Designing and teaching an online course for students of any age is an exciting endeavor. While you may not meet the students in person, there are three fairly simple steps you can take to quickly begin to learn about the nuances of each student, allowing you to craft a personalized learning experience.
Tip 1: Create Community Early
Getting to know your online students begins before the class starts. About a week before the semester begins, send a welcome message to your students. Briefly orient them to the class and include a link to a survey that aims to dig deeper into their reasons for taking the course, even if it’s a required course. To help you begin to build your relationship with each student, you might ask:
Your questions can also be specific to your course topic and degree field. When possible, include questions that can be answered as multiple choice/answer instead of short answer. Limit your survey to three short answer questions to avoid students giving up on it. Use the information you collect in your survey and to group students for future coursework.
In the first week of class, have the students create video introductions answering some of the pre-course survey questions. Creating your own video to model this process sets the tone and expectations. There will be some students who want to watch every video posted, which is fine, but many students won’t have time to watch them all. Use the information you collected from your pre-course survey to design groups of 3-4 students. Have them watch just those videos and engage in a conversation with a small group of peers. To help facilitate these conversations, prepare guided questions to get the conversation started:
Often our students feel concerned about putting their thoughts on display in a public space. These guided conversation starters can help normalize the experience and get the ball rolling.
Tip 2: Choose Your Own Adventure
Because we don’t know what skills our students will bring to the table, what experiences they will share to help us learn from new perspectives, or what goals they hope to reach as a result of taking the course, we need to offer flexibility in the learning path. In our planning, we can prepare for a variety of experiences to exist within the same course. Yes, the course must address the same learning objectives for all students, but the way each student masters those objectives can look quite different. Designing opportunities for students to choose their own course adventure allows them to personalize the experience so they gain the most from it.
Creating a playlist provides options for learning experiences and demonstrating mastery of new skills. Playlists allow each student to take a different path through the course, all meeting at the same objectives in the end. You might consider reading more about it in this post from Education Elements.
This is an example of a playlist in a graduate class that serves learners from many different environments. This Google Document is 4 pages long. It’s organized in general categories that align with the needs of the students in the course. Students are asked to select resources from the categories that align with their specific needs in helping them reach their assignment and course goals.
Tip 3: Personalized Feedback
Perhaps the most significant way we can personalize the course experience is to engage with students through feedback. Students need feedback before they proceed to the next step of an assignment or a course project to move in the correct direction, so timeliness is important.
Use what you know about the student from prior interactions and the pre-course survey to personalize your feedback. This private exchange centered on the ways a student chooses to showcase his/her knowledge and skill development allows you opportunities to guide the student to stronger understandings of the concepts, draw connections between prior learning and future learning, and create connections to real-world learning opportunities that would interest the student.
In this image, we can see how personalized feedback adds depth to the student’s learning experience. In this case, the journalism student was asked to look at a website and select a school newspaper to review. She was able to find the paper for her school, which allowed the teacher and the student to then carry on a conversation about that particular source and how it connected with the student and her growing knowledge.
The conversations extends beyond what appears in this screenshot.
Use tools you have available in your LMS or other course systems to provide timely, specific, detailed feedback to help students master the skills and move forward with confidence. The more engaged you become with the student, the more engaged the student will become with the course materials.
Moving through your course intentionally allows you to connect with students, customize their experience, and guide them through their growth so no two students will have the same journey. Yes, personalizing the course experience for our students does require effort and sustained diligence, but the gains are worth it.
Engaging adult learners may require re-thinking your perspective of the learning itself. Is the content you want to explore relevant and purposeful for the adult learner? The third and fourth principles of adult learning may illuminate how to more easily and effectively engage these learners. Let’s review.
Adult learners are practical; that is, they want to learn that which is immediately relevant and applicable to their personal or professional life. “Since adults are looking for practical learning, content should focus on issues related to their work or personal life.” (Knowles, 1984) What this means in a nutshell is if adult learners aren’t able to connect the material being taught to a real-life situation, or how the material might benefit them in the real world, they may not be open to learning it.
Think about this for a moment. Do you remember ever sitting through a class on X, wondering how on earth you might use this information in the future, or how it could possibly be helpful to you at any point? I remember feeling that way about Calculus (no offense to the math folks among readers) when I took it 30 or so years ago, and to this day, fail to see any relevance between the subject and my life or work. This might explain why I barely passed with a C-minus: I couldn’t see the relevance. If your audience can’t make a meaningful connection between the subject and their work, they will be largely uninterested in the presentation.
