1. Student Profiles

8-Stage Learning Design Framework

Student Profiles Contexts Media Choices Intended Learning Outcomes Assessment Learning and Teaching Activities Feedback Evaluation

Designing for Students

31 July 2018

Citation: Atkinson S.P. (2018) Designing for Students. Retrieved from https://sijen.com/research-interests/8-stage-learning-design-framework/1-student-profiles

Courses, whether entire programmes or individual module, reflect our institutional specialisms and priorities, but we sometimes risk forgetting that they will be taken by flesh-and-blood students! Profiling students’ learning orientations is challenging. In the associated workshop, we explore students’ educational, circumstantial, dispositional and cultural orientations for learning. We discuss practical interpretations of the scholarship about personal epistemologies in order to design courses that a best suited to the intended student (Atkinson, 2014).

The intention is not to stereotype your students. Every student has a personal history, a personal story, but there is value in identifying trends in who your students are likely to be. This means modules and programmes are designed to be as close to students’ expectations, capabilities and learning intent as possible. In the long run, this saves a lot of supplemental support and adjustments required for a poorly designed course.

Aiming to be Inclusive

A good place to begin is drawing up several student profiles that represent the most diverse range of students you can imagine. I suggest drawing up four or five outlines of people and identifying them with a range of characteristics drawn from Thomas & May’s 2010 work for the HEA. Use large pieces of paper or a flip-chart and identify them as different from each other as possible. You do not have to put details against every single item, but it is worth trying to be as complete as possible. You are likely to find this challenging and interesting!

Try and spend the same time on each of the four categories, and try not to get to distracted by any one individual. To do this properly will take several hours and as it throws up many questions so have someone in your course team make a note of all these emergent questions.

Circumstantial Age; disability; paid/voluntary employment; caring responsibilities; geographical location; access to IT and transport services; flexibility; time available; entitlements; financial background and means; marital status.
Educational Level/type of entry qualifications; skills; ability; knowledge; educational experience; life and work experience; learning approaches.
Cultural Language; values; cultural capital; religion and belief; country of origin/residence, ethnicity/race; social background.
Dispositional Identity; self-esteem; confidence; motivation; aspirations; expectations; preferences; attitudes; assumptions; beliefs; emotional intelligence; maturity; learning style perspectives; interests; self-awareness; gender; sexuality.

We can now run our student’s profiles through a series of four filters, a range of orientational and contextual discussions. This is not a mechanical process, you cannot feed data in and an ideal student pops out the other end, but it is highly effective in orientating your programme to eventual students’ needs.

Matrix showing four contexts and orientations for studenst

Discipline Orientation

Why start with a profile of your discipline? It must be obvious, surely? However, we know that students very often start their programme with fundamental misconceptions about the discipline. We should never take for granted that how we understand our discipline is shared by our students.

Image showing four discipline context questions

Working with colleagues on a design team, it is worth spending some time exploring responses to the following four deceptively simple questions. If you don’t find something to debate in response to these questions, you aren’t trying hard enough! Asking yourself these simple questions, from both your own perspective as a practitioner and a student perspective, can produce some interesting conclusions.

  • What is the fundamental nature of your discipline?
    1. What do students think this discipline is all about?
    2. Is it essentially a reflective or analytical discipline?
    3. Principally qualitative or quantitative?
    4. Is it socially responsive or transformative?
  • To ‘do’ your discipline to any sort of level, what do you need?
    1. Can you define the graduate attributes expected in terms of competencies?
    2. Are there particular attributes and traits that make for a successful practitioner?
    3. Do students understand the personal and emotional challenges involved in the discipline?
  • What verbs might describe what an accomplished person in your discipline can do?
    1. Using a full range of educational domains (cognitive, affective, psychomotor, metacognitive and inter-personal) – what verbs define the abilities of a successful graduate? [if you don’t yet know what these are it will be covered later]
    2. Focus not on what student need to ‘know’, rather focus on what they need to be able to ‘do’.
  • What should a degree at PG/UG level in your discipline involve? [Is there a Benchmark document?]
    1. What do students expect to engage in (fieldwork, project work, lab work, lectures, seminars, scenarios)
    2. What would be a meaningful rehearsal for work after graduation in your discipline?

We will reflect the answers to these questions in the Programme Aims and Programme level Intended Learning Outcomes. Once there is a consensus in the course design team as to the answers to these questions you can explore.

Learning Orientation

The next filter we want to use is broad, an exploration within the course team as to our students’ potential orientation to learning. By the time a student arrives at University to study, whether as an undergraduate or a postgraduate, their expectations of the discipline are not the only pre-formed attributes they possess. They also have a personal epistemology, or a concept of how knowledge is acquired, how they ‘best’ learn.

As a course team, it is sensible to spend some time trying to walk in your students’ shoes and explore as much of their predispositions for learning, their personal epistemologies, as is possible. Again, the intention is not to stereotype particular groups of students, but to ensure that the learning you design is intended for them, not for you!

Here are five key themes that emerge for an analysis of the scholarship in this area (Atkinson, 2014). Explore the pages on this site concerning the POISE project. It is important that whilst there may be patterns in belief systems from individuals from the same cultural context, there will always be exceptions. Mapping your discipline expectations against these exceptions is a good place to start. Explore this table below, ask which of your potential students are likely to differ from your personal answers to these themes and associated questions. Do your students believe learning is about;

Pneumonic Binary concept Tutorial Question Belief statements
Pace Quick or not at all Is hard work enough? Learning is quick or not all
Ownership Authority or Reason Who has the answers? Knowledge is handed down by authority
Innateness Innate or Acquired Who is responsible for my learning? The ability to learn is innate rather than acquired
Simplicity Simple or Complex Is there a simple answer? Knowledge is simple rather than complex
Exactness Certain or Tentative Is there always a right answer? Knowledge is certain rather than tentative

Ownership and Exactness are frequently cited as being culturally specific. There are cultural contexts in which the determination of the validity of knowledge is conferred in a particular social stratum (most often older men) and only these individuals have the authority to teach. This contrasts with the dominant trait in European culture where knowledge is arrived at by reason. As a consequence, the certainty of all knowledge in the European tradition is questionable. We often take it for granted that ‘nothing is proven, simply yet to be disproved’ is a universal concept; It isn’t. Contemplating these personal epistemological dispositions of your students will help you design the learning process, particularly the orientation of each module, stage and programme. How are your imaginary student profiles faring thus far?

Personal Context

Now we have tried to anticipate the minds of our students! Let’s turn to more tangible evidence we might be able to access. In both the literal and colloquial sense we should be asking, “Where are my students coming from?” Most of these questions will be answered through your profiles around the educational and circumstantial dimensions. You can see this as a cross-checking of your student profiles.

As a course team, you might draw up a list of more detailed questions based on the existing profile of students. But a good place to start would be to explore these five dimensions. Answering them will prompt questions about preparedness for learning, media choice and learning support, all of which we go on in this framework to discuss. Don’t worry if you are left with lots of questions and few answers at this stage.

diagram showing five questions to indentify students personal context

  • Prior Study
    1. Have your students already studied in the discipline, in the same context, and at an appropriate level?
    2. What patterns of learning will they be familiar with?
    3. What transitional learning arrangements make sense?
    4. How could the Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL) be identified?
  • FT/PT Mode
    1. What modes are you likely to deliver your programme or module in?
    2. Will students be familiar with the mode in which they are expected to learn?
    3. Will they have experienced the degree of independent learning anticipated, have they encountered the concept of blended learning before?
  • Campus/Distance
    1. What are students ‘contextual experience’ prior to joining the University?
    2. Have they experienced campus based learning, or distance learning?
    3. Students may have studied in very remote schools or been home schooled, all of which makes a significant difference to their dispositions for learning.
  • Discipline Familiarity
  1. How much of the language of your discipline will be familiar to your students?
  2. How much of the fundamental concepts are required prior to join the programme?
  3. How might you go about making sure that students have sufficient familiarity with the discipline prior to commencing study.
  • UK Context Familiarity
    1. This is a tricky question, but it is useful to consider the degree to which students are already acculturated into the UK context.

Social Context

Look again at your student profiles. Now, we can broaden our reflection to consider how such students might work as a cohort.  You might want to adapt these questions to include further dimensions, but from a learning design perspective, I believe these are the most pertinent. It is not our concern to know about the private lives of our students, but understanding in general terms the ‘nature’ of the cohort (and being aware of its changing composition over time) can make learning design more meaningful.

Having created your student profiles, and answered the previous questions about personal contexts, it should now be clear how diverse or homogenous your cohorts are likely to be and you can design learning for this. You could consider the following four thematic areas;

  • Peer Cohort
    1. Can you anticipate that it will be possible to leverage significant cohort learning, learning sets or teams for example?
    2. Will there be sufficient diversity in skills to warrant building mixed ability cohorts rather than allowing ‘birds of a feather to flock together’?
  • Homogeneity
    1. If you anticipate a very similar profile to the majority of students, how will you accommodate those that do not conform to the ’normal profile’?
    2. Is there sufficient challenge within a highly homogenous cohort?
  • Positive Difference
    1. Is there value in foregrounding the individual differences of students as a means of advancing their collective learning?
    2. Whilst being culturally sensitive, it may be appropriate in some contexts to anticipate team games with teams selected using some shared and acknowledged criteria. Have you considered this?
  • Relevance (real-life context)
    1. How close to reality, to real-life, is the learning context possible to be?
    2. How can the ‘classroom’ closely mirror the world of work? ?
    3. What prior commercial or ‘world-of-work’ experience will students bring into the classroom?

Evaluating Student Profiles

Each stage of the 8-Stage Learning Design Framework requires an evaluation process to be designed alongside, and refined at the end of the process of design, to be used as part of an evaluation framework for active courses. Your institution may have an existing quality assurance mechanism in place, but if they don’t here are a series of questions to get you started. Remember, these questions relate just to the effectiveness of your use of student profiles, not an evaluation of your whole course, each stage will generate evaluation questions which all come together in stage eight.

  1. How homogenous have your cohorts been?
  2. What has changed in terms of students’ expectations, and how have you adjusted to these?
  3. How have the personal profiles of students developed over the duration of the current course?
  4. What cultural differences have you detected and how have these been treated, as challenges or as opportunities?
  5. How has the epistemological profile of your cohorts changed over time?
  6. What impact is digitalisation having on your student profiles?
  7. What impact might automation have on your student profiles?
  8. What impact is globalisation having on your student profiles?
  9. How has the discipline has developed since the course was designed and how might it evolve over the next five or ten years?

I hope you will find this page helpful as you consider who you are designing your course for.


Atkinson, S. P. (2014) Rethinking personal tutoring systems: the need to build on a foundation of epistemological beliefs. BPP University Working Papers. London: BPP University.
Thomas, L., & May, H. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education (p. 72). York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved 10.07.2018 from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/inclusivelearningandteaching_finalreport.pdf

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