Module 1:  Create your quality online course blueprint

1.7 Learning about your learners (Event 3)

Your learners are a diverse array of people with unique backgrounds, contexts, and goals in taking your course. Event 3 of Gagné’s framework reminds us that it is useful to understand what your learners know and don’t know as they enter your course. We suggest that it is also useful to step back from a strict disciplinary lens and consider their contexts and goals more broadly, as these have implications for how you design your course.

Event 3 in the planning phase: Stimulate recall of prior learning.
Caption: In Gagné’s Nine Events framework, Event 3 focuses on stimulating recall of prior learning.
Credit: University of Waterloo

Why learning about your learners matters

From a cognitive perspective, knowing something about your learners’ prior knowledge helps to ensure that you are building from a solid disciplinary foundation, establishes that your learners have valid prerequisite knowledge, and surfaces any misconceptions that may interfere with their learning. Early interventions to address conceptual gaps are one way to provide the kind of learning guidance that Gagné describes in Event 5 of his framework.

Event 5 in the design and develop phase: Provide learning guidance.
Caption: In Gagné’s Nine Events framework, Event 5 focuses on providing learning guidance.
Credit: University of Waterloo

From a situational and affective perspective: knowing something about your learners’ goals and contexts ensures that learners will be able to and motivated to participate meaningfully in your course.

Below are some questions to consider with implications for course design:

Questions to consider Implications for course design
Why did your learners chose to learn online? Was it their first choice, or was it the only option they felt would work for them? This may have implications for scheduling synchronous events (if flexibility is important) and can inform your approach to building community and your plans to be available to support, encourage, and motivate your learners.
Are your learners geographically dispersed? What percentage are international students? How many are adult learners/study part-time? This may have implications for scheduling synchronous events for written communication if English is not a first language and for cultural expectations of teaching and learning.
Will some of your learners be participating from countries that block certain websites? This may impact your choice of online content or resources you require of your students. Wikipedia maintains an up-to-date list of websites blocked by mainland China and similar lists for other countries.
Are your learners seeking professional accreditation? This may have implications for the types of activities, assessments, and content you include in the course.
Are there two or more distinct audiences (e.g., from different programs/fields of study)? What can you do to meet the needs of both?
How and why will your learners use what they learn in your course? This can provide insight into the types of activities and assessments you design.

An EDII perspective: Learner diversity in Canadian postsecondary education (PSE)

. . . Canadian PSE has . . . had to adapt itself to better meet the needs of mature students, part-time students, commuter students and distance/online learners.

Learner diversity is receiving increasing attention in Canadian PSE as institutions recognize the need to support the inclusion and success of under-represented (equity-deserving) groups, including

  • women (in certain disciplines),
  • first-generation students,
  • students with lower socioeconomic status,
  • students with disabilities,
  • Indigenous learners, and
  • adult learners seeking to upgrade skills or change careers.

Diversity in Canadian PSE is further fuelled by a strong international recruitment strategy across the sector, which at the same time is driving the need to “globalize” or “internationalize” the campus and curricula. This movement inherently incorporates EDII principles for the effective attainment of its goals.

For more information, see

While we’ll be exploring ways to create an inclusive environment in your online course more fully in upcoming modules, we encourage you to review the following resource, which provides ideas for building inclusivity into your course at the planning stage of course design. The Inclusive and Responsive Teaching resource created by Queen’s University offers strategies to think about as you plan your course and the examples following extend on this by demonstrating how these strategies can be put into practice and act as a springboard for your own ideas.

Quality Advanced

Inclusive and responsive teaching module

Includes ideas for creating inclusivity in

  • your syllabus;
  • the selection and presentation of content; and
  • group work and other forms of student participation.

Examples of how “adapting design to needs of learners” could work

We offer some examples below of ways to find out about your learners’ contexts and how you might use this information to inform course design decisions.

Quality Essential

Example 1: Using a survey to find out about my learners

Instructors at Queen’s University have the option to administer a “precourse survey” to students at the beginning of term to surface background information about learners in the course and to get a sense of the general level of knowledge that they have prior to starting the course.

Quality Essential

Example 2: My learners are from two different programs

Nadine Ibrahim teaches a course on engineering and sustainable development, which typically includes 2nd-year students in civil engineering who take the course as a core requirement, but also attracts 4th-year students from management engineering who take it as a technical elective. As she explains, “the class is almost split in their motivation for taking the course, and in their appetite for discussion-based questions around sustainability vs calculation-based questions.” In the video below, Dr. Ibrahim describes how she addressed the learning needs of, and created community across, both groups. In the Notes PDF, she provides examples of how she included opportunities for both qualitative and quantitative learning in a typical module and a typical assessment.

Quality Essential

Example 3: Many of my learners are adults

Shawna Kay Williams-Pinnock teaches second-language and literacy courses primarily to adult learners from a cross-section of socio-cultural backgrounds. Read about some of the strategies she uses to meet the needs of her adult learners in “Adult Learners Need More Instructional Support.”

Highlights of the strategies used:

  • language supports/scaffolding such as sentence starters and prompts to guide writing;
  • modelling what she expects of her learners, including exemplars of the types of writing they will produce in the course, and “thinking out loud” to make disciplinary thinking visible and reproducible;
  • phased/scaffolded assignments with Socratic feedback on drafts;
  • detailed rubrics and marking schemes; and
  • opportunities for live consultations on submitted assessments to clarify feedback and enable learners to make meaningful revisions.

Quality Advanced

Example 4:  My learners will use the skills they learn in a particular context

Simulating a business environment to teach business communication skills

Dorothy Hadfield and Bruce Dadey teach a business communication course, primarily targeted to business and accounting students. Having carefully considered how their learners will use the knowledge they gain in the course, they chose to predicate the course on a business simulation, where students don the personas of prospective interns in a fictitious company, Living4Learning (L4L). In the second week of term, students “apply” to three of L4L’s departments and are “hired” (by TAs) into one of these. From that point in the course onward, all of their writing takes place within the context of that department, communicating with another L4L department, simulating real-world business communication.

Quality Essential

Example 5: Some of my learners have learning challenges

The Field Placement – Community Integration Through Co-operative Education Program course is a part of a two-year program that supports students with learning challenges (including those on the autistic spectrum, those with Down’s Syndrome, physical or motor disabilities, and vision or hearing impairments) to learn academic and vocational skills. This course provides the opportunity for students to prepare and participate in work placements in the community.

Highlights of the course design strategies used:

  • simple, calming colours (rather than bright ones) with appropriate colour contrast;
  • simple, linear, and consistent layouts, which feature an easily readable font size and adequate white space, especially around clickable or interactive elements (important for learners with physical or motor impairments);
  • meaning is conveyed using a combination of colour, shapes, and text (vs. with colour alone);
  • descriptive text is used for links (e.g., “attach files” rather than “click here”);
  • information is provided in more than one format (e.g., audio or video). Audio or video resources are always accompanied by transcripts and text alternatives;
  • learners are not forced to try to remember things from previous pages. Reminders and prompts are provided throughout the course, and enough time for learners to complete an action is provided; and
  • learners are able to check their answers on assessments before they submit them.

Design choices in this course were driven by the needs of the intended audience to ensure that they had equitable access to content through multiple formats and an optimized-user experience design; however, these strategies can be equally applied in any course to make a more inclusive learning environment for everyone.

Quality Advanced

Example 6: My learners are in applied/ professional programs

“Real world” spotlight moments

Throughout the course, be explicit about identifying how the learning outcomes or concepts covered in the course connect to learners’ future careers/professions in “the real world.” Carefully select these “spotlight moments” to show how learners’ investments in learning now will pay off in their future professional lives. There are a few ways to do this:

  • For each major unit of content, invite a current professional in the field to record a short audio or video clip discussing their day-to-day work or how a concept translates to their regular work; if possible, filming in the workplace is always appreciated by learners!
  • Use a spotlight moment to introduce learners to emerging technologies, trends in the field, and/or industry “lingo” without necessarily covering topics in depth. Provide learners with enough information to allow them to research the topic further themselves, according to their own interests and goals.
  • Are there core skills or competencies that learners should be developing as part of the course or to be successful in their future professions? Use spotlight moments to highlight connections between course content and skill/competency development. This idea will be further explored in Module 2 when assessments are discussed.
  • Perspectives from experts in the field: Does the field struggle to recruit learners into a career path after graduation? Consider creating short video vignettes where specialists in the field discuss their role and work to broaden learners’ understanding of the types of careers they could pursue after graduation. Often learners don’t have opportunities to discuss this aspect of the field with their instructors, owing to large class sizes or (potentially) to the limited career experience of their instructors outside of academia.

Quality Advanced

Example 7: My learners are upper-year/advanced

The “make them do the work!” strategy

If your learners are more advanced and have a strong foundation of knowledge before entering your course, think about how much content you actually need to provide them. For example, providing learners with a few contextualized articles/resources and curated content to provide a strong foundation for the course topic could allow you to spend more time allowing the learners to cocreate, individually or in groups, content that could be shared with the class at regular intervals during the term or as a final project at the end of term.

“Make them do the work!” Podcast edition

In his graduate seminar on online teaching and learning, Professor James Skidmore designed an assignment that had learners first research and develop expertise on a topic of their choosing (from a curated list) and then be interviewed on the topic in a live webinar podcast format. In this version of the strategy,  learners are positioned as the “experts” on their selected topics and are interviewed by their instructor in front of a live audience of their classmates. Here is an example of one such podcast, where Professor Skidmore interviews a student (McLennon Wilson) on the subject of synchronous vs. asynchronous online learning:

Activity: Who are my learners?

Learning outcomes

This activity is directly aligned with Course Learning Outcome (CLO) 1: Recognize and implement key features of quality in learner-centred online course design.


Complete the Situational Factors Worksheet to reflect on the types of learners you expect in your course.

Option 1:  Download the Situational Factors Worksheet.docx to create a Word version to complete offline.

Option 2:  Complete the activity in-line below. If you wish to save your in-line results, be sure to download your work by clicking the Export tab at the bottom of the left-hand navigation bar in the activity before moving on.

Please note, this activity is intended for your own reflection and learning. Your responses are private and are deleted when you refresh or navigate away from this page.

As you work through the prompts, think about how you might make room for your learners to “see themselves” in and really connect with your course. What can you do to ensure that they can participate fully and meaningfully? We will look at strategies for inclusive design in Module 2. For now, use the worksheet and the examples provided above to begin to think about design decisions that allow all your learners to be  successful in your course.

Examples of how “stimulating recall of prior knowledge, identifying misconceptions” could work

Faulty mental models interfere with learning because, as “prior knowledge,” they cannot accommodate the correct content.

Below we’ve included examples of ways to approach diagnostic assessments to assess your learners’ prior knowledge and experience, and to surface potential misconceptions.

Quality Essential

Example 8:

A quick and informal way to ascertain whether learners’ knowledge of a foundational concept is valid, and to surface potential misconceptions: a one-question multiple-select quiz embedded at the beginning of a content page on Evolutionary Psychology (PSYCH 101). Feedback is automatic.

Picture of multiple-select quiz about human evolution. Feedback is provided when students get the correct answer.
Caption: Screenshot of a diagnostic assessment on human evolution.

Quality Essential

Example 9:

A series of “test your knowledge” self-assessment quizzes prior to each content module to ensure that learners have the prior knowledge they need to succeed in the course. Quizzes are made available on a module overview page, just after the learning outcomes. If learners’ self-assessed knowledge is insufficient, they are directed to “refresher” modules to establish that they have appropriate and valid prior knowledge, ensuring that they are able to succeed in the course. Learners can also directly access refresher modules without completing the diagnostic assessment. This strategy is particularly useful in courses where learners come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.


An example of a diagnostic assessment
Caption: Screenshot of a diagnostic assessment on chronic pain.

Quality Essential

Example 10:

Learners create concept maps of course concepts at key points in the course. As a visual representation of your learners’ knowledge and understanding, a concept map can identify errors and gaps in learners’ developing understanding and ensure that they are building on solid disciplinary knowledge structures:

Having students create concept maps can provide you with insights into how they organize and represent knowledge. This can be a useful strategy for assessing both the knowledge students have coming into a program or course and their developing knowledge of course material.

Be sure to provide feedback to your learners on what they told you about what they know. Point out areas where their understanding is strong, identify the most common misunderstandings, and address these in some way (for example, via a live session or an announcement).

We will be taking a closer look at concept maps in Module 3.

Connections to Event 5: Provide learning guidance

While our focus in this module has been on Events 2 and 3 of Gagné’s framework, it is important to note the connections they have to Event 5: Provide learning guidance. Stimulating recall of prior knowledge and identifying learner misconceptions are both ways of providing your learners with guidance to help them succeed.

Here are a few examples of ways to provide learning guidance at the start of the course:

  • A precourse survey can be used to determine which course topics might benefit from a diagnostic assessment at the outset of the course/module/unit; once knowledge gaps are identified, these can be addressed via a short video or course announcement.
  • If your learners are new to postsecondary education, you can mitigate potential missteps by proactively reaching out to them and offering suggestions about how they should approach their learning in the course, either via a course announcement or a course intro video. Getting Ready to Learn Online (a self-paced online module) might be a useful resource in this vein too.

Activity: What do my learners already know?

Learning outcomes

This activity is directly aligned with Course Learning Outcome (CLO)  1: Recognize and implement key features of quality in learner-centred online course design.


Design a diagnostic assessment to surface your learners’ prior knowledge and/or misconceptions they may be bringing to the course. Questions to think about as you design your assessment:

  • What foundational concepts do learners need in order to succeed in your course?
  • What are some common misconceptions?
  • What bottleneck concepts do students typically struggle with?
  • How will you provide feedback?

Option 1: Download the What Do My Learners Already Know Worksheet.docx to complete offline.

Option 2: Complete the activity in-line below. If you wish to save your in-line results, be sure to download your work by clicking the Export tab at the bottom of the left-hand navigation bar in the activity before moving on.

Please note, this activity is intended for your own reflection and learning. Your responses are private and are deleted when you refresh or navigate away from this page.


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