Similarly, adults learn best when they are focused on problem-solving instead of memorizing content. “Instruction should be task-oriented instead of promoting memorization — learning activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed by the others.” (Knowles, 1984)
Again using my Calculus example: If the professor had applied this principle, would I remember any of it? If we had been given real-life non-math problems to solve, perhaps I’d still recall something today. Admittedly, since “Calculus is now the basic entry point for anyone wishing to study physics, chemistry, biology, economics, finance, or actuarial science,” (Berggren, n.d.) and I ended up studying social sciences, there would be few logical applications of it to my work discipline…but the point is, I don’t remember it because I didn’t use it to solve any real-world problems. That is the essence of Knowles’ fourth principle.
Relevance is subjective: What is meaningful to you may not be to me, and vice-versa. Yet establishing relevance is one of the most important means of motivating adult learning. In a study at three universities in Hong Kong, Kember et al (2008) noted the following four methods for creating relevance, as cited by students:
In a course that I teach, students complete formative assignments in which they are provided a scenario and asked to answer four questions about the scenario based on what they’re learned during the current and previous modules. This goes beyond simply discussing and relating how theory can be applied in practice to actually applying the theory/subject matter to a real-world situation. The final project also involves applying the entire semester’s worth of learning to a personal circumstance they’ve identified. In the same course, I’ve found TED Talks and podcasts to be excellent sources of the “current issues and events” Kember refers to.
Connecting relevance and problem-solving isn’t a big stretch. If adults have a personal or professional “problem” to which they can apply their learning, that learning becomes immediately relevant – as in the case of my students’ final project. When designing instruction for adults, consider creating “…activities that allow adult learners to delve into specific tasks, such as simulations, that enable them to store the information in their long term memory through repetition and experience.” (Pappas, 2014)
Another example of instruction as problem-solving comes from Pine Technical College in Minnesota. There, medical students play a reality-based game in which they encounter a variety of simulated but authentic situations that emphasize skill development (such as dealing with death and sickness, how to talk to patients, and how to engage family members). Students are more likely to develop new skills if they can immediately apply what they’ve learned in practice situations. (Digital Promise, n.d.)
In summary, adults learn best if the material is relevant to them, and helps them to solve a problem of some sort. As you prepare to work with adults:
If not, consider slight shifts to reframe your delivery to enhance engagement and motivate those you are working with.
Digital Promise. (n.d.). Designing technology for adult learners: Applying adult learning theory. Retrieved from http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/designing-for-adult-learners.pdf
Kember, D., Ho, A., and Hong, C. (2008). The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787408095849
Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.
Pappas, C. (15 August 2014). 9 tips to apply adult learning theory to eLearning. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/9-tips-apply-adult-learning-theory-to-elearning
As a school librarian, this is a question I ask my students on a regular basis. Last year, we collected our K-5 students’ wonders and posted them in the library on a large sheet of blue paper.
Slowly, our collections of wonders grew:
I wonder what my hamster does at night?
I wonder if trees can touch each other?
I wonder if I will get a dog?
I wonder if all cephalopods have three hearts?
I wonder who the fastest pitcher is?
I wonder what I will look like when I am older?
Until the wall was wonder-full.
People think that being a librarian is about books. People think that being a modern librarian is about technology. These are just tools and vessels for what libraries are really about: wonder. Wonder in the sense of curiosity, of course, but also in the sense of magic or delight. The library should be the place in the school where students can come to find answers to their questions, to be awed by new ideas or stories, and to share their own discoveries.
To encourage this, we provide resources, tools, and experiences. At Dyer Elementary, where I work, we are lucky to have a makerspace attached to our library. The two spaces together form our Learning Commons. Students find books for pleasure and books for school. Instead of the dreaded find-and-regurgitate projects which are no fun for teachers and even less fun for kids, our students are encouraged to ask their own questions about topics and find the answers through guided use of library resources. For this reason, I now know how and why clown fish change gender, how to make squishies, and why the Red Sox were able to come back and win the 2004 World Series. My students wondered, asked, discovered, and taught.
Students also build in our learning commons. During Tinker Time they may try out new apps, build instruments out of found objects, experiment with art techniques, or build a life-sized car out of cardboard. In class sessions, we follow the design process to create inventions that stop hurricane force winds, bring clean water to communities, or respond to the problems of characters in books.
We are always learning and growing together. That is the power of wonder.
Librarians are teachers, of course, but we are also program managers, instructional partners, information specialists, and advocates and leaders. Wonder takes center stage in these roles, too.
