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 to make your teaching accessible and relevant to all your students.

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Student transitions to Higher education

Transition to HE can be challenging for all sorts of reasons. Students starting university this year may find it particularly difficult, since their education has been disrupted during the pandemic.

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

There is more on Transition and induction here.

Useful Resources

Elio Velazquez - An Analysis of the Belonging and Mattering Gap

Briggs, A.R.J. Clark, J. & Hall, I. (2012) 'Building bridges: understanding student transition to university', Quality in Higher Education, 18(1), pp.3-21.doi: 10.1080/13538322.2011.614468

Understanding student approaches to learning

Students will approach learning in different ways, often influenced by their educational background. The ways that students approach learning are not necessarily the most effective strategies.

You can support students to take a metacognitive approach by encouraging them to reflect on how they learn best, and to identify approaches which are useful. You can also help to identify approaches that are not effective, and should be changed or stopped.

Article: Promoting student metacognition

Consider incorporating activities into your teaching 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 engagement

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

Students may have conflicting responsibilities that limit the amount of time and space they have to engage with their course. They will also have varied access to resources to support their learning. These might include, but are not limited to:

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

Signpost students to relevant University services when needed

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). Take time to find out who your learners are, why they are here and what they want to get out of their course. The learning environment can also affect motivation. You can design learning activities, modules and programmes to promote and sustain motivation:

  • Reinforce learning: Provide incentives for learning, for example: grades; instructor feedback; peer feedback; strategic use of comments; and access to technical support if required.
  • Sustain interest: Encourage learners to engage with challenging, urgent topics, arousing curiosity and providing opportunities for creativity, for example by posing open or controversial questions; fostering debate or discussion; or facilitating student-led learning.
  • Encourage 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). Promote self-efficacy 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 peers.
  • Support student well-being: Build an inclusive learning community and ensure 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.
  • Empower students: allowing students to access content in a variety of ways (for example through recordings, slides or text summaries); and set realistic deadlines for tasks to allow for flexible study.

Examples 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 Jamboard 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 big or small, 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). The goals should be within the student’s own control (i.e. process based rather than attainment based). Provide an opportunity to review, reflect and reset goals later in the semester.

References and resources:

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Further information

Links and downloads
Further reading