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Know Your Learner

The first step to becoming an effective teacher is getting to know your learners. At the superficial level this might include their demographics, reading level or topics they are interested in. However, if you dig a little deeper you will find there are three important aspects to consider. How are they different to you, what is their current level and what do they want?

How are they Different to You?

The Filter of Experience

Your learners see the world in a different way to you. Their past experiences have shaped who they are today, and consequently all learning is seen through a lens of past experience. If something is not understood, learners will create explanations using this lens, irrespective of whether the explanation is correct or not. This difference in experiences can easily lead to misunderstanding and misconceptions between the teacher and learner. Therefore, it is important to take a moment to know who you are teaching and the experiences that have brought them to where they are today.

The Knowledge Gap

Teachers usually know more about a given topic than their students, but just how large is this knowledge gap? It can be hard to remember what it was like not to know. So beware, the gap may be bigger or smaller than you think. If you overestimate learner knowledge, you may provide explanations using unfamiliar concepts and terminology that will only serve to add to the confusion. If you underestimate learner knowledge, you will quickly lose the attention and trust of your students. Therefore, it is important to establish their current level of knowledge about the subject and contrast this with yours.

Information Storage

Finally, when learning new information, we often store it into a ‘closet’ and place the information onto different ‘shelves’ for retrieval. If the closet is well organised, information can easily be retrieved when we need it. As we become more experienced, our closets tend to become increasingly sophisticated and therefore more efficient. Take a moment to consider how your learners have organised their closet and help them improve the structure of their shelves. You may find using a story, providing an analogy or working through problems together will help improve their storage ability.

Take home points:

  • What are your learner’s past experiences?
  • What is your learner’s current level of knowledge? What is the knowledge gap?
  • How is your learner’s closet organised?

Putting this to Use

The simplest way to establish differences between you and your students is to create a bidirectional flow of information. Construct opportunities to see how your learners are interpreting and applying their new knowledge. You can quickly correct misconceptions and reinforce learning by expanding their understanding with tailored explanations or activities.

Once you have understood your learner’s past experiences and their current knowledge level, you should place the subject material into a context they will be able to understand. Use an example which they can relate to as this provides context to help improve both understanding of subject material and also material retention.

Take home points:

  • Place your teaching into a context they will understand.
  • Establish a bidirectional flow of information.

What is their Level?

Learners are not created equal, both in terms of background knowledge and learning ability. Some students will have to make more effort than others and consequently a single learning design will not accommodate all students. Consider how steep the learning curve will be. This is a product of learner’s knowledge level and the complexity of the content. For simplicity, you can divide your learners into three categories and tailor their teaching accordingly.




Provide a careful introduction to the subject and employ a structured learning experience with clear and achievable goals. You will need to offer close guidance with an abundance of coaching and feedback. You might consider reducing complexity in the environment by presenting only essential information or employing walkthroughs before introducing more complex examples. Provide opportunities for students to increase their self-confidence while slowly increasing task difficulty. Together, these actions scaffold lessons and help reduce the learning curve gradient so beginners can complete tasks they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.
Provide opportunities to practice with new concepts and offer advanced topic information. Shape learners’ existing behaviours through coaching and provide some autonomy for their own development.
Provide full autonomy to learners and act as a resource for them to consult. Leverage their expertise to direct the teaching and provide resources which they can choose to use (i.e. pull vs. push). Ask them if they need anything, and then get out of their way! You may need to provide information on specific challenges, help them measure progress and offer expert coaching.

What do they Want?

Let’s quickly touch on motivation. There is a longer article on motivation in our leadership section, but in summary, it can be seen as a spectrum with intrinsic motivation at one end and extrinsic motivation at the other. The type of motivation a learner has will depend upon their specific circumstances. How you manage students will vary depending upon their motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation
If your learners are intrinsically motivated, they are usually trying to solve a problem for its own sake, or they have a specific problem to solve. Give them time to work on their own problems and use their enthusiasm to teach the other students around them.
Extrinsic Motivation
If your learners are extrinsically motivated, they are usually attending due to external rewards or punishments. Ask them lots of questions and get them to figure out their own intrinsic motivators. Have them tell you why it is important for them to be there. Try using interesting hypothetical problems and avoid extensive theory or background.

The Seven Types of Student

Now you have considered what type of motivation your learners have; you can further categorise them into one of seven types as identified by Julie Dirksen in her book ‘Design for how people learn’. We are all a “What can I get from this?” learner, but we may also belong to different categories depending upon the subject being taught.

“Just tell me what I need to learn”

Wants a list of what to do and a quick run through. They are on a schedule and not interested in anecdotes.

“This is cool”

Highly motivated, incredibly curious and absolutely interested in anecdotes.

“I need to solve a problem”

Extremely motivated learner who is not interested in the back story and will learn by trial and error.

“This is a required course”

The subject material may not be useful and the student may need convincing of its utility. They are motivated by other factors like grades or completion.

“Ooh, shiny!”

Highly distractable with a short attention span. They will switch focus a lot and are generally poor at multitasking (despite what they may think).

“I fear change”

Needs convincing that the change is useful and requires time to acclimatise with opportunities for safe practice.

“I know all of this already”

No need for the backstory or beginner material. They quickly understand material and get a lot of the subtleties.

Engage your Learners

Finally, your learners do not want to feel stupid. Engage your learners as you make them feel smart and capable. Leverage what they already know and use this to give them early successes. Create safe spaces to fail and give them control over their learning by letting the choose the pace or order of material. You can also find out what they like. What are their hobbies, what TV do they watch? Do they play games or shop at specific shops? Make your lesson more relatable and engaging with this information.


  • Design for how people Learn; Julie Dirksen