The new AASL standards highlight four domains for learners, librarians, and library programs: Think, Create, Share, Grow. As school librarians, we administer and organize our libraries so as to facilitate these domains, as well as the AASL standards shared foundations: Inquire, Include, Collaborate, Curate, Explore, Engage. From the physical set up of the library, to the collection we develop, to the policies we put in place we are working to make the library a place for learners to grow.
As instructional partners, we help classroom teacher facilitate lessons that harness the power of wonder by advocating for student voice and choice. We plan collaboratively and share resources with teachers.
As leaders and advocates we help to shape the academic program of the school. As one of the few teachers in the building with a view of what goes on in every classroom, we are able to make connections between teachers, students, and administrators. These connections are what bring learning to the next level — the wonder level.
Maine students, faculty, and staff are not lacking in wonder. What Maine is lacking is certified school librarians. If you want to learn more about beginning the journey toward this wonderful new career (puns are optional), please send me a message or comment here. You can also learn more about our Spring 2019 we course EDT 515 Dynamic PK-12 Library Management through the collaborative Masters in Instructional Technology program. You can see the full course description on our course listing page (link out to And for more information or to register, please contact us. This course has been approved by the Maine Department of Education for the 071 endorsement
Let’s continue our investigation of the principles of adult learning to see if we can formulate some more strategies that you can use to improve your instruction with adults. In this post, we’ll examine the second principle of adult learning theory. To review:
The second principle of andragogy proposes “Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.” (Knowles, 1984) Essentially…because adults have lived longer, they have a greater body of knowledge, wisdom, or practice to draw from when faced with the prospect of learning something new.
Adults’ prior experience will be as varied as the learners themselves: “…in any group of adults there is a wide range of individual differences regarding background, learning styles, motivation, needs, interests and goals. Also, adults tend to develop mental habits, biases and assumptions that usually make them resistant to new ideas and alternative methods of learning.” (Palis & Quiros, 2014) This combination of previous knowledge, mistakes, and cognitive and emotional processes becomes an ever-expanding resource for learning, and the wide variety is therefore a critical consideration in designing instruction for adult learners: one learner may be very well-versed in the use of a computer and the Internet, whereas another may know only how to turn it on to navigate to an e-mail application.
So for adult learners – all learners, really – experience and mistakes made must be recognized and respected as the groundwork in which all learning is and continues to be rooted. Everything we’ve done, and at times done incorrectly thus far has taught us something: from getting dressed by mis-buttoning a shirt, to proper food handling and cooking after becoming ill, to providing incorrect answers on an exam.
Give adult learners the opportunity to not only apply their experience, but more importantly, to learn from mistakes they might make during that application. When designing instruction, consider the wide range of varied backgrounds among your learners; materials and activities should be general enough to appeal to many different levels or types of experience with the subject matter, while still specific enough to achieve the desired outcome.
“What matters most in regards to adult education isn’t the end result, but the…experience that is gathered through instruction and activities…projects and exercises that encourage adult learners to go out and explore the subject matter [allow them to] learn from their errors and master their skills sets through first-hand experience…” (Pappas, 2014) Examples of these types of projects and exercises include
To summarize, adults learn best if instruction recognizes the prior experience, and especially mistakes they bring to the table. What challenges do you face in your less-than-successful professional development attempts? Do you assume that like children, the adults with whom you’re working all have the same limited amount of experience with or prior knowledge of the content? This can leave them feeling like you are condescending, disrespectful, or perhaps just ignorant of their backgrounds. Understanding the importance of experience and mistakes and designing learning activities that leverage them can help you to establish credibility with your audience and more effectively accomplish the goals of the session.
Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.
Palis, A. and Quiros, P. (2014). Adult learning principles and presentation pearls. Middle East African Journal of Ophthalmology, 21(2): 114–122. doi:10.4103/0974-9233.129748.
Pappas, C. (2014). 9 tips to apply adult learning theory to elearning. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/9-tips-apply-adult-learning-theory-to-elearning
There are several principles of adult learning. Let’s explore the first principle of adult learning and see if we can come up with a couple of strategies that could make things easier and more effective in those training sessions. To review:
The first principle of Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory states that adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. Adult learners “…need to have a hand in the design and development of their own learning experience” (Pappas, 2014) and learn best when “They have some input into what, why, and how they learn.” (Ronkowitz, n.d.)
What does this mean for an instructor or designer of instruction?
