Today’s blog outlines five steps educators can implement to ensure that we are approaching our work from a learner first perspective. Thank you to WCET Member O’Donnell Learn and Carrie O’Donnell for this thoughtful blog that will help reach and understand the heart of the learner.

~Megan Raymond, WCET


Every person working in the field of education strives to be learner-centric and currently, there’s a mission growing to first acknowledge and then include every type of learner who steps into a classroom. For us, at O’Donnell Learn, learner-centric means much more than addressing learning styles; learner inclusivity is how we reach out to the hearts of every learner.  

The truth is, it’s too easy to lose students. It’s too easy for them to drop out. In fact, retention rates are the lowest they’ve been…ever. Students fail out of school all of the time, and, if they aren’t dropping out or failing, quite often they are feeling lost. It’s hard for students to find courses that fit their needs because their needs aren’t often included in course creation. Students are not prioritized in the development of curriculum.  

At O’Donnell Learn, we approach our work with a learner first perspective. We know, through decades of conducting studies, collecting data, polling, and doing research that institutions achieve when students thrive. Historically, however, learner first has not been the model or mindset schools have adopted, and why, you ask? Well, it is difficult to get to know an individual student’s needs, particularly in virtual environments. For the better part of the last century, institutions have focused on content and instruction; as a result, faculty have taken a learning first approach.  

We’re creating teaching models that place the learner at the forefront. Below are suggested steps for instructors to follow as they seek to know the hearts of their learners and retain students returning year after year.  

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1.     Model practices for empathy and inclusivity. If students are dealing with issues outside of the classroom, from mental to physical health challenges, to family and friends in crises, institutions must indoctrinate policies to ensure that students’ challenges are heard and met with compassion.    

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2.     Put out the welcome mat. There’s one simple step to getting off on the right foot: making students feel at ease. Before a course begins, instructors can create a statement in the syllabus or a video on their course’s homepage to pique students’ excitement. This could mean surveying students to better understand their learning preferences or inviting students to be a presence in the class. It also likely means instructors displaying their own vulnerability, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, so to speak. It may involve telling students why they love what they teach, why it’s important to enjoy what you do, and facilitating conversations to foster passion about the subject matter. 

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3.     Ensure every voice is heard. Design activities that encourage students to participate. Not every student will be first to raise their hand, however an instructor can gently tease out the voices of students who may not ordinarily expose themselves. When creating activities, assign every student a role. In breakout rooms, make sure there are opportunities for all students to speak. In courses where students tend to be guarded, like STEM, facilitate one-on-one discussions. If an instructor knows their students are struggling, engage them.  

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4.     Enable students with the power to reach their highest goals. When a student has agency, they are far more likely to grow and achieve in the classroom. Ask students to tell you how you can better teach them. Let students bring the content they want to see to their course. Students understand technology better than instructors. Don’t be afraid to use their expertise. By giving students the reins, you are creating symbiosis between all members of the classroom. If you listen, students will tell you how they want to learn.  

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5.     Offer timely feedback – early and often. Feedback is not only an assessment of one’s grade. Feedback is also about participation and presence. It’s about whether a student is finding joy in their course. It’s about how and why students are struggling and what they are enjoying. Tuning into students’ feelings is a primary component of inclusivity.  

For instructors to focus on the hearts of learners, institutions need to promote a mindset shift across the campus. O’Donnell Learn collaborates with institutions and their faculty to accelerate this process because when they do, everyone wins. Educators can meet students’ eye to eye, step off the academic ladder, and portray themselves as human, just like their learners. Great educators tap into the moral compass of their course, and impactful institutions prioritize the ones who matter most: students. 

Carrie O'Donnell

Founder & CEO, O’Donnell Learn

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