Empathizing With Our Learners

Last week a student called to say his father had fallen, and needed to be relocated to assisted living. I’ll be a bit behind on the next few assignments, but I plan to catch up once he’s settled in. Another student went into premature labor right before a major project. Another’s daughter fell sick with pneumonia, while another student’s son suffered an emotional breakdown. One student had to stop taking classes all together when she was let go from her job. I’ll be back, she told me, but it might be a while.

The students in our classrooms today are not the “traditional” 18-24 year olds that come to mind when we think of the word “college.” An older, adult population, often squeezed with caretaking responsibilities for both children and parents, balancing jobs along with health challenges, are the ones seeking to further their skills through graduate education.

These students fit their homework in during the small spaces in their days – while a child is napping, sitting in line at school pick up, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, in the middle of the night.

The lives of our students are very different than we might initially imagine them, so it’s important to spend some time, as we design and teach courses, to consider who exactly these students are.

Why are they coming to our programs?
What knowledge and experience do they bring with them?
What do they already know?
What do they hope to learn?

We also need to understand the challenges they face, and the barriers to getting their work done.

One tool we can use to learn more about our students is an empathy map. Empathy Maps come from the field of User Experience Design and are employed to better understand the perspectives, attitudes and feelings of the users of a product or service. They create a visual model of what the users say, do, think and feel. Empathy maps help us to step outside of ourselves, and look at a design from the perspective of someone else – to put on their shoes for a bit and come at the experience from a new direction. The result is a product that more closely reflects the needs of the user, a design that has a much higher chance for success.

In the context of designing learning experiences, our “users” are our learners. We can utilize empathy maps to move beyond our preconceived notion of who our students are and what they want – and instead get into the nitty gritty of how they think and feel. We can gather information on our learners up front – by asking questions at the beginning of class, or looking through their program applications. We can interview the students, or send out quick surveys. We can use this data to create empathy maps that paint a picture of their real-world experiences and perspectives.

When developing online learning experiences, we can use empathy maps to inform the design. We can gather insight into our learners by observing their interactions with our designs, testing out early modules, and speaking with students who serve as the extremes of our learner population. We can compile this data into empathy maps that paint a picture to inform the designs of our courses and programs going forward, and develop models that will more closely align with our learners’ needs. There are many examples of empathy maps online, include this template developed by Joanne Kehoe at eCampus Ontario.

Below are several examples of empathy maps created in an instructional design course, where students were asked to identify what their users think, feel, hear, see, say and do. These maps illustrate the motivations and challenges of the adult online student population – information which can help to inform the way we design graduate learning experiences.

Empathy_Example_SlaneMcNamaraEmpathy map by Allie S. and Heather M.
Empathy_Example_NoelNeighborEmpathy map by Kim N. and Amber N.
Empathy_Example_BaerFormEmpathy map by Jess B. and David F.



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