As I previously wrote in an article, the reasons to start online teaching are plentiful. (If you’re still deciding whether it is for you, these questions to ask yourself before starting may be of help.) However, in order to get the most of your online classes, there are certain steps you can (or should) do before starting to work with a student/group.  What I am referring to is learner analysis – a process as important in online classes as in any traditional setting. In this post I hope to demonstrate how simple, everyday digital tools can help you conduct learner analysis efficiently.

There is a plethora of ways to do learner analysis so please try as many as you find out about (and do share your conclusions with us!). What I am about to suggest is just one of the possible approaches and I by no means want to promote it as the best approach possible. I have, however, successfully used it with dozens of students and therefore I feel it might equally benefit at least some of you too.

How to Do Learner Analysis for Your Online Classes

Although the title says ”before your first class”, you can also perform analysis in the very first class (the one I call the Diagnostic Class). There are at least 3 aspects you may want to look into. These are: 1) learner personality, 2) learner needs and preferences and 3) learner goals. Let’s discuss them one by one.

Learner Personality Analysis 

Learner personality analysis is to do with those characteristics of your learner that do not necessarily depict her/him as a learner. For instance, their likes and dislikes, their values and beliefs. Why are these characteristics important? Because you need to know a little bit about your students to personalise the learning activities for them. Personalised activities are generally a powerful tool for learning and the online setting greatly facilitates their implementation, as eLearning Industry advocates. So, how to do it?

One of the best ways to get to know your students personally is through conversation. So, during your first class you could ask them questions such as ”what do you do in your free time”, ”what is your favourite movie/sport/music” etc. If you’re lucky enough, your student will be chatty and you will end up with a good amount of information on her/him. However, many people are deterred by conversation-mediating tools such as Skype and find it awkward to open up. Therefore, it may be a good idea to give your students a simple and concrete task before or during your first class to guide your conversation. Here are some examples from my practice.

  • Trigger their agency from the start. I used Wix  to create a blog for my classes with a student. Before the first class, I asked my student to choose the layout, the name of the blog and add an image to the first post. This task served as an excellent ice breaker and an opportunity to learn more about the student (why she chose that image, colour, name, etc.). Moreover, such a task helped create a collaboration relationship between the two of us and showed her that her student role was as important in the task design. (I am a big advocate of learner autonomy so I try to foster it whenever possible.) In case you are thinking it doesn’t make sense to spend time making a website for your classes, please be aware that doing it on a platform like Wix is super fast and easy. Just make sure to explain how to administer the webiste to your students if you are to give them control over it.
  • Take a peak at your students’ social networks. Checking out your student’s profile on Facebook or Instagram can give you a lot of information about who they are. Before you call me creepy, let me tell you I did that with students who had already added me on Facebook before we started working together (e.g. a mutual friend recommended me so they reached out to me through Facebook to ask for my availability). If you’re not connected with your students through an online network, then you can use Pinterest or Instagram as a conversation starter on the first class –  just ask them to show one photo or post from their profile that would describe them and you’ll have enough to talk about.
  • Do it the other way round. Don’t forget that your students are probably as interested in you as you are in them, so don’t hesitate to reveal a few personal details about yourself. With one student, I created a Kahoot! quiz in which he needed to guess things about me (e.g. my favourite Italian food is…/on a rainy day, I’d most likely…). I played the quiz in the diagnostic class and timed it so it would be shorter and more dynamic. It might seem a bit self-centred at first but what I got from the student in return was worth the effort as he was encouraged to talk about himself and even create a similar quiz for homework!

Learner Needs and Preferences (LNP) Analysis

LNP analysis is different from personality analysis as it aims to answer who your student is as a learner. This is maybe the most important information you want to elicit before and during the diagnostic class. It includes their learning styles, preferred assessment types, preferred digital tools, forms of interaction, types of activities and so on. Here are some examples how to get this information.

  • Use tools like Padlet I created something I call Collaborative Learner Profile using this tool. On my Padlet, I posted some information about me as a learner (as the snapshot below shows). The idea was primarily for the students to use it as a model when creating their own learner profiles, but I also asked them to comment on mine and other student’s posts. They were supposed to identify a similar or completely different preference/need or suggest an appropriate digital tool. I did not do this before our first meeting though, but I will definitely try it out as a pre-first-class activity with some other students. Please do not be afraid that your students won’t be able to think about their own learning. Just make sure you help them through. For example, almost everyone can at least identify digital apps and devices they like to use (not necessarily only for learning), which is precious information to have when choosing tools for your classes later.

Jelena's Interactive Learner Profile
I developed this Padlet board to model self-analysis of learner needs and preferences. I also used it as a collaborative space to encourage metacognitive thinking and student interaction. Click to enlarge.

  • Ask the students to take an online learning style test. There is a debate on whether learning styles are a valid construct or not, but I believe we should not be concerned with it. Engagement in self-reflection on how one’s learn best, be it called learning styles or something else is definitely an aim you’d want to accomplish with your students. A well known one is VARK with all its variations, but there are others as well. I’ve also used Kolb’s and Honey and Mumford’s tests; however they are more time-consuming so I would not recommend them as a very first activity. I asked my students to do at least one test of their choice and upload the result snapshot to our shared Google Drive folder.

Learner Goals Analysis

Before anything:

Let the primary goal of your every class be to help your student learn how to learn independently of you.

It sounds like an affirmation, but I do think all teachers should primarily aim to enable their students learn autonomously. Now, when it comes to more concrete goals, they should always be discussed and decided on with the student before the course starts. You might be able to detect your students’ knowledge gaps better than them but ultimately it is your students who will tell you what their goals are.

If a student doesn’t know her or his goals, you need to help her/him formulate them. Bloom’s taxonomy is traditionally used as a framework when setting learner goals and it works quite well, but I have adopted a slightly different approach. Inspired by Cathy Moore’s action mapping idea (that she originally applies to corporate training) I try to identify very specific skills that my learner would like or need to develop. For example, if Jane has to communicate in English on a daily basis at work but is struggling with speaking, instead of formulating a goal such as: ”to enhance Jane’s speaking skills” we might come up with something like: ”Jane will communicate with clients with more accuracy, fluency and confidence”. Such concrete goals are advantageous for two reasons: first, they help your learner improve a specific situation in their life and second, they help you and your student measure their progress much better than more vague goals would do.

  • A good tool to elicit your students’ goals is Google Forms (or any other equivalent survey maker). For example, I used it to ask my students what they needed and wanted to work on (see the snapshot below). My questionnaire focused on autonomous learning but you can use the same tool to elicit answers for any subject. Based on these answers and our previous conversations, I drafted a set of goals in a shared Word document. I then asked my students to give feedback or change/add/delete any goals they wished. This validation process is essential as you ultimately want the goals to come from your students and not from you, even if it is you who elicits.

LNP Questionnaire
An extract from a learner needs and preferences questionnaire I used to elicit learner goals. Click to enlarge.

In conclusion, the learner analysis process might seem a time-consuming one but if done well it can actually reduce the time you take to prepare classes later. You have probably noticed that all the tools recommended in this post: 1) are free and easy to use, and 2) can be used for many purposes at the same time (e.g. you can use one Google Form to learn about all the three aspects: learner personality, needs and preferences and goals). Finally, it is also important to emphasise that once you’re done with learner analysis you should not literally be ”done” with it – use these results continuously when creating activities for your students or else all the time you invested into the analysis will be wasted.

How do you conduct learner analysis? Did you think of any other useful tools while reading this post? Feel free to share your experiences and feedback in the comments below!