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The learners are at the centre of the curriculum process. As curriculum planners, we try to consider the characteristics of the learners (their interests, experiences, learning preferences, abilities etc.) so that we create learning activities and resources that are relevant and useful to them. We also develop evaluation strategies that allow these learners to demonstrate their achievement of the learning outcomes. Note that the learning outcomes are not likely to change based on learner characteristics, but the way we help learners achieve these outcomes (learning activities and learning resources) and the way they demonstrate their achievement of the outcomes (evaluation) will be influenced by our knowledge of learner characteristics

General Characteristics of College Students


While each group of learners will have its own attributes, we do know that the diversity in college classrooms is growing. Teachers can expect a range of abilities, interests, backgrounds, and motivations.

You may find it helpful to review some of the ideas about how students learn found in the learning principles section of this website.

Human Resources and Social Development Canada in partnership with ACCC (Association of Community College of Canada) conducted a survey of first year college students across Canada and reported their findings in August 2007. You can read the whole report or check out the chapters of interest to you.

A second study focuses on Aboriginal, Disabled, Immigrant and Visible Minority students.  You read the whole report or check out the chapters of interest to you.

Peter Dietsche presented these slides highlighting findings from the 2006 Student Engagement Survey at Algonquin College. You will find here slides with information about the characteristics of the learner population in Ontario's community colleges.

The University of Southern California’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching provides four brief modules related to teaching in a diverse classroom.

This site, developed for students planning to enter college, provides a definition of many different types of diversity.

We know that more and more students in college are "digital natives" with expectations of the "Net Generation". Here are some references for Educause that address educating the Net Generation.

This information sheet designed to help understand and engage millennial learners was developed by Deb Scott from Fleming College. Understanding and Reaching Millennial Learners (.pdf)

Models of Intellectual Development


There are several models that help us to understand the developmental changes that can be expected as learners progress through a college program.

William Perry developed a nine point scale describing intellectual development in college and university students. This model has been recognized for many decades and is one of the better known scales. 

You will find on this site a more scholarly paper describing a model of intellectual development.

Finding out more about learners in your class


Here are some beginning thoughts on how you might find out more about learners in your class.


  • Review outlines for other related courses in the program to see what learning they are likely to bring to your course.
  • Talk to other teachers about what they have learned.
  • Early in the course plan activities that will help you know the students backgrounds and interests. You might have them
    • Create a personal website
    • Use a classroom blog
    • Complete a survey or questionnaire
    • Ask them to share their goals and expectations for the course in a "one minute" paper
  • Begin each course or new unit of study with activities that will help to unearth prior knowledge and experience. Some examples might be
    • Brainstorm ideas about the topic
    • Post questions or topics related to content to be studied on flip chart pages around the room and have students move around the room to contribute their ideas
    • Post questions or topics related to content to be studied on flip chart pages around the room and have students move around the room to contribute their ideas
    • Use a review bingo sheet to collect information from group
    • Use a group problem-solving technique
    • Use a take-a-stand activity
  • Early in the course collect samples of work from the students.


Some Questions to Consider


When planning course curriculum, the more one knows about the learners, the easier it is to develop a relevant course plan that will help learners be successful. Here are some beginning questions about the potential learners you may want to consider as a starting point.

  • What prior experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities are these students likely to bring to the course? What is the range of abilities and experience likely to be?
  • What other courses will they have completed before this course?
  • What will they be learning in other courses at the same time they are taking this course?
  • What is likely to interest them in this course?
  • How will this course contribute to their personal goals?
  • What concepts/skills are they likely to find most challenging? Easiest to understand?
  • Will these learners see the learning in this course to be relevant to them?
  • How are these students likely to use the learning from this course in the future?
  • How can I collect information to validate my expectations about these learners?
  • Are their reading, writing and study skills compatible with course materials and course expectations?
  • Will these students know each other and be comfortable and capable of working together?
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