Chapter 5, Analyzing Learners and Contexts, from Dick, Carey and Carey.
If you are following along with the instructional design process, the next things to look at are the learners themselves, the context in which learning will take place, and the context in which the learners will eventually use their new skills. This is done by conducting both a Learner Analysis and a Context Analysis. There are three things you want to accomplish by doing this. First, you want to describe the characteristics of your target population. Then you want to describe the contextual characteristics of eventual setting where the learners will use their new skills. This could be a classroom setting, a work setting, or the real world. Finally, you want to describe the contextual characteristics of the setting where the actual instruction will take place.
If you look at the graphical representation of the Dick, Carey and Carey model, you will see that this step is carried out at the same time as the Instructional Analysis. Even though the steps are covered in successive chapters, they can be undertaken simultaneously or in reverse order without compromising any of the results.
Unfortunately, in many cases instruction is created without any consideration being given to who the learners are on the receiving end. If you remember, one of the main focuses of Instructional Technology is the idea of individualized learning. In order for there to be a chance of that happening, it's important to know who your learners are. Remember that we are not teaching to groups, but to groups of individuals. In addition, by knowing a little bit about your learners you can better arrange the environment to increase the probability of individual student learning. There are many factors that affect how a person learns from a particular learning environment. Here are a few:
There are ongoing studies in our field to determine which variables affect learning the most, and how we might use that information to improve individual learning experiences. Chapter 5 in the Dick, Carey and Carey book describes the process of analyzing the learners and identifies a set of learner characteristics that have been shown to affect learning. In addition to general characteristics such as age, grade level, and topic being studied, you should be able to describe your learners in terms of the following characteristics:
That may seem like a lot of information to collect about your learners, but it can aid you immensely in providing more meaningful learning experiences for them. You may already know some of the information, but much of it should be culled by talking directly with learners, instructors, and managers, and by visiting classrooms, training facilities, and the learners' actual workplace. Other helpful methods include surveys, questionnaires, and pretests. The list of learner characteristics you end up with will be used throughout the remainder of the instructional design process to make decisions regarding the various steps. It will help you determine the objectives (next step), as well as play a major role in the instructional strategies you employ later on.
In addition to analyzing the learners, it's also important to analyze both the performance context and the learning context. Adequate attention is not usually given to the idea of context. Why is this important? Well, if we understand the setting in which new skills, knowledge, or attitudes will be used then we can do a better job of planning instructional activities that will approximate what learners will face when they are finished with the instruction and head back into the real world. In this way the learning will have more meaning for them and the skills they acquire will transfer easier. Additionally, if we understand the setting in which instruction will take place then we can do a better job of planning activities that will make the best use of the instructional environment.Performance Context
The performance context is the setting in which the new skills and knowledge will be used by learners after the instruction is completed. Knowing this information will enable you to create a more relevant environment for learning to take place in. It should also help increase learners' motivation, and aid in the transfer of new knowledge to the work setting. Dick, Carey and Carey list several factors to consider when analyzing the performance context:
Analyzing the performance context usually requires that you actually visit the site in question. Information can be obtained from on-site visits using interviews and observations. The purpose is to gather information from potential learners and managers, as well as observe the work environment where learners will eventually use their new skills. Analyzing the performance context using these factors can be a tricky matter for schoolteachers. It may be years before students enter the "real world" on a regular basis and have to apply skills learned in school, and some skills may never be applied. Or perhaps there may be skills that are learned in one grade that are necessary to progress through future grades? Your take on these factors may be quite different than that of non-teachers, and it may be difficult for you to actually visit the performance site. In any event, it would be a good idea for you to spend some time thinking about the context in which the skills learned in school will actually be used. Perhaps students have a point when they ask, "Why do we need to learn this?" As Dick, Carey and Carey state, "We encourage you to think beyond the accepted textbook and curriculum guide approach to public schooling. That approach has led to the criticism that much of public education emphasizes factual recall over conceptual understanding and textbook problems over authentic applications. Constructivist theorists have been justifiable sharp in their criticism of teaching/learning activities that are abstracted from, and thus not relevant to, actual physical, social, and problem contexts" (pg. 107).Learning Context
The other type of context is the learning context. This is the setting where the actual learning will take place. The goal is to familiarize yourself with the facilities where the learning will occur, and to identify any limitations of the setting that might affect the design of instruction. Dick, Carey and Carey list several factors to consider when analyzing the learning context. However, you may have noticed that the factors they list within the chapter are not quite the same as those they list on their sample forms at the end of the chapter. It's uncertain why they did this, but we suggest that you use the categories listed on the forms, as they are easier to understand. To review, they are:
Analyzing the learning context requires that you actually visit the site in question. Information can be obtained from on-site visits by interviewing instructors, managers, and potential learners, as well as observing the site in use. Collecting this type of data can be much easier if you are a schoolteacher as you are already immersed in the environment, and thus may be quite familiar with the context in which the learning will take place. However, remember not to assume too much. Instead, take another look at the classrooms you teach in, and run though the list of factors described above. You may find ways to improve your instruction and provide more relevant activities for your students.
At the end of this process you should end up with a clear idea of who your learners are, the context in which they will be exposed to your instructional materials, and the context in which they will eventually use their new skills. With this information you will be ready to write instructional objectives that are appropriate to the identified skills, learners, and contexts.