We involve them by allowing and assisting them to “…set and achieve goals and guide them in choosing the subjects and courses needed to fulfill these goals.” (Miroballi, 2010). As instructors, we can engage our students by shifting our role away from the traditional pedagogical approach of lecturer to a captive audience to one of facilitator or learning colleague. As such, we should actively solicit frequent feedback from our adult learners in order to design learning experiences that are based on their needs and wants and help you to improve your course or program. This mutual planning process supports the idea that adults are self-directed, and as Knowles suggested, “‘One of the basic findings of applied behavioral science research is that people tend to feel committed to a decision or activity in direct proportion to their participation in or influence on its planning and decision-making.’” (Lubin, 2013)
There are ways to acquire learners’ input aside from the traditional course evaluation, which we don’t see until after the course has ended and our students have moved on (and the point thus becomes moot). In courses that I teach, I ask students to complete brief “Check-in” quizzes every three weeks or so. It’s a graded exercise, but the only way to fail is to not complete them. Thus it’s an easy, low-stakes way to gather information throughout the semester. Each Check-in consists of three essay-style questions in which I ask students to briefly reflect on their perceptions of the class, how they’re feeling and why, what they’ve learned so far, what’s resonated most deeply with them and why. I have at times revised elements of my course “on the fly” based on this simple, formative, and often INformative feedback.
I’ve also been able to encourage student feedback by providing multiple means of giving it. My students have both my college and personal email addresses, cell phone, access to messaging within Moodle (our LMS), and access to private, in-course One-on-One Support Forums. I’ll even Skype, or meet in person. Students have used ALL of these methods. This flexibility and accessibility lets students know you’re interested in hearing from them, while also appealing to whatever technological (or not!) “comfort zone” they might be in. Again, I’ve made changes to my courses mid-stream if the feedback warranted it.
Not all teaching situations with adults occur over a prolonged time period, so what about
a one-shot deal, like a professional development or workshop situation? I still think the feedback and input mechanism is valid here, though the execution will be different in that it must be more immediate. In this case, I might begin with an icebreaker pre-test: What do your learners already know? What do they want or need to know, or what do they hope to get out of the session? This type of information can help you (with your learners’ assistance!) to tailor your training so you’re not covering unnecessary material. Continually probing throughout your session is another effective method of ensuring your learners are getting what they need and want.
To summarize, adults learn best if they have some say about, some control over what they’re learning and how. You’re reading this for a reason. What challenges have you faced in your less-than-successful professional development attempts? Are you lecturing prepared material (or, worse yet, reading aloud the text printed on PowerPoint slides) to this group of adults without first determining what they may already know or need to know? Have you perhaps neglected to solicit, consider, and implement learner feedback throughout? You can help yourself simply by asking your audience. Involving adult learners by not only requesting but actually using their input helps fosters their engagement and motivation…and can therefore result in a more effective training session.
Lubin, M. (2013). Coaching the adult learner: A framework for engaging the principles and processes of andragogy for best practices in coaching (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/22017/Lubin_MM_D_2013.pdf
Miroballi, M. (2010). Adult learning theory (andragogy): An overview of the Adult Learning Theory and definition of andragogy. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/a/nau.edu/educationallearningtheories/adult-learning-theory-andragogy-by-barbara-miroballi?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=%2Fthe-adult-learning-theory-andragogy-of-malcolm-knowles&utm_medium=link
Pappas, C. (2014). 9 tips to apply adult learning theory to elearning. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/9-tips-apply-adult-learning-theory-to-elearning
Ronkowitz. K. (n.d.) Andragogy and pedagogy. Retrieved from https://web.njit.edu/~ronkowit/teaching/andragogy.htm
Have you ever known someone who’s a five-star educator when it comes to 9-year olds, but when you ask that same person to facilitate professional development with peers, all those skills disappear? Teaching with adults IS different than teaching younger learners – in fact the whole field of andragogy is dedicated to the art and science of how adults learn.
You probably already know and use the term “pedagogy” to refer to teaching and learning; it has been used this way since ancient Greek times to describe the work of an educator. “Andragogy,” however, isn’t just a modern twist on the more familiar term: German teacher Alexander Kapp first used the word in 1833 to “…refer to the normal process by which adults engage in continuing education…” (Syracuse, 2005).
