Who are my Learners?

To provide student-centred teaching, you need first of all to know who your students are. Students in your classes are likely to come from a range of diverse backgrounds. They will have differing aspirations, levels of motivation, attitudes towards teaching and learning and responses to specific classroom environments and teaching practices.

Approximately 25% of students at UNSW are international students from 130 different countries, bringing diverse knowledge, perspectives and life experiences to the learning environment. This diversity considerably enriches the university community and allows both students and teachers to learn from each other how to operate in a culturally diverse environment.

Teaching in this context has its own challenges and rewards. A good starting point is to find out as much as you can about your students (see Understanding Learners), so that you are more able to understand, draw on and explore the diverse skills, attitudes and knowledge your students bring to the classroom.

Dimensions of student diversity

The following diagram summarises some of the key dimensions of student diversity that may affect learning and teaching. Read about each dimension below to find out its implications for you as a teacher.

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Student demographics

Age

Age can be a factor in the way students approach their learning. For example, first year undergraduate students may take time to adjust to university learning which expects much more autonomy than they are used to.

Recent research on "Generation Y" students suggests that today's students learn in a different way from previous generations. One of the findings is that Generation Y students tend to be quick decision-makers, possibly a result of the increasing number of choices available to them. Today's students are generally comfortable with technology and tend to have a multi-modal learning style.

Many students studying at UNSW do not commence their studies immediately after leaving High School, and approximately 39% of commencing students are over the age of 24. For this reason it is important not to assume that all students are adept at technology or match other characteristics of the Generation Y student.

Mature age students may have been away from study for a while and take time to adapt to formal study again. They will bring to the classroom a range of experience and it is important to recognise that this can be a valuable learning resource in the classroom.

Gender

The ratio of male to female students at UNSW is approx 54% male and 46% female. This varies between disciplines. Male and female students have significantly Different Learning Styles (PDF), and this is something you should consider, particularly when planning group work activities.

Cultural background

UNSW has more than 11,000 international students from 130 different countries and diverse backgrounds and life experiences. This diversity enriches the university community and provides a valuable learning opportunity for both students and teachers. It is important to remember that difference occurs not just between cultures but also within cultures. International students choose to study in another country for a variety of reasons, but for all of them the experience is likely to be life-changing. One of your roles as a teacher is to help these students orient themselves, ensuring that they understand the new situation and its expectations. What most international students want is understanding and support.

This Teaching Gateway site contains a page on Inclusive Teaching, as well as a Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Practice Toolkit.

The following links provide further useful information about students and student support at UNSW:

Rural students

Leaving your community, your family and your friends can be especially tough for a student from a rural community.

Socio-economic background

Students in your classes will have different entry pathways into your course. Some may have little family experience of higher education; they may be the first in their family to attend university. Some may come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have few social networks or community support. They may also have limited access to technology. It is important not to assume that all students have the same levels of access to and expertise in learning technologies.

Students with disabilities

If your class includes a student with a disability, you may have to modify the way you teach. Many teachers have found that this helps them develop different teaching strategies and improves their teaching generally. For help with any aspect of teaching a student with a disability, contact the UNSW: Student Equity and Disabilities Unit

Outside commitments

Many students have significant commitments in addition to their University study: paid work, raising families and other carer responsibilities are just some of these. In the past 10 years a dramatic increase has taken place in the amount of time first year Australian university students devote to paid work outside - an average of 12.5 hours a week (McInnes, 2000). This has important implications for how engaged students feel with university learning and teaching.  A blended approach to teaching and learning can facilitate learning and student participation.

Prior learning

Students will have a variety of background experience and differing levels of knowledge in their discipline. They may also be taking a double degree. It is important to find out as much as you can about your students' prior learning so that you can draw on this in your teaching.

Expectations

Students will have differing expectations of university study and it is important to be aware of these and to make your expectations of them very clear.

Work experience

Some students, particularly postgraduates, have work experience in the field in which they are studying. Where it is relevant, draw on this experience in your teaching.

Student aspirations

Personal

Students in your class will have different personal aspirations and motivations for taking a particular subject. This will mean that they expect different things of the subject and of you. Some may simply want to pass the subject, while others are aiming higher.

These differing expectations may have implications for your planning: for example, take them into account when organising group assignments.

Ongoing

Clearly indicate to your students how your course fits within the program, so that they are aware of where they are headed and how the learning in your course will be useful for them. Program outlines and course outlines from the UNSW Handbook will show how your course meshes with the rest of the program and the graduate capabilities.

Career

What career aspirations do your students have? Are they government-sponsored? Will they work in their family business or private industry? These differences may affect how a student engages with your course.

Aim to develop inclusive teaching practices. This involves "teaching in ways that do not exclude students, accidentally or intentionally, from opportunities to learn" (CIDR, 2005). You might do this by: making everyone feel welcome and valued; clarifying expectations; establishing a connection with your students; showing sensitivity to cultural factors; avoiding stereotyping; and avoiding assumptions about students' needs or backgrounds.

Further resources

About your students

Learning styles

Supporting your learners

Video Series - Who Are My Learners?

In these 4 videos, teachers discuss the challenges of teaching, learning styles, knowing your audience and handling student diversity.