Suggested Readings

Chapter 5, Analyzing Learners and Contexts, from Dick, Carey and Carey.

Background Information

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.

Analyzing the Learners

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:

  • Cognitive abilities of the learner.
  • Previous experiences of the learner.
  • Motivation.
  • Personal learning style.
  • Clarity of the message.
  • Interaction with the learning environment.

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:

  • Entry Behaviors - These are skills associated with learning the goal that learners must already have mastered. What should learners already know how to do in order to be successful with the new instruction? In the last lesson you determined specific entry behaviors related to your goal, but there may also be some general entry behaviors that were overlooked in the instructional analysis yet would be useful to mention at this point. For example, the ability to read at a seventh grade level, or the ability to perform basic computer operations.

  • Prior Knowledge of the Topic Area - What must learners already know about the topic?

  • Attitudes Toward Content and Potential Delivery System - What are the learners' impressions and attitudes about a topic and how it might be delivered? Do they have any preconceived notions about the topic? Will they be comfortable learning in a multimedia environment?

  • Academic Motivation - How motivated are learners to learn the topic, and how much is it likely to interest them? You might want to ask potential learners these questions:
    • How relevant is the instructional goal to you?
    • What aspects of the goal interest you most?
    • How confident are you that you could successfully perform the goal?
    • How satisfying would it be to you to be able to perform the goal?

  • Educational and Ability Levels - What are the achievement and general ability levels of the learners? This helps determine the kinds of instructional experiences they may have had and their ability to cope with new and different approaches to instruction.

  • General Learning Preferences - What types of learning approaches do the learners prefer? For example, lecture, seminar, case study, small-group, or web-based?

  • Attitudes Toward Training Organization - How do the learners feel about the organization providing the training? Do they have a positive view of management and peers, or are they cynical about leadership? With teachers, you may already know your students' attitudes about school, but keep in mind that some students actually like school, while others may hate it. It's important to know which kind of students you will be interacting with.

  • Group Characteristics - Is there heterogeneity within the target population? If so, you want to make sure to accommodate any diversity. Also, get a general overall impression of the target population based on interactions with them.

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.

Analyzing the Context

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:

  • Managerial Support - This is the organizational support that learners can expect when using new skills. It often helps to include managers, subject matter experts (SMEs), or trainers in the planning stages. In a school setting this may include other teachers, or even parents. It can be frustrating to deliver new instruction if there will be no real world support for the learners when the instruction is finished.
  • Physical Aspects of the Site - This is the physical context in which the new skills will be used. Try to find out what equipment, facilities, tools, timing, or other resources will be available and necessary.
  • Social Aspects of the Site - The social context of the performance setting. Ask yourself some questions: Will learners work alone or in a team when using their new skills? Will they work independently in the field or as a supervisor? Will they be the first to use these skills?
  • Relevance of Skills to Workplace or Life - How relevant are the new skills to the learner's actual workplace or other aspects of their life? Are there physical, social, or motivational constraints to the use of the new skills?

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:

  • Number and Nature of Sites - How many sites are there, and what facilities, equipment, and resources are available at the sites? Here you mainly want to describe the physical characteristics of the sites.
  • Compatibility of the Site With the Instructional Requirements - Does the environment include any tools or other items that are necessary for the learning of the goal? For example, if your instruction requires computers, are they available at the site, and are they properly configured? Can the site support the desired delivery approach? Also, are there any personnel or time constraints that you can identify?
  • Compatibility of the Site With the Learner Needs - Are the sites convenient to the learners, are there necessary conveniences available, and is there adequate space and equipment for the expected number of learners?
  • Feasibility for Simulating the Workplace - Does the learning environment adequately simulate the eventual work environment? Is there anything that can be done to make it more like the work environment? The closer you can simulate the performance site, the easier it will be for the learners to transfer their newly acquired skills.

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.