Malcolm Knowles, an American educator, popularized the use of “andragogy” for English language readers in the 1980s when he suggested the following four principles of adult learning:
Knowles also proposed five assumptions that distinguish adult learners and the way they learn from child learners:
So what does all of this mean for your friend, the Pk-12 educator who is seemingly confounded by training (teaching) a group of peers? Chances are, the reason your friend is having difficulty is a matter of simple, common errors of assumption. The learners your friend regularly works with (i.e. children), for example, depend on the teacher to initiate ALL learning; they have little experience with what’s being taught; they are told what they must learn in order to move on to the next level; they learn through acquisition of logically sequenced, prescribed subject matter, and they are motivated mostly by extrinsic factors like grades and/or consequences of failure. If you think these characteristics stand in contrast to the principles and assumptions Knowles outlined, it should be clear why your friend has trouble working with adult learners.
This chart tidily sums up the differences between pedagogy and andragogy. The categories (The Learner, Role of the Learner’s Experience, Readiness to Learn, Orientation to Learning, and Motivation for Learning) align with Knowles’ assumptions about adult learners, and contrasts the characteristics of child and adult learners within each category.
We adults are lifelong learners. The notion that learning stops when we finish our formal education is a myth. We frequently encounter learning opportunities without even realizing it, and one of the best ways for us to learn something is to teach it. How then, after reading this article, might you teach your Pk-12 educator friend to become a better teacher of adults?
Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.
Reischmann, J. (2004). Andragogy. History, meaning, context, function. Retrieved from http://www.andragogy.net.
Syracuse University. (2005). Andragogy II. Instructional design theory database project. Retrieved from http://web.cortland.edu/frieda/id/IDtheories/11.html
The word design may call to mind beautiful objects, sleek lines, carefully crafted spaces or even visions of high fashion and marketing genus. Indeed, design is an active process of making conscious choices about the look and feel of an object or experience. To the untrained eye, we only seem to notice when design is bad – because it fails to meet our needs. However, to the designers working on those minute details, every choice is carefully considered, and not a single user’s need goes unexamined.
While it was not always the case, the field of instructional design brings the same level of thoughtful decision making to the process of crafting instruction and education. All educators make hundreds of choices during their work with learners, and many of these choices ‘work’ for the seasoned instructor. Due to narrow attention spans, and the incredible power of technology, there is a huge potential for precise design when it comes to learning. Educators, from pk-12, to higher ed, to corporate settings, now have more potential for impact because of what we know about instructional design.
Instructional design is an important field because it allows educators to slow down and bring attention and intention to their work and decisions.
“When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled.” – Peter C. Brown, Make It Stick
Small decisions in instructional design can yield big results. For instance, consider video. Flipping the classroom is now common across a variety of classroom environments. While video is an excellent tool, how it’s used has to be carefully considered. Learners are more likely to engage with a video that is 6 minutes or less. While this doesn’t seem important, it is these types of small adjustments, grounded in learning theory that can maximize our ability to reach all learners.
Instructional design also allows us to consider the ways in which we provide access to learning. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for ensuring that all learners have multiple ways to enter into content, engage with learning, and demonstrate knowledge. UDL has the potential to benefit all learners, and provide more access to the available content. Developing a framework for instructional design, and using UDL principles can at first be a conscious effort but overtime becomes a practiced approach to teaching.
Good design is often considered ‘invisible’, because the designer has fully considered the needs to the user, and integrated those ideas into her work. Instructional design can be a powerful process to spotlight the desired learning outcomes, and guide the learner through a series of scaffolded experiences to reach the learning outcomes. An instructional designer, like any educator, begins with the learning goals in mind, and then carefully maps the multiple journeys learners will need to take to make sense of content.
Time is a precious commodity, and there is increasing competition for the limited time we have in education. Great instructional time allows educators to think carefully and purposefully about how to maximize learning, and provide students with the critical space to think, reflect, discuss and make sense of new ideas. Instructional designers are intentional about the learning experiences, and therefore are able to see measurable results in the learning outcomes.
Are you interested in taking the next step with your own practice as an instructional designer? Join us this summer to begin in our 2018 Certificate in Instructional Design cohort. A recent alumni from the program offered these thoughts on her experience:
“The Graduate Certificate in Instructional Design program absolutely improved my practice as an academic librarian. Guided by experts in the field of educational technologies and pedagogies, I was able to learn an incredible amount in a condensed time period. In the course of the program I produced several information literacy lesson plans, created an online module for learning citations, developed a peer coaching model that I’m presenting at the American Library Association Annual Conference, and authored an article for a professional journal about how to engage with citations using critical theory. UMaine Online offered the flexibility for me to pursue these myriad professional projects that advanced my career goals. I am very grateful to the program faculty for providing such enriching experiences that I continue to draw from regularly as Librarian for English and History at the University of California, Los Angeles. I would highly recommend anyone who works at the intersection of technology and education in any context to consider enrolling.
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton