Learners Characteristics

Analyzing learner characteristics is essential since this will help you to determine what strategies to use in actual instruction. Identifying the characteristics of learners entails gathering information on the learners’ cognitive, physiological, affective, and social characteristics (Smith & Ragan, 1999). Learner information can be obtained from surveys, interviews, observations, results of previous course performance, and assessment of their current knowledge/skill levels. The following list, adapted from Smith and Ragan (1999), may serve as a guideline in depicting the profile of your target learners. Note that depending on the learning task, it is not necessary to include all factors given below in your analysis.

Questions to consider

Who are my learners? How many of them will there be? Where are they going to be studying? What are their ages, their previous educational experience, their life and work experience? What kind of people are they? How do they prefer to learn? Why can some students confidently tackle the subjects they study and succeed? How do they do this?

Learner characteristics can be personal, academic, social/emotional and/or cognitive in nature. Personal characteristics often relate to demographic information such as age, gender, maturation, language, social economic status, cultural background, and specific needs of a learner group such as particular skills and disabilities for and/or impairments to learning. Academic characteristics are more education and/or learning related such as learning goals (of an individual or a group), prior knowledge, educational type, and educational level. Social/emotional characteristics relate to the group or to the individual with respect to the group. Examples of social/emotional characteristics are group structure, place of the individual within a group, sociability, self-image (also feelings of self-efficacy and agency), mood, etc. Finally, cognitive characteristics relate to such things as attention span, memory, mental procedures, and intellectual skills which determine how the learner perceives, remembers, thinks, solves problems, organizes and represents information in her/his brain.

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Theoretical Background

The theoretical roots of learner characteristics can be traced back to Witkin (1949; 1978, p. 39) who saw them as a “characteristic mode of functioning that we reveal throughout our perceptual and intellectual activities in a highly consistent and pervasive way”. In other words, learner characteristics are seen as traits (i.e., characteristic of the learner and, thus, not easily influenced) and not as states (i.e., characteristic of the situation in which the learner finds himself/herself and, thus more easily influenced). As early as 1949, Witkin published research related to field dependence/field independence. Field dependent people have difficulty separating an item from its con-text while a field independent person can easily break up an organized whole into its relevant parts.

A second driving force with respect to learner characteristics – and especially cognitive learner characteristics – was Guilford who referred to them as intellectual abilities (Structure of Intellect Model, 1967). He organized these abilities along three dimensions, namely operations (cognition, memory, divergent production, convergent production, and evaluation), content (visual, auditory, symbolic, semantic, and behavioral) and products (units, classes, relations, systems, transformations, and implications). Guilford saw these dimensions as being independent of each other yielding, theoretically, 150 different components of intelligence on which learners can differ.

With respect to the coupling or use of specific instructional approaches for specific learner characteristics, Cronbach and Snow (1977) posited their model of Aptitude-Treatment Interactions which held that certain instructional strategies (i.e., treatments) will be more or less effective for different individuals depending upon the individual’s specific abilities (i.e., aptitude). This model presupposes that optimal learning is the result of the instruction being perfectly matched to the learner’s aptitudes.

Cognitive Characteristics

A. General characteristic

B. Specific prior knowledge

Physiological Characteristics

A. Sensory perception (read a summary of information theory by P. E. Doolittle)
B. General health
C. Age

Effective Characteristics

A. Interests
B. Motivation and motivation to learn (read an article by S. C. Tzeng
C. Attitude toward learning and subject matter
D. Perceptions of and experiences with specific forms of mediation
E. Academic self-concept
F. Anxiety level
G. Beliefs
H. Attribution of success (i.e., locus of control)

Social Characteristics

A. Relationships to peers
B. Feelings toward authority
C. Tendencies toward cooperation or competition
D. Moral development (read an article by Y. L. LaMar)
E. Socioeconomic background
F. Racial/ethnic background, affiliations
G. Role models

Use the following questions to help you to start thinking about the characteristics and learning preferences of your learners.

  • What are some of the personal characteristics of the learners (age, gender, cultural background, profession, background, family life, etc.)?
  • What is the educational level of the learners?
  • Will there be any barriers to their learning such as literacy or numeracy issues, or lack of computer skills?
  • Why are they taking the course?
  • How will they use their knowledge?
  • What do they already know about the topic?
  • Are there any prerequisites?
  • How will they be studying this topic? (Face to face, distance, blended etc.)
  • Are they novice or expert learners?


  • Abilities and learning
  • Aptitude-treatment-interaction
  • Knowledge representation
  • Learner preferences and achievement
  • Learning styles
  • Role of prior knowledge in learning processes



  • Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (1999). Instructional design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Cronbach, L. & Snow, R. (1977). Aptitudes and instructional methods: A handbook for research on interactions. New York: Irvington.
  • Guilford, J. P. (1967). The nature of human intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruc-tion does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86.
  • Manouselis, N., Drachsler, H., Vuorikari, R., Hummel, H. G. K., Koper, R. (2010). Recom-mender systems in technology enhanced learning. In P. B. Kantor, F. Ricci, L. Ro-kach and B. Shapira (Eds.), Recommender systems handbook. Berlin: Springer.
  • Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.
  • Witkin, H. (1949). The nature and importance of individual differences in perception. Journal of Personality, 18, 145–70.
  • Witkin, H. (1978). Cognitive styles in personal and cultural adaptation. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

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