask questions of tutors and/or peers.
  • Supporting student well-being: Building an inclusive learning community and ensuring that students are engaging positively with the course, for example by facilitating peer group interactions; developing mechanisms to monitor student engagement; and following up with students who are not engaging.

Empowering students

Allowing student agency in their learning by providing a blend of synchronous and asynchronous content; allowing students to access content in a variety of ways (for example through recordings, slides or text summaries); by setting realistic deadlines for tasks and activities to allow for flexible study.

Example of learning activities:

  • Hopes and Fears: provide an anonymous forum for students to share their hopes and fears for the course. Consider using a tool like Padlet or Jamboards to allow for anonymous contributions, but note that the activity will require moderation. Are there any key themes emerging from the exercise? These common themes should allow students to recognise that they are not alone in their expectations and will provide valuable insight to the tutor to help address concerns.
  • Extrinsic or Intrinsic?: Ask students what is motivating them on their course. Motivators can be as big or small as students feel appropriate, from a good career in the future to an evening off at the end of the week. Which motivators are extrinsic and which are intrinsic? Which do students feel are most important and why? Intrinsic motivators can help to sustain overall levels of engagement with a course (for example through a genuine interest in a topic, desire to make a difference, or a passion for learning), while extrinsic motivators can provide a powerful incentive or nudge factor to complete a specific activity (for example a cup of tea and a biscuit, an evening on Netflix, a weekend off).
  • Goal setting: Once students have had a chance to settle into their course, ask them to set one or more SMART goals for the semester (for more info see the Study Skills Online Independent Study pages here). Students should ensure that their goals are within their own control (i.e. process based rather than attainment based) and an opportunity to review, reflect and reset goals should be built in later in the semester.
Student groups who may be particularly affected by moving to digital learning

International Students

Key issues affecting International Students:

  • Accessibility of learning materials, teaching staff and other students:
    • Different time zones.
    • Availability of resources, e.g. Google and Youtube not available in China.
  • Impact of changes to assessment, course design, resources on visas and immigration status:
    • e.g extensions to visas for work that can’t be done remotely.
  • Wellbeing:
    • Harassment and hate crime.
    • Isolation from student community if returned home, isolation from family/friends if stayed in UK.
    • Financial hardship (e.g. Tier 4 and short term students cannot access some benefits).
  • Prospective International Students:
    • English language testing availability.

Ideas for how to help with the above:

  • Make resources accessible online use Bb equivalents for google/YouTube resources (e.g. a wiki instead of shared doc) if necessary.
  • Promote useful campaigns (e.g. the Global Hangouts, #WeAreTogether).
  • Flexible contact hours with teaching staff.
  • Coordinating group work.
  • Accessible information about assessment.

Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs)

What are specific learning difficulties?

Key issues affecting Students with Specific Learning Difficulties

Students will take longer to process large amounts of text. They may also struggle to manage their time.

Impact of changing to digital teaching

Students with SpLD may find it challenging to follow long chat trails whilst a presentation is being given at the same time.
They might lack confidence in contributing to written work or chat panels.

Strategies to support students with specific learning difficulties

Student Support Services have produced suggestions of how to adapt your teaching to make it more accessible to students with SpLDs.

The Digital Learning Team has produced guidance on using Blackboard Ally which checks your slides and digital content to make sure it is accessible.

University support available:

SpLD Awareness and Inclusion Training: In the Know (INK).

Autistic students

What is autism?

Autism and Asperger Syndrome fall under the DSM-V definition Autism Spectrum Condition. It is defined as a developmental disability which can include (but is not limited to):

  • Sensory differences (hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity or both).
  • Communication differences.
  • Preference for routines.
  • Information processing differences.

National Autistic Society: What is autism?

Key issues affecting autistic students

  • The change in the learning environment has been sudden and dramatic. Some autistic people find changes in routine and expectations stressful, sometimes catastrophically.
  • Communication differences may be exacerbated in virtual learning environments (e.g. a virtual seminar).
  • Autistic students may find that their home environment is much easier to control and therefore sensory differences may not be as much of an issue. However, their home environment may be much harder to control, especially if their parents, siblings, etc, are also at home - in which case sensory differences might be more of an issue.
  • The rapidly changing situation and general sense of uncertainty in the wider world may be causing significant anxiety.

What can teachers do?

  • To help to alleviate uncertainty, provide information. An autistic student may want to create detailed plans, especially in the current uncertain situation - they will need information to do this effectively. However, make sure that you:
    • are consistent (avoid contradictory information).
    • give reasons/justifications for your decisions.
    • Give clear guidelines and expectations for participating in virtual classrooms/seminars. For example, is it ok to use the chat option or have your camera off? What should students do if they have a question? Is it ok if you don’t say anything at all?
    • Check in with autistic students and specifically ask if they need any help or support - autistic students may find it more difficult to request help.
  • Make sure your learning materials are accessible:
    • Use asynchronous learning where possible to allow students to access information at their own pace and at a time they choose.
    • Make sure group work is properly organised, group roles are clearly defined, etc.
    • Make sure to have learning materials and information available in a range of formats:
      • Can the information be represented visually?
      • Would a simple explainer video help?
    • Allow alternative means of assessment, such as an audio recording instead of an essay.
    • Provide feedback in an alternative format, such as a screencast.

Support available at the University

The Disability and Dyslexia Support Service

Students with caring responsibilities

Who is a student carer?

Students may have caregiving responsibilities for children, other family members, a partner or friend with a disability, medical condition, mental health difficulty or drug or alcohol dependency. These responsibilities may place additional pressure on a student to balance their time and meet the academic challenges of a course.

Key issues affecting students with caring responsibilities

  • Timetabling of online classes: students may need extra flexibility to manage their workload around their additional responsibilities.
  • Finding a suitable workspace free from interruptions may prove challenging.
  • Unexpected situations may arise which mean that students are unable to meet deadlines or need to take a period of time out from their study.
  • Availability to participate in group work activities with other students outside of their normal timetabled classes.
  • Difficulties with their own physical or mental health as a result of the pressures of care-giving responsibilities.
  • Students are under no obligation to disclose to the university and in some cases may not recognise that it can be helpful to do so.

What can teachers do?

  • Encourage students to disclose caring responsibilities to their departments and in particular to personal tutors.
  • Put in place a learning support plan together with the student including reasonable adjustments if required.
  • Nominate a member of staff to be the main departmental contact for students with caring responsibilities.
  • Provide recordings and asynchronous content where possible to ensure that students can access their learning flexibly and catch up on missed content.
  • Monitor engagement levels and check in with students who are not engaging with course content to make sure that they are staying on top of things.
  • Allowing greater flexibility with deadlines or providing extensions and agreeing leaves of absence where appropriate.

Support available at the University

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Further information

